»The Need to Radically Politicize the Housing Struggle« – Some Lessons Learnt from Pandemic Times

10 Minutes
Contemporary Struggles, Grassroots Movement Building, Direct Action & Civil Disobedience
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In contemporary global financialized capitalism, the importance of transnational movements is undeniable. Capital is moving freely across borders and the entrepreneurial states shape their policies to attract private investors looking for profit. By doing this, the governments underserve the needs of the labor force in what regards decent salaries for secure employment, free healthcare and educational services, and affordable adequate housing. 


Old Injustices Reinforced by the Covid-19 Pandemic

Being one of the worst disasters of capitalism since the Second World War, the current multifaceted crisis shows that labor is essential to any economic activity, and without labor force the economy cannot be saved (not even in the epoch of financialized capitalism). Furthermore, the uncertainties surrounding the resolution of the healthcare crisis and economic recession must make us all recognize that the “normality” interrupted by Covid-19 was/is not normal. 

For example, in Romania, after three decades of transformations from actually existing socialism to neoliberal capitalism, we cannot want to return to a “normality” in which almost half of the employees earn the minimum wage that is about half of the value of the decent minimum consumption basket. Furthermore, it is not normal that in this country circa 50% of the population lives in overcrowded homes, and so many make a living under deprived conditions, or they do not even have a roof over their head, or several people are at risk of eviction given that they cannot afford to pay the increasing housing costs from their low income.

It is not normal that the public healthcare system is unable to meet the needs of the population impoverished by economic exploitation even in peaceful times, not to mention periods of shocks generated by pandemics or recessions. And last, but not least, it is not normal that despite being an EU Member State, Romania displays a life expectancy at birth lower by 6 years than the EU average, this being only one of the characteristics reflecting the injustices created by uneven development as an endemic feature of capitalism.


The Need for Radical Politicization 

Under these conditions, we need to imagine progressive political subjects targeting local, national, and transnational decision-makers, reconnecting several issues under the critique of capitalist political economy, and rethinking how a society built on equality and social justice for all can be achieved. Following Naomi Klein’s call expressed with the occasion of an online event from March 26, 2020, “How to Overcome Coronavirus Capitalism?”, one may affirm: we must have the confidence to say that this is the time to change everything because being radical now is the most reasonable way out of this crisis.

Or he/she should listen to Astra Taylor’s observation in the same discussion: this crisis proves that there is money in society and resources can be mobilized towards public health if needed. Therefore, we must conclude that pressure must be put to use capital for the public good in normal times too, not just in critical times. Altogether, it is very crucial to politicize and collectivize the problems we face because only in this way can we contribute to rebuilding the power of those who need it so desperately today. On the same occasion, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor also formulated concerns that are very crucial today: whenever someone becomes rich in capitalism at any given moment, the last economic crisis included, they became rich because others lost their homes, were evicted, were subjected to enforcement proceedings, and became homeless. Therefore, we must interrupt this cycle of enrichment from disaster capitalism, and must not return to its normalcy by re-stabilizing the debt-based economy, which sacrifices people on the altar of profit. 

As part of the larger picture outlined above, today it is compelling for us to build coalitions with integrative demands under the universal claim for public investments into public services. Such political construction might have different entry points. Since my activist and academic experiences are related to housing, in this article I am going to focus on transnational organizing around the global housing crisis.


Organizing and Demands at Local, National and European Level

From the point of view of a militant within the local movement Căși sociale ACUM! (Social housing NOW!), the national platform Blocul Pentru Locuire (Bloc for Housing), and the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City (EAC) it is clear: the local/ national housing crises are rooted in global financialized capitalism that affects all the countries, nevertheless recreating inequalities between the core and periphery of Europe. The continuous joint reflection on the Housing struggles in Romania and CEE that are faced daily with the effects of this crisis, including but not limited to the evolutions during the pandemic, made us recognize: despite the differences in the national and local housing regimes, the financial unaffordability of adequate homes is a reality shared across borders.

The latter is due to both people’s low income, and the high housing costs, which are systemic issues of late capitalism that affect not only the very poor but larger and larger parts of the middle class. Neoliberal state policies (regardless if they fully unfolded in the 1980s or the 2000s) everywhere were informed by a politics that put the state into the service of capital accumulation and weakened its capacity of providing public services in the domain of education, healthcare, housing, or social protection. Irrespective of how former public housing stocks were privatized across countries, or of the rhythms in which housing production was subjugated to the interests of real estate developers, or of the forms in which housing financialization happened in the core and the periphery countries, liberal economic policies eventually resulted in the continuous increase of the private housing supply while making the housing unaffordability more and more appalling for the many.

