Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Poland: Tenants Burn Law, Declare War

From: Infoshop News
Warsaw tenants fight on, taking direct action, challenging the law and giving the politicians a hard time.

Things are getting hot for bureaucrats, property speculators and thieves as Warsaw tenants take more and more action. Yesterday tenants protested at the parliament, burning the Law on the Protection of Tenants which they claim is meaningless and only protects the interests of property owners. "At least we'll put this meaningless paper to good use - by keeping warm," claimed the tenants as they lit a bonfire. They reminded people that throughout Warsaw, people must resort to burning all sorts of things in their homes to keep warm as many houses still have no heat and as slumlords cut off gas to drive people out of their homes. At a time when many tenants, often elderly, are sitting home freezing, it is much better to take to the streets and protest. Where there is no heat, there will be fire - our fires, the bonfires of resistance.

A growing group of hardcore activists are vowing to get better organized, take more action and to stop the state from their anti-social and thieving activities. Warsaw ZSP is part of the Tenants' Defense Committee which organized the protest yesterday and invited other associations with which it has contact. The Committee has declared war on city bureaucrats who make horrendous policies to enrich speculators and to redistribute property to elites, heirs of former elites, speculators and developers. Their cronies also earn on overpriced public tenders, often related to gentrification, but not the real improvement of public housing standards. The Committee has been exposing corruption, blocking the plans of the local bureaucrats and intervening on behalf of tenants with direct actions. It has publically opened a list of empty flats and buildings, suitable for squatting.

Tenant activity ranges from peaceful protest, to direct action to legal action. Some people are trying to fight bandit reprivatization through the courts. Today was such a case of a tenant from the Citizen24 group who is seeking ways to legal overturn some of the conditions of reprivatization. Reprivatization of public housing has been a tragedy for many hundreds of families in Warsaw, especially for the elderly. Housing that was private before the Second World War is reprivatized. The owners are dead, but the property goes to heirs, to people who claim to be heirs, to people who forged documents, or speculators who have nothing to do at all with the property but bought claims to the property years ago, when it seemed like getting property back would never happen. In the meanwhile, tenants are transferred to a new, private landlord who wants to do nothing but raise the rent - or sell the building, even to be destroyed. The law is constructed in such a way that the state is not required to provide them with alternative public housing. Only if the new landlord decides to evict them and the tenants meet very rigorous criteria can they qualify to get on a waiting list for public housing ---- and these conditions, were an improvement over the old ones, a small improvement won by months of tenants' protests.

Some tenants will fight losing their homes in any way possible. Some refuse to move, blockade themselves in their houses, fight with the landlords, become illegal tenants or squatters. Others are fighting now to overturn illegal privatizations - only again the law does not protect tenants. Illegally privatized housing is often resold and the courts consider that the new owners purchased the property "in good faith". It is increasingly clear to even non-politically minded tenants that the law was made by property holders and speculators, for property holders and speculators, and tenants are only treated as possible sources of income for the parasitic speculators and landlords.

At yesterday's demonstration, dozens of tenants spoke about the awful experiences they had with reprivatization, or with the city trying to get rid of them to gentrify their houses. And as more and more of these stories are repeated in the press, more people are becoming aware of the extent of the problem. At today's court session, the courtroom was overrun by tenants who hope that the Constitutional Tribunal will declare at least some aspects of reprivatization laws to be against the Constitution.

Also today, we can gladly report that the pandemonium caused by tenants protests, and in particular the Committee's analysis and protest of the city budget, means that Warsaw still has no budget approved for 2010. The politicians will try to pass one in an emergency session of the City Council next week. The Committee has vowed to block, through direct action, any attempts to vote on the budget as long as the city does not allocate 100 million zloties for new housing.

Why 100 million zloties? Last year, the City Council voted on drastic rent hikes (200-300%), which came into effect this year. The lying bastards set up a neoliberal brainwashing/PR team to convince the press and public opinion that these increases were necessary and the politicians vowed to use 100% of the money from the rent hikes to fund repairs to devasted public housing. They attempted to accuse us of being "against repairs" and of wanting people to live in slums. The counteroffensive to this propaganda took months and included going in a group of 100 people to the neighbourhood council and taking over the meeting. The Committee pointed out time and time again that money for repairs were already set out in a four-year budget plan adopted a year earlier and that an analysis of previous repairs on public housing showed that a) many repairs were made on gentrifying projects, including on housing that would later be sold or privatized b) the money spent on repairs was often like the amounts the Pentagon spends on toilet seats - overinflated and c) there were many fictious repairs, charged to the city, paid to contractors, but never made. The Committee started to document this and often confronts the authorities with instances of corruption.

Public opinion started to change a little - and then a lot when we got our hands on a draft copy of the budget for 2010. The budget showed that the city not only does not plan to spend the money from increased rents on repairs, but reallocated the money to things like... politicians' salaries. A major scandal broke out.

The Committee demands at the very least that the money be spent on what the bastards promised - or they can overturn the decision to raise the rents. The city tried to respond with PR - but it didn't work. The Vice-President of the City (who is the head of the City Council) has not shown up at the Council since tenants stormed his office a few months ago and officially demanded he be dismissed. A few weeks ago he tried to "make ammends" by announcing that the city would build new housing and held a press conference about it. The press asked the Committee for a response and we asked the politicians to say where they would get the money for this being that they didn't put it in the budget. After some days of embarrassment, the City announced that in fact, yes, there was no money allocated in the budget for the marvelous housing projects that they presented to the press, but maybe the Council of Europe Bank would make the city (another) loan. The Committee had another idea: since the city reallocated 100 million zloties from the funds to repair housing for things like politician's salaries and their mobile phone bills, the Committee proposes that they just tighten their belts, stop chatting and give the money that they wanted to misappropriate to actually build these houses.

The bureaucrats have egg on their faces. Next year is election year and they can't afford such a public relations disaster. In addition, there is an opportunist opposition in the city government trying to gain off this embarrassment. They have also decided to attempt to block the budget and give the ruling party a hard time.

Two weeks ago some tenants interrupted the Council. Others stayed and heckled and vowed to block the budget voting with protests, except the opposition also blocked it from the floor. Next week, before the emergency session, the Committee will try to make a final push on the city to at least build some houses. Even though the neoliberal ideology is deeply ingrained in most of society, there is wide public support for these demands. People have had enough of corruption.

But the movement, although it gained a loud voice in public discussion, is still not supported widely enough. This is a typical problem of the passivity of Polish society. More and more people will need to join, but for some, the lack of early response has already lost them their home. People are being moved into containers, or are forced to crowd into relatives' flats. The city even officially tells people now that if they lose their flats, they can move in with their parents - even if they live in a totally different city. (What better way to gentrify the town?)

The Committee calls on people to take direct action, organize themselves to help each other, block evictions, hold politicians and speculators accountable for their corruption and to put as much pressure on the bastards as possible to force a better social housing policy. In lieu of this, we say, take the law into your own hands, and burn it.