Poland is facing a housing and eviction crisis due to the disparity between low incomes and high housing costs. Recent developments in this area are both cause for celebration and concern.
No cash no flat
The housing and eviction problem currently facing Poland is due to the neoliberal dogma that the only way to get an apartment is to buy one on the free market by signing a mortgage contract. This is not accessible to most of society since 80% of Poles do not have any savings at all. Despite the growing productivity of labour, wages are not catching up. And for each incremental wage rise, Polish employees have had to increase their productivity by 4%.
The considerable lack of flats to rent at a reasonable price has led to the speculative overestimation of house prices both to buy and to rent. Even in a relatively prosperous city such as Warsaw, half of tenants are heavily in debt, which leads to evictions. The public sector is responsible for most of these evictions despite regulated rent prices. Many programmes based on (partial or overall) debt relief have had little to no effect, since the root cause of the problem is the macroeconomic disparity between low incomes and high housing costs.
The anti-eviction movement
In the early nineties the post-communist government implemented a new law which made it possible to evict people, including the most vulnerable, children, the disabled and the unemployed. From this moment, the anti-eviction tenants’ movement began and the Polish Socialist Party was its driving force.
Back then I was an MP (1993-2001), head of the party as well as a presidential candidate. In this position, I was able to bring the eviction issue to the attention of the public thanks to the many, quite spectacular eviction blockades that were widely publicised. But during those times, most of society was convinced that those people being evicted deserved their fate. After decades of evictions and tenant law amendments, eviction is still a pressing social matter, although public opinion has changed in regard to this issue. And neighbours who once applauded the evictions as policemen and clerks broke through our blockades would now rather join and sit with us on the stairs.
The Office of Social Justice (Kancelaria Sprawiedliwości Społecznej – an association) and the Movement of Social Justice (Ruch Sprawiedliwości Społecznej – a political party) have emerged as two organisations offering legal advice to thousands of people in several cities who cannot afford a lawyer. We are preparing new draft legislation, representing people in court, writing motions, carrying out demonstrations and, last but not least, still sitting on stairs and blocking evictions.
Our activities are widely recognised by ordinary people as efficient and important, which allows us to rent premises and cover the costs solely through people’s donations and the fees paid by members and supporters.
Recently our movement has gained a new, very important ally: a new ombudsman, Adam Bodnar. He has become the first person to adopt this role; to understand and to engage himself in the tenants’ fight. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has made an attempt to remove him, which led me to address a letter to the leader Jarosław Kaczyński, asking him to be a true ally of the poor in Poland. To my surprise, he answered with a letter assuring me that despite political discrepancies between Adam Bodnar and the ruling political camp, there is no intention to get rid of the ombudsman.
Yet, despite the many achievements of the Movement and Office of Social Justice, we are far from satisfied: the Ministry of Infrastructure, which is responsible for housing, has prepared a new draft law which practically reduces tenants’ rights to zero. These amendments would deprive the tenants’ movement of the basic legal tools to defend people from eviction and homelessness. The fight goes on!