Sunday 5 December 2010

Warsaw Rent Strike: Community Organizing and Activization in the Context of Social Atomization

In Warsaw a rent strike has been going on since Oct.1. Despite the fact that the issues may effect up to a quarter of a million people in Poland's capital city, we cannot say that a significant percent of public housing tenants have joined. This is mainly due to a lack of tradition and the extreme social atomization of the population - something typical in many post-Soviet bloc era countries. There is also the issue of a minuscule grassroots social movement and the disdain of the left for anything radical and outside the realms of reformist and party politics. [1]
The Warsaw ZSP, which called the strike, had no illusions from the beginning and saw the action as a long-term one, one that would start off with the participation of the most desperate, with nothing to lose, but which could grow as people saw the support network expanding. We see the activization of people in the community as the key challenge and the element which can ultimately change the situation. For us, two months into the beginning of the action, the strike is really just starting.
ZSP saw the strike as a necessary escalation of social protest against antisocial housing policies, the mass privatization of public housing and gentrification. More importantly, it is also a way to activate the growing number of people who cannot pay their rents, or who for other reasons risk becoming homeless to organize themselves and fight back instead of falling into despair and misery.

We became involved the tenants' movement about a year and a half ago as the city of Warsaw was introducing a range of unprecedented measures, ranging from drastic rent hikes, increased privatization of public housing and stricter rules for application for public housing. Our members formed the Tenants Defense Committee [2] together with neighbors.

The first protests were connected to the drastic rent hikes adopted in Warsaw - ranging from 200-300%. However, for many, rents were actually raised much higher due to the penalty rates imposed by the city. The city can charge 300% more is a tenant is in debt, or if some paperwork in the past was not fulfilled. In the worst case scenario, some bureaucrat in the city did not fulfill some requirement and now the tenant has to pay.

Despite many protests, and formal attempts to overturn the city's vote, the administration would not bend. The local government argued that the extra would be used to restore ruined housing. But in the end, a meager 1% of the money really went for repairs.

Many people simply cannot afford the new rents, especially the elderly. More and more people also live in housing which has been changed from public housing to privatized through the reprivatization process. [3] Reprivatization has already effected tens of thousands of people. After a house ceases to be municipal housing, the new landlords can raise the rent as well. Many tenants have to choose between paying for food and medicine or paying the rent. There is not nearly enough social help for people and many of the most needy find themselves excluded from the system. For example, there is some aid available for people with low incomes - only you are excluded from it if you are in debt (!!!) or if there were some problems with your paperwork. Scandalously, this decision to make debtors ineligible for rent deductions was made at a time a large proportion of people were already in debt. Over the last year, the percentage has increased dramatically, with some neighbourhoods reporting 50-60% of public housing tenants in debt and at risk of eviction.

In the context of the current, widespread social atomization, a really obscene situation has been created. People in general act as if this situation is their own personal tragedy. This is part of the internalization of the dominant neoliberal logic; if somebody cannot pay their rent, then it is not the system at fault and certainly it is not the fault of greedy landlords and speculators, or scummy politicians would would rather redecorate their offices and spend public money on bonuses for their cronies then on public housing. The neoliberal logic places the blame on the individual: if you don't have enough money to buy your own flat, it is your fault and you should suffer the consequences. On top of this internalized message, there is the implication that people who ask for public housing are something like freeloaders and, unfortunately, people are often made to feel as such by politicians and public housing officials. But the most decisive factors are the feeling of social powerlessness, that nothing can be done, and the lack of motivation to engage oneself in this type of activism with neighbours. The latter is also fueled by years of collective resentment that has pitted people against each other, rather than the system that is hurting them. We unfortunately encounter cases where neighbours show a lack of solidarity to each other, for example because they are convinced that their neighbour is in debt because of some personal defects.

All of these elements have made it very difficult to build a stronger and more effective response to the housing issue. In the situation were we have had to start from nothing, we have to realize what a huge success the tenants movement has become on the bleak social landscape of our city. This is however in relative terms; in absolute terms, our mobilization power is several hundred people out of hundreds of thousands. So we see that all of this is just the tip of the iceberg for us. But we must never get discouraged as it takes this building process to reach more people and greater proportions.

