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We are the city! 
Reprivatization and struggle for the right to the city in Warsaw

In Warsaw, the right to the city belongs to whoever pays the most. The city's authorities represent not the people but the interests of speculators, whose money speaks louder than the needs of the city's residents. Thus, Warsaw's most important element, its people, struggle for their basic rights: to live in dignity, to co-create the city, to make decisions about it. This tragedy unfolds itself in the story of Jolanta Brzeska, tenants' rights activist, who's fight against rent increases ended abruptly: on March 1, 2011 her burning body was discovered in the forest on the outskirts of Warsaw.

Like thousands of the city's tenants, Jola Brzeska's building was reprivatized. Previously, it had belonged to the city, which in 1945 became the proprietor of thousands of empty plots and a handful of buildings left standing after the massive bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and during the uprisings in 1943 and 1944. While the new communist government concentrated on a Stalinist approach to reconstruction (large arteries, giant empty plazas, colossal monuments, architecture that facilitates crowd control a la Hausmann in Paris), solving the enormous postwar housing crisis was mainly an achievement of the people, who took matters into their own hands and started rebuilding and resettling the city themselves. These squatters' initiative left the authorities with no other choice but to legalize their effort. Thus, what became known as Bierut's Decree made formerly private property the city's property, and emplaced a tenement housing system administered by the city authorities. Families assigned homes under Bierut's Decree- called communal housing, mieszkania komunalne in Polish- have for the past 60 years lived as the city's tenants, paying a fixed rent. Similarly, countless empty plots were converted into public parks and squares, which also became city property.

With the ascension of the free market after 1989, regaining property rights to pre-war possessions through the court system and more importantly, buying and selling ownership titles became regular practice. This new trading opportunity gave birth to expert real estate developers, who have expertly developed relationships with certain city officials, to form together a veritable mafia of property speculators. For the past 20 years, buying up titles to the city's tenement buildings, parks and squares has proven especially lucrative thanks to the good grace of the highest ranking authorities: to this day, no legal regulation managing the process of reprivatization and guaranteeing protections for the people who's homes are reprivatized exists in Poland.

Jola Brzeska knew from her own experiences that Warsaw authorities manage the city like a corporation, in utter ignorance of the rights of residents. Her building given away by the city to the aristocrat duo Mossakowski/Massalski- the first antiquary, the second lawyer, both infamous for tormenting their "acquired" tenants across Warsaw- Jola quickly fell into the hole of suddenly rising rent and soaring debt. Despite her hopeless situation, she fought battles in the courts with Mossakowski and was the last remaining tenant in her building, that the developer couldn't remove.

Jola also fought for systemic change in Poland - the only postcommunist country, in which tenants have been literally thrown into a shark pool; nowhere else are real estate ownership claims settled at the cost of tenants. Instead, rather than paying compensations to expropriated owners or their descendants (in other countries 10-20 percent is compensated), "poor" Warsaw drains its budget paying 100 percent of the property market value, or as occurs more often, simply gives away real estate worth millions along with people living inside, as if they were meat stuffing with a tag, "do with them what you want". Jola realized that changing this situation would require solidarity and initiated the Warsaw Tennant's Association (Warszawskie Stowarzyszenie Lokatorów).

Besides Jola's "owners", many other developers in Warsaw have taken example from the authorities; tales of harassed tenants hound on both sides of the Vistula river. Praga (eastside district). Letter responding to a plea for turning on the water in the building: There is too much shit, both human and dog. As soon as the shit leaves the building, all the problems will end. The building is in deficit so long as there is shit inside. Signed, building administrator, Kris Kozłowski. Śródmieście (central district). Rent is raised again. -Can a human being be so suddenly evicted onto the street, and only two days before Christmas? -But this isn't a human, responds building owner Anna Ferguson. Jola's situation was similar. Mossakowski and Massalski broke into her apartment by cutting the door hinges with an angle grinder. They would come to harass her late at night, they would threaten her, often in the presence of police officers. Such stories are countless, but the authorities' reaction is always the same: That's private property, it doesn't concern us.
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On one of Warsaw's main arteries, Marszałkowska street, more than 40 buildings have already been reprivatized. About 20,000 more in different parts of the city await being "returned". Jan Stachura, another example of a Warsaw developer, is a lawyer who specializes in reacquiring ownership titles from the clients he represents in court. This rewarding practice has made him the sole owner of almost entire streets in Warsaw's city center. According to property developer's clubs (there are a few in Warsaw) 97 percent of Warsaw property, following prewar geography, should be returned to private hands. And this might happen very quickly, as reprivatization is a very dynamic process; the city government can only guarantee that there are no claims to a building for a period of 90 days, after which their guarantee expires, because who knows a claim might appear?

