Yesterday, people from the Tenants' Defense Committee and ZSP confronted the Vice President of Warsaw, Michal Olszewski and a some „urban activists” who are involved in projects connected to gentrification in the Praga neighbourhood of Warsaw. The confrontation with the activists primarily involved Joanna Erbel, a well-known and well-promoted liberal and former Green Party candidate for the office of Warsaw city President (and other posts). It took place at an event held in the neighbourhood and was preceded by a number of articles, in particular her piece on the „Opinion Daily” site run by „Political Critique”. Her article drew the ire of many tenants organizations, left activists and in particular myself. Prior to the event, l published a response which stirred some feathers in the City Hall and amongst the liberal urban activist community.
The subject of our protest was the fact that the area is being gentrified, that many low-income residents are losing their houses and being replaced by better situated newcomers. There are several ways that the people are displaced. One is through privatization of public housing, which leads to unaffordable rents, resale of buildings or their distruction. Another is the resettling of people who live in buildings in poor state that need to be repaired. This is a large part of the public housing stock in this area, which was not totally destroyed by the Nazis like most of Warsaw and has older buildings which were not maintained for many years. It is also common that the housing needs to be modernized and it usually has no central heating, sometimes no bathrooms in the flats and is usually not very accessible for people with limited mobility.
The city plans on socially engineering the district, which is in an attractive location and a potential bonanza for real-estate developers. People were displaced in the Port Praski area to make way for luxury high-rises. And more and more people are being moved, with their former homes being renovated and reassigned to artists or middle class people.
The city works in extremely pernicious ways and has sold many young and ambitious liberals on their spiel. After years of ignoring maintainence, houses are falling apart. Those that are in the best locations are declared disasters and people relocated. Those in less attractive areas still house municipal tenants, even if the technical state of the building is much worse.
The Act on the Protection of Tenants' Rights states that if repairs are cumbersome and tenants need to be moved, they should be given temporary replacement housing and come back to the renovated building within the year. But in fact, after people are relocated, the renovations usually are not even started for years and, when they occur, they take a longer time than necessary. The city claims that this is all normal and necessary, but the fact is that when people are already gone for 5 years or more, they already have started life elsewhere and resigned themselves to their loss. In such a way, through general negligence and stalling, buildings which are declared „unliveable” are excluded from the public housing stock, or at least from the flats intended for low income families.
When l say low income, this is where the class reality of the politicians and liberals begin to show. Some of the housing is being converted to a TBS, which is a form of „low-income” housing run by a company owned by the city, but working under different regulations. To qualify for public housing (so-called komunalne), your income should be well under 2000 zloties per month, whereas for a TBS, it can be over 7000 – in other words, more than 350% higher. (The actual limit is just under 1900 USD a month.) Rents are more than double the rate for „komunalne”.
I am pretty sure that the politicians make more than 7000 zloties a month. I am not sure what the liberals earn, whether they have other jobs or just live off foundations and grants. I certainly don't make that kind of money and a lot of the people we deal with have salaries or pensions more in line with 1000-1500 a month. In our union we have nurses and other professionals who don't get 2000 zloties, never mind 7000.
The newspaper „Banker” writes about the meeting and protest, reporting that the city is going to make 23 buildings into TBS buildings. That is 23 addresses which are for rather high-income people. Despite this, „Banker” also reports that these are „low-income” buildings. I suppose for the banker/investor target readership, this is also a low income.
„Urban activist” Erbel, who runs a foundation, is involved in the pilot project, which was presented yesterday. Erbel has had an interesting career having been a chosen person, promoted by the mainstream liberal media as an activist who should go into office. Not having had too much activity on her account (being quite young), she engaged in various social protests. She came to a couple of protests or eviction blockades and promoted herself as being sensitive to tenant issues. However, her politics on this were recently exposed when she criticized another tenants organization, which had written a statement in response to the great Warsaw reprivatization scandals. Repeating the propaganda statistics of compromised city officials, she painted a fantasy image of a city dealing well with its housing crisis and doing the best it could to increase the housing stock. Amazingly, she stated that within a few years, the lines for flats would be over and everybody would have housing. This is in stark contrast to the reality that thousands are waiting in line and many times more cannot even get into the line. And the public housing stock is all the time being depleted.