So many people are at risk of eviction. In countries where there are more developed social movements, it might seem amazing that the whole city is not on strike. But we are in Poland. One of the only countries where mass privatization of education and health care has not been met by mass protests (or any significant protests at all for that matter). It is the only country in Europe which had strong growth during the crisis period but despite this, workers massively accepted reductions and pay cuts rather than strike. Such a social vacuum is hard to explain and even harder to understand if you have not experienced it yourself. In this vacuum though, a tiny number of groups carry on the resistance, together with a growing number of affected.

The process of enpowerment we see when people take action, when they refuse to give in and decide to fight for themselves is quite encouraging. Not everybody wins, but when somebody does, it is our collective victory that we all celebrate. And it is an inspiration to others that we can win. This is an important element in the rent strike for us. Rather than watching people risk eviction alone as individuals, or even helping out people as individual cases, we propose that people finally take collective action. Because ultimately, it is going to be collective action, not the solving of individual cases, that will force policy changes. If people cannot afford the rent because of rent hikes or anti-social policies, we say they should join the strike and organize themselves with others for mutual self-defense.

What kind of mutual self-defense are we talking about? Well, we will see this in upcoming months. The city gentrifiers have finally decided to repair some buildings. The problem is that, despite the fact that people have paid rents and lived miserably for years in crumbling and freezing cold buildings that the city has never bothered to care for, when they do finally want to repair the buildings, they will relocate tenants. And, not all of them will qualify for public housing.

How is that? Well, some families received public housing years ago. Practically everybody lived in it during the time of the People's Republic of Poland. After the Transition, some people remained in public housing. Some public housing was also sold to tenants - some was not and some people simply couldn't afford to buy. So currently, in public housing there are some people whose incomes exceed the meagre limit qualifying people. But the city has not decided to check all tenants' income. The whole process is random. If your house is condemned, reprivatized or repaired and you earn "too much", you are on your own. If your house is in good shape, you can stay (even if you can afford to rent on the commerical market).

One of the members of our Committee, a retired former engineer, complained to the building inspectors that his house poses a threat to the life of the tenants. (Among the common problems we see are people getting carbon monoxide poisoning, fire hazards and collapsing elements of the building.) Thanks to his intervention in favour of his neighbours, his building has been condemned. And this 73 year old, who worked hard all his life and managed to get a pension which he actually can live on, will not be moved into replacement public housing. He is "too rich". But we will do everything to prevent such a travesty. This situation is being repeated in a number of buildings where we are organizing with the tenants and, hopefully, when the day comes, the city will see what collective action means.

One of our next big campaigns has to be to increase the upper income limit to allow people to live in public housing. This is already one of the postulates of the rent strike. Currently, people who earn more than the minimum wage, or around 340 euro a month, cannot apply for municipal housing, because supposedly "they can afford commercial rent". If a building is condemned (usually due to years of deliberate and gross negligence), you have to go through this income verification process. It does not matter if you are 90 years old or if you are seriously ill. One of our members, a retired woman whose family income exceeds the limit by 25 euros, has a very ill husband whose health has been so negatively effected by stress that he may die. She received some interesting proposals from the city: maybe her son could get three jobs or marry someone rich, or maybe she could take a loan and buy something. These are the cruel realities of how Poland treats its citizens. As a response, we have asked the city, which turns a blind eye to thousands of such cases, to tell people WHERE they can find an apartment they can afford. We have even officially demanded they be useful and provide a list of apartments that people in a certain income bracket can afford. But we know we won't get that list. The fact is, these places on not available on the commercial market.

We will make a new report, but preliminary research shows that rent for a one room apartment in Warsaw starts at 400 euros a month. This leaves a lot of people who are ineligible for public housing, but cannot afford commercial rents either. For them, it is a challenge, a life of cramming people into small living spaces, living in precarious conditions. Imagine telling some couple in their 70s or 80s that they will have to leave the home they have lived in for 50 years and go spend most of their income paying rent to some landlord who can ask them to move at almost any time. This is what we are seeing on a daily basis: people coming to us in tears and hysterics, wondering how, at their age, they are going to adjust to this new situation, and whether or not they are going to survive it.