Faced by the crisis of a political economy regime that enforces people to have access to housing almost exclusively through the market, we as housing activists consider that our struggle for housing justice should be continued towards protecting a larger and larger housing stock from the interests of capital accumulation. Therefore, with different accents in different countries, together we are fighting to fulfill the following intersected demands: the creation of a significant fund of not-for-profit housing (including public housing but as well as other forms of collective, such as cooperative housing);  the socialization of at least a part of the existing private housing stocks owned by the big landlords; the regulation of the housing market (i.e., of the private rental sector, of profit-making by real estate developers, of the speculations of investment funds).

The residents of Cluj are rising up against rising costs of living, fossil fuel profiteering and unaffordable housing – Demonstration organised by Social Housing NOW! in collaboration with the Socialist Action Group, Gastivists Romania, Fridays for Future Romania and the Syndicate of the Militant Students in Cluj

In the very current European context of state aid being allowed to be given for the salvation of the economy, we should demand using the Recovery and Resilience Facility for the production of an extended not-for-profit housing sector as a means for supporting the real economy and satisfying peoples’ housing needs. During the pandemic, as an emergency, several EAC activist groups called for the increase of the number of social housing to be allocated to the homeless and people living in inadequate and overcrowded facilities; for the prohibition of evictions; for supporting families who do not have the resources to pay for utilities and to ensure they have access to water, electricity, gas or other sources for heating. In some countries, like Spain, Germany and France, there were some governmental promises in these directions, nevertheless it is not clear yet how they were put into practice, how far they covered all the needs, and if there is any chance that such discrete measures could be transformed into long-lasting policies.


Political Lessons for Strengthening our Housing Struggles

Since the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, in Romania nothing significant has been made in housing matters. The demands of Bloc for Housing (formulated in the “Memorandum: Decent Minimum Income and Adequate Social Housing for the Most Affected People”), signed by more than 50 organizations and 100 persons, were not taken seriously by the Romanian Presidency and Government. Nevertheless, we continue demanding governmental programs for public housing construction so that the state could meet the housing needs of diverse social categories whose precariousness continues increasing under the current changes of the labor market. Besides, we are preoccupied how public property (on housing) might be redefined in order to assure more democratic control exercised by the tenants, and what kind of institutional changes should the state do in order to support public housing construction paying for labor force and means of production, but not for the construction companies’ profits. The current government does not seem to be responsive to such demands. Therefore, and because housing politics is so much part of the dominant neoliberal political economy, we should keep in our minds that in the absence of an overarching popular unrest and/or strikes targeting larger economic matters faced by the workers, one may hardly expect that the demands of activist groups will be heard by the decision-makers.   

Beyond the local and national scales, it would be strategic to construct alliances to persuade EU economic and fiscal policy makers to create the conditions for the production of not-for-profit housing and for ensuring the democratic control on such a stock across the Member States. But how exactly this pressure might be put is a difficult question, because we have learned that influencing decision-makers also includes the capacity to enforce political parties to change.

One of the hardest issues that we are faced with at each and every level of activist organizing, is the relationship between advocacy alongside decision-makers from mainstream institutions, and direct actions expressing popular dissatisfactions with how capitalism works against people. It remains for us an open question, how to balance our energies among these directions. By now we learned that advocacy is not efficient without mass mobilizations, while the latter do need to transform the lived experiences of the many into political and policy claims.

An important strategic clue for further housing justice activism at all levels is to take part in coalitions/ intersectional mobilizations around workers' rights, environmental matters, anti-racism, feminism, and LGBTQ demands, for a society without exploitation and liberated from the domination of profit. A promising initiative in this sense is the organizing under EAST - Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational, which is a network composed mostly of women, migrants, workers and activists born out of the struggles on social reproduction triggered by the pandemic crisis of Covid-19.

About the contributor

Enikő Vincze
University Professor & Housing Justice Activist at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca & Căși sociale ACUM!/ Social housing NOW!

In the past three decades, Enikő Vincze has been teaching, researching and publishing on nationalist identity politics; intersectional feminism; ethnicity, gender and nationalism; multiple discrimination and political potential of Romani women; social and spatial marginalization; exclusion from school education, healthcare, decent jobs and adequate housing of impoverished Roma; European social policies; critical European studies; the formation of capitalism and neoliberalisation in Romania; critical urban theory; the centrality of housing in political economy; spatial injustice; uneven territorial development; environmental racism and ghettoization; racialization and polarisation processes in housing; real estate as urban development for profit; housing justice movements in Central Eastern Europe. Since 2010, she has directly participated in housing justice activism, starting from actions against Roma ghettoization and racism, and continuing with the enlargement of this struggle towards bigger demands for a just housing regime as part of a society without exploitation, racialization and sexism.

Beyond her academic career, assuming the political standpoint of a public intellectual, Enikő took part in the production of several documentary films, and published on platforms and magazines as well as participated on public events targeting a larger public, always critically addressing the intersected power regimes from the point of view of the oppressed.