Although the project she is currently promoting does not involve too many units on its own, it is a prime example of low-income housing stock being reassigned to higher income people. And as the Vice-President explained, the city can even decide exactly who lives there. A troubling statement in light of many recent revelations of cronyism during the reprivatization scandals.
Olszewski is a highly skilled person when it comes to PR and it is perhaps this reason why he is one of the few on his level who survived the reprivatization scandals. Of course, he shouldn't have. We met many times with him and passed information on about the theft of public housing property and even it's been shown that when he knew there were fishy privatizations, probably based on fraudulent claims, he turned a blind eye. The President is hugely unpopular and most activists of any kind says she has to go but through a combination of personal skills and ties, several prominent urban activists defend him in more or less overt ways. He in turn is quick to use this to project an image of being „socially sensitive” when in fact, he is highly placed in the neo-liberal local government and has an important role in the harsh neo-liberal policies that have ruled over the last years and lead to a huge worsening in the public housing sector.
How does it happen that liberal people get on the side of the better situated classes and ruling elites? This is a good question, but l am afraid the truth does not allow us to pose just one possible scenario. Those involved are different people, ranging from careerists who just want some positions to themselves, to those who really want to do „something good” and can't figure out what's wrong. There are those who want to be close to people in power to get money for their projects, or those who many honestly thing that bringing in yuppies and artists will make the place more attractive. In any case, a seemingly common thread seems to be their own class position or access to cultural capital. These are often people who will look a poor person in the eye and ask „what is the problem”?
Finding themselves on this side of a real life class struggle, these people lose their credibility with those who are denied access to affordable public housing. What is worse is the often arrogant attitude displayed by young, mobile educated elites when confronted by people who are usually poor and sometimes without much higher education. The Vice-President and liberals participate in a Commission on fighting the „social exclusion” of tenants, which we are boycotting. Since there is no sense in speaking to somebody who is heavily involved in the process. The Vice-President is used to being able to bullshit people and thinks he can throw lots of statistics and nobody will be able to check them or understand what he is talking about. Even when people with better knowledge and presentation skills present facts, they are dismissed as not knowing what they are talking about. The liberals act in the same way or even worse, some of them complaining that tenants protest against gentrification when they came to hear about the gentrification project, which they consider very nice indeed. In respect of my articles (there were two), we were told that things are not what we say and that „experts” will explain it to us. Yes, we heard the experts' explanations and are not satisfied.
Poor people on the tough side of the class struggle view these people without at much subtely as some middle-class activists. For many of them, these are people who come from privelege, taking over the neighbourhood with their feel-good projects that help them build their activist careers, but do nothing to help them in their main problem: to get access to housing they can afford. Some of these people l have known for years and for a few, l can see they are just confused. But the confusion comes from their more comfortable position and access to cultural capital and people in positions of power and the better-situated classes. In any case, they cannot be spared criticism for their role in supporting the gentrification process.
Lots of people wonder about the situation of the left in Poland and why the politics took their present course. Is Poland a country of fascists?
I won't deny that there is a big attraction to nationalist rhetoric, but the situation is more complicated. The left that was in power was a complete disaster. They focused on bringing in neo-liberal reforms, some drastic reforms of the labour market, introduced evictions to the street and vetoed bills that would have drastically limited the effects of privatization in the 90s. With such an anti-social left, right-wing populists started to fill the gaps. In recent years, the liberal community, many of whom are also economic liberals or in favor of some weak social state, have also made a bad impression on working people. This is because of the perceptions, often justified, that liberals represent an elite group in Poland that looks down on poorer and less educated people. Sometimes justified criticism of how the society is behaving made from liberal pundits comes with such a dose of arrogance that the actual criticism is not heard. Lastly, liberals have, at very misopportune occasions, alligned themselves publically with political forces which are despised by most poorer people. Such is the case of those in City Hall, who the liberals have unfortunately cosied up to in recent times. While the city was rocked by scandal after scandal over the summer and people called for heads to fly, some only seem to have come closer to those in the ruling faction.
The issue of how public housing programs need to be projected to meet the needs of that part of society which needs help the most is a longer topic, but one thing is clear: what is happening now is not the right direction. The fight against gentrification is not only against the bankers, developers and city officials that are managing it, but also against the activists who are co-managing it.