Social housing for the homeless? It exists, but there is a huge lack of it. And what there is doesn't have to comply with even the same miserable standards of public housing. Toilets in the corridor shared by many. Or perhaps, in the future, like in other cities, cold containers somewhere on the outskirts of the city, far from any shops, complete misery. Uncomfortable and miserable but, for the elderly, such conditions often complicate existing health problems or can even prove deadly.

Last year we started to help tenants on a rather large scale, although the need for intervention far exceeds our capacities. As we did this, more and more horror stories started to emerge: tenants deprived of heat, electricity or running water and access to the toilet by greedy landlords trying to evict them as fast as possible; people forced to live in houses that are in the danger of collapsing. There were also a number of fires set. In some cases, tenants - who already lived without electricity, heat or gas - were afraid to leave the house, because the landlords tried to lock them out. Last year some people started to barricade themselves in their houses and refused to be evicted, the first forms of spontaneous resistance. They survived by lowering baskets through their windows where neighbors could put food.

Since the politicians and speculators already had their plans, we also made ours. In response to these outrages, we organized a number of direct actions, sometimes with tenants of a particular house or neighborhood, sometimes with other groups. In the winter of 2009, desperate tenants whose gas was cut off in the winter occupied the office of a local housing administration, effectively blocking it for two weeks. [4] As a result of this direct action, many of the tenants received new housing with the appropriate standard.

In autumn this year, we occupied the office of the President of Warsaw in the City Hall demanding that the postulates of the tenants movement regarding access to public housing be fulfilled. On many occasions there were noisy interruptions of meetings of the City Council, forcing them to put our issues on the agenda. Sometime this has resulted in minor victories or the resolution of individual problems. But we need to hit the city much harder to get these heartless "Thatcherites on steriods" to do anything, or even to comply with the existing law, for example, in terms of housing standards.

Over the spring and summer, we started to advise people about forming their own organizations - in houses, blocks or neighbourhoods. The result was a coalition currently consisting of 32 groups, mostly such small groups of tenants. The idea was to fight together, but, as sometimes happens, there arose differences of opinions as to the methods. In the period before November elections, some more moderate tenant activists from other groups decided to run for office and, a critical time for us, called for more patience and moderate approach. [5] But we had no illusions in the political process and decided on escalating the protests by calling for the strike.

ZSP made a strong stand against participating in the elections. This had to do with more than just our anarchist convictions, which is why our decision was usually accepted and seen as being something consistent. [6] Instead, we called for tenant’s self-organization, stressing the fact that only neighborhood committees organized by tenants can solve their own problems - not the politicians who pretend to be interested once in 4 years. As part of a series of long-term actions, we are now involved in calling numerous public meetings.

Coming back to the rent strike, at each meeting we ask people, even if they are afraid and won't join the strike themselves, to think about building better community organization and to do something to support the postulates of the strike. We explain that, as we build up real community movements, we can achieve wider, longer-term goals, but we also have immediate demands, some which are urgent and require immediate action. The main demands of the rent strike include: setting affordable rents, adopting realistic income criteria for public housing based on the price of renting on the private market, building more public housing, no more privatization of buildings with tenants, repairing inadequate and dangerous housing, building new flats to replace condemned buildings, in the same neighborhoods, not ghettos. We also have to constantly monitor what the politicians are doing and block future unfavourable ammendments to the law, or decisions of the City Council.

But besides this, we want to spread another vision, and this is the idea of direct tenant and community control of public housing. And in this way, we also popularize some of the ideas of anarchism, and question some of the suppositions of the neoliberal mentality, such as the primacy of private property and the rule of "the market". This is even to the extent that some people we interacted with now see themselves as anarchists and at meetings explain to others what "we as anarchist think".

In terms of the strike, we will see how it spreads, as more and more people fall into debt and are facing eviction or the privatization or destruction of their houses. The same goes for the overall community organizing and direction actions against resettlement to ghettos and eviction.

One last thing must be mentioned. There are many irregularities in the reprivatization process and there are organized mafias which deal in forging and/or selling claims to buildings, inventing or "finding" fictious heirs or otherwise manipulating the process. As a result, we can see certain names and companies appearing again and again and, ties to some of these can be linked to the husband of the President of Warsaw and other well-connected people. What role has the city been playing in the process?

