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

December 8, 2010

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.

Continue reading on the national Solidarity Federation website…

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