These claims also concern parks and squares around the city, for which local residents have been fighting hard to keep. Of course consultations are hardly ever conducted and local authorities could care less whether a park remains a park, or whether it becomes a luxurious office building with underground garage. In Łódź (a city in central Poland), after all the appeals and petitions to maintain a neighborhood park were ignored by city administrators and the developer, local residents got together to do round the clock shifts, climbing high up in the park's trees, to protect them with their bodies against the new private owner's army of bulldozers. In the limelight of television cameras, the developer backed down and the local court ruled the park demolition illegal. Thinking the law would protect them, the residents celebrated their victory. But when the cameras and residents left the park, the developer came back and cut down all the trees, knowing that the fine for breaking the court's order would only be a tiny fraction of the giant stack of cash he would make on his new office building.

So the field for open discussion on what the city looks like and whom it serves becomes increasingly limited, and gives way to private fancy. This problem concerns city residents across Poland on a scale that deserves to be called a collective tragedy, all the more so because the voices of the "subordinated" residents, the defenders of parks, squares, small businesses and tenants' rights, fall on the death ears of those in power. Tenants living in reprivatized homes find themselves in the middle of the battlefield: each year their rights are further restricted to make them empty their apartments more quickly to create room for exclusive investment plans. In Autumn 2011, the government approved a new regulation that makes it possible to evict people during the winter months (previously the cold season from November to march, when temperatures range from -10 to -30 C was protected and no evictions could take place) and further, made it legal to evict people to garages, basements, homeless shelters and the street. Earlier, plans to build container housing were also approved and the first families have already been resettled to such plastic "neighborhoods" around Poland.

In 2010 there were over 6 thousand families on the waiting list for social or communal housing in Warsaw. The waiting time on this list tends to be about 8 years. This is because despite the enormous need, the authorities are not investing in building rent controlled housing. Instead, the number of people on this list grows each year because the authorities are decreasing city housing (by increasing private investment). In effect, those who can't afford private standards are forced out of the city.

Meanwhile, empty homes in Warsaw number in the tens of thousands. According to the city government's own statistics, in Warsaw's central district alone there are over 750 empty apartments that are city property. As for newly built, privately owned, empty apartments, in 2010 there were about 25,000 in Warsaw. There is also an immeasurable amount of homes that stand empty because they are bought by international investment funds, banks and private entrepreneurs in the aims of speculating on the housing market. And another classic Warsaw scenario: after taking over a building, the private developer does everything possible to get rid of the tenants as quickly as possible. The people are evicted, but the building stands empty for another 5 years or so while the developer gets his paper work together, settles co-ownership issues, raises renovation funds or simply waits for the building to destroy itself to save on renovation costs.

In this context it is yet another slap in the face that a legal regulation concerning reprivatization has actually been written, but since 2008 it has been collecting dust in some governmental drawer. Most recently, a daring reporter questioned Polish prime minister Tusk during his visit in Brussels on the future of the reprivatization law, would it ever see the light of day? We must put it off, as such a law would be unfair to the citizens, he replied. Indeed, replace "the citizens" with "profit" and Tusk is entirely correct in that only regulations that ensure more profit are fair and can be written into law. After all, the primary object and fundamental unit of everything in Poland is profit. Sadly, Tusk uttered these words on March 11th, 2011, only three days after Jola Brzeska was found burned to death in a forest outside Warsaw.

Officially, Jola's case remains "unsolved", although the truth about her death is no mystery: Jola's murder was a hired job, paid by those with the biggest interest in her removal. Mossakowski is not under investigation by the prosecution and takes special care to make sure that neither his name nor face are associated with Jola's murder. The police technician who examined her body is also dead, an unexplained suicide, or so maintains the prosecution. But whoever paid to pour diesel fuel and set Jola on fire is not alone in bearing the burden. The city authorities, with Warsaw's president Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz at the lead, carry the greatest responsibility for their incompetence and greed.

In light of the radical loss of basic rights guaranteeing dignity of life in Warsaw and other cities, it comes as no surprise that people are taking matters into their own hands and demanding the right to the city. In December 2011, Warsaw residents took over a milk bar called Prasowy when rent increases forced it to close (milk bars are cheap restaurants with proper, affordable, home cooked food) and started serving meals themselves. In October 2011, for International Tennant's Day, protesting residents took over a library in the city center and held an assembly. Over the winter, tenants organized nighttime brigades that patrolled tenement buildings that were being set on fire by developer’s minions (the most fortuitous and cost-saving situation for a developer is when an old building, especially one on the historic sites list, simply falls apart. Often time developers speed up this process by orchestrating fires, explosions, and the like). In the summer, residents threw in money to purchase a bolt cutter to remove the chains a developer used to close down the local park. Throughout the year, countless people, with assistance from local grassroots initiatives when necessary, moved into abandoned apartments, effectively squatting them. These are only the first signs that Warsavians will not tolerate further arrogance towards their needs. The dramatic call raised in March 2011 by Jola Brzeska's friends, "you can't burn us all!", is today turned into practice. Reducing the city to a "limited liability company", and its residents to "human capital" paves the road to social darwinism, not democracy. To reclaim the city, we must reclaim its meaning.

Human capital says enough! We are the city.

Kolektyw Syrena
Warsaw, February 2012

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