Unfortunately, one of the lasting legacies of public policy has been to deny tenants the right to information on the reprivatization process. Tenants are not considered to be parties in the cases and often learn that their homes have been privatized and they are no longer public housing tenants after the whole process as been completed. [7]

Due to this situation, people cannot take action. To make the situation worse, afterwards, even if they can prove that fraud has taken place, the Polish law will do nothing to help if the property has been sold to a third party. The law considers the sale to be "in good faith", even if fraud was used to obtain the property! The fact of the matter is that the real estate mafia conspires to sell illegally obtained buildings as soon as possible.

This is one reason that tenants organizations have been fighting for public access to information about this process. But the city deliberately makes this difficult and public officials have even lied about the existence of lists of public housing with claims in court. This reached the highest levels of the local government, with even the disgraced former Vice President telling us on public record at the City Council that these didn't exist. But these "non-existent" lists were leaked. It was at that time that ZSP decided to commit another act of defiance, by declaring that, whatever legal threats the city would try to make, we would not back down from publishing and disseminating this information which is marked "classified". The first list concerned 1500 buildings and we delivered notices to the buildings and said "let's take action".

We told the city that, if they do not give people this information, we will get it anyway, by any means possible. Shortly following this, we occupied the office of the President of Warsaw in City Hall. Although this was not a huge mass action, it was one of those things that scared the hell out of the city. The next day, the city bureaucrats promised that the list of houses would go up on the city's internet page by November 15. A victory for direct action!

Well, not entirely. As usual, they didn't not do as they promised. So... back to work. We have our hands on two more lists and are delivering them and with our tenants' group. We are holding more open meetings. These lists contain the warning that they may not be copied, published or distributed in any way without the express written consent of the President of Warsaw. And again, we openly say that we are going to defy this. And we did.

What will be the result of all this, we don't know. In the meanwhile, we will keep on fighting.

[1] Establishment leftists supported by European social democrats responded to the call for a rent strike by telling tenants not to join in and trying to scare them by claiming they would get evicted.

[2] Website (in Polish): Some of the actions we were involved in are described in English on the ZSP Warsaw blog:

[3] Almost 1000 buildings have already been reprivatized but the process is just beginning. In total to 10,000 buildings may be subject to reprivatization. The data from the city on this process is scandalously chaotic and the subject of a hard battle for access to information. Despite the fact that this may effect a huge amount of people, the city has not prepared any statistics saying how many tenants may be affected and how many units will be taken out of the public housing stock because of this.

[4] See in the January 2010 archive.

[5] None of the tenant activists were elected. And the calls for moderation weakened the protest movement. We hope that people will learn something from this episode. But this is also a challenge. One of our ZSP members, ironically, was the only one offered the first place on an electoral list, which he naturally turned down. (He is much more valuable spending his time working at the grassroots level than hitting his head against the wall with bozos at the City Council.) Despite all, some part of our neighbours continue to believe that the solution is the election of a representatives, not the creation of a movement and they lament the decision not to go into politics. And this is one of the challenges we face constantly, is convincing people not to sit on their hands and believe that somebody will come along and settle these matters for them, but instead to get active, building the movement.

[6] Despite the above-mentioned people who wanted to vote, we find more people who say all politicians are scum. One of all goals is to convert this sense of betrayal with all politicians into a belief that people need to decide things themselves directly.

[7] Reprivatizing these houses together with the tenants, instead of giving them replacement housing is a violation of the European Social Charter. Slovenia had to deal with this problem. But, Slovenia was obligated by the charter: Poland is not. Poland ratified the ESC in but did not accept all of its paragraphs. However, it never ratified the Revised European Social Charter from 2005. Poland has neither signed nor ratified the Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter, nor the Additional Protocol providing for a system of collective complaints. One of the Tenants' Defense Committees current campaigns deals with the ratification of this charter, which would give tenants a legal basis to complain against Poland to European institutions. But we have no illusions that capitalism and profit always come before human rights, despite all sorts of noble-sounding proclamations.