At Self-Organised London, an anti-gentrification and housing rights social centre, two pensioners and two younger members of the Syrena collective from Warsaw, shared their story of their struggle for public housing. They spoke with fire and anger telling a story that was all too familiar to those of us sitting in the Elephant and Castle social centre – a story of corrupt developers, complicit local councils, a law working against us, and the violence that is at the core of commodified housing. Despite not sharing a common language, as the women spoke we could feel and understand what they were saying. The talk was impassioned and inspiring and we left with plans to show solidarity to our friends in Poland fighting this common struggle and to support the European convergence of housing rights activists that the collective have organised for 12-14th April in Warsaw.
Wanda and Ewa came to highlight the story of their friend, Jola Brzeska, who was burnt to death because of the threat she posed to developers as a tenants rights activist. Her body was found in a forest on the outskirts of Warsaw on March 1 2011. Two years later, her death remains ‘unsolved’. The police have failed to investigate her murder; they did not take fingerprints from her apartment where she was kidnapped nor did they investigate tyre tracks in the forest where she was killed. Police have claimed that a witness who saw the moment of the kidnapping withdrew their statement. Instead, Jola’s friends are taking up the struggle for justice for Jola. “We are trying to do anything to be loud about the case and get justice for Jola.”
As explains, “I have my own theory about Jola’s death – we had the same enemy, the same people throwing us out of our apartments. We were leading our investigation to find out who were taking our houses. She came up with too much knowledge and trusted the authorities that she shouldn’t have.”
Jola had been defending her home from developers and had been supporting others too, joining their struggles together by co-founding the Warsaw Tenant’s Association. Jola had spent the last years of her life studying the law to defend the rights of elderly tenants and others who were under threat of losing their homes. “Jola never missed any demo, direct action, hunger strike, she gave all her heart to support the people, she fought till the end.”
Background: Re-privatization of homes in Poland
“Her case reflects the issues connected to the pathology of what is happening in housing in Warsaw, the rest of Poland, and the UK.”
Today, 97% of houses in Warsaw have been re-privatised. Syrena used the term re-privatised because before the Second World War, most of the housing had been private. After the war thousands if not millions of people rebuilt the city with their own hands. “Warsaw is a city built by the squatters basically.” These houses became public housing with tenants renting them from the local authorities. As one system of domination replaced the other, the onset of capitalism saw the mass sell-off of public housing to private developers. There is no law to regulate the private sector and so developers can speculate unhindered creating a housing monopoly. Now council housing stands at just 11% of all housing stock; there has been no new council housing for many years.
The developers buy up titles such as “prince”; “so the developer of our apartment is a ‘prince’, I call him ‘our prince’ because he owns us.” Groups of specialised bandits operate on behalf of the developers to evict tenants from their homes. “We have no chance when we are meeting these groups – the corruption runs through the police and judges. We cannot rely on the law to be on our side.”
Developers purchase these public apartments at rock bottom prices from the local authorities, the developers then claim money back from these same authorities for the period during which they were re-constructing the properties.
As well as the privatization of housing, squares and parks across the city are also being enclosed.
“There is a housing hunger. A hunger that is political rather than natural.”
“There are no statistics but Jola was not the only person who was killed because of this process.”
“We are strong women, other people who cannot take it and commit suicide or get very sick. Personal space so important on this earth, losing it is a death sentence.”
Pensioners and other tenants are being forcefully evicted from their homes without the right to social housing. There is no social housing for them to move into (there is a waiting list of 10 years) and so they are told to rent in the private sector. For many people, they simply cannot afford the rents of the private sector. Old people cannot access credit to get a home and so eviction is a “death sentence”.
Evictions were banned during the winter period between December and April because of the extreme cold however this law has recently been changed so that people can be evicted at any time. They are told to stay in bed and breakfasts or in metal containers which charge £10 a night.
We watch a video clip of one eviction in Lodz, 100km from Warsaw, in which two parents threaten to commit suicide as the bailiffs arrive. In response the police send in 100 anti-terror police to ‘deal’ with the situation. Another video clip shows an old woman with her cat who are being evicted:
“what the authorities want me to do is jump out of the window along with my cat”.
The issue of privatised/commodified housing is not just the subsequent loss of public housing but the distribution of housing. There are hundreds of empty buildings across Warsaw as people face living on the streets or in metal containers. If the authorities had the political will, they could deal with this artificial housing crisis “within a month…but authorities are like companies, they are only interested in making money.”
“No one cares what will happen to people. No one cares that we were the ones who built the place and have taken care of the building for all these years.”
Warsaw housing struggles – “You cannot burn us all”
“Jola was saying we should do something – people were calling us hooligans but now people are taking us more seriously. We are fighting for housing and for dignity of people…Not to get dignity but to fight back, because we are all born with dignity.”
Warsaw tenants have been defending their homes against the bailiffs, police, and developers and whoever else attempts to threaten their basic human right. With corruption across all authorities, and first hand experience that working within the system will get us nowhere, people are taking direct action for themselves and each other. People are squatting buildings across the city; this is becoming normalised rather than a ‘sub cultural’ thing. The older generation have been “far more radical than young people – red and black and all that – more radical in resisting the authorities than the young people.” However, young people are now getting on board and supporting in resisting evictions.
Tenants groups comprise of people struggling for their homes learning together to provide legal advice and support for each other, and through this process empowering each other.
Groups of tenants and squatters have also taken back buildings symbolically to show that “it is not for the authorities to change something – we are the change”. On International Tenants Day people reclaimed a 19th century building.
The struggle continues more radicalised as a result of Jola’s death. “They cannot burn us all, like they burned Jola, that is our slogan ‘you cannot burn us all’”.
UK solidarity & struggle
Suggestions of how we can show solidarity with seeking justice for Jola and the struggle for the right to housing in Warsaw were highlighted. Raising attention at the Polish embassy in London, writing articles together about our shared housing struggles in London and Warsaw, and making direct links with each other, through the forthcoming housing rights convergence. Through actions such as these, we can learn from each other and together and strengthen our struggle for our homes.
A proposal to hold a demonstration outside the Polish embassy a week before the Warsaw convergence in order to highlight Jola’s murder and to raise awareness about the convergence received lots of energy. Get in touch to help make it happen or watch this space for further info.