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You Cannot Burn Us All: the Issue of Communal Housing Privatisation in Poland

Privatisation has many faces. In Poland, one of its aspects is so-called “reprivatisation”: reclaiming of the property confiscated by the communist government by its past owners, or people who bought legal rights to claim it. Since 90’s, this procedure resulted in evictions of thousands of long-term tenants by new private landlords, who wanted to convert previously communally owned houses to fancy apartments or office spaces in order to make profit out of them. This practice is being fought against by tenants associations, with cooperation from right- wing activists, many of whom are anarchists. Due to their campaigning, recently the issue of reprivatisation and its human cost was brought to light. Piotr Ciszewskipolitical scientist, author of the book on reprivatisation “You cannot burn us all”, and activist from The Warsaw Tenants’ Association, speaks about reprivatisation and actions against it in Warsaw.

Under the slogan o restitution of private ownership and historical ”justice” numerous crimes against Warsaw tenants, including murder, were committed. To explain this process one needs some basic information about the city’s history. After the Second World War nearly 85 percent of Warsaw flats were destroyed. The action to rebuild them, as well as the rest of the city, was needed. The president of the new People’s Republic of Poland has issued a decree nationalising land and giving pre-war property owners the possibility to regain them in the future, or receive compensation. In the meantime, with the effort of the entire society and state funds, the city was rebuilt. Instead of salary for their construction work, the workers were often given flats in new buildings. Housing policy was made mostly by the local authorities, and former landlords claims were rejected. In the meantime part of the presidential decree about compensation for them was abolished.

In the 90’s, with restitution of capitalism, the private owners and their inheritors returned with their claims. They were succesful, as the courts, more often than not, ruled in their favour: that post- war property confiscations were unlawful. Placing claims in frames of the so-called “reprivatisation” process became profitable business. Groups of businesspersons were purchasing rights to claim houses, mostly from elderly owners. Because these were only the rights to go to court and demand return of ”their property”, the prices of those rights were usually extremely low. In some cases claims to buildings worth about million Euro were bought for less than 100 Euro.

Tenants’ protest

In 2006 the Tenants Protection Act changed, giving landlords ability to significantly rise rents. It was a great gift from the legislator to these buyers of claims. After gaining legal right to the building they were able to rise rents and get rid of former social tenants. In a very short period of time, thousands of people were “given” as a part of the infrastructure to private landlords. Tenants living in these houses were usually lower or lower middle class people unable to pay commercial rents, which far exceeded their salaries or pensions. The most profitable strategy was to get rid of all tenants, improve quality of the houses and convert them to luxurious offices or apartments for rent. The other common practice was to sell the building to specialised developer companies as fast as possible.

So called ”house cleaners” appeared. These were administrators employed by the landlords to get rid of established long term tenants. The range of their activities was very wide and ranged from threats to rise rents and rent arrears to openly attacking people, and destroying building infrastructure in order to force people to move out.

Among the people suffering as an effect of reprivatisation was Jolanta Brzeska. She was living in a house rebuilt after the war by her father. One day in 2006 a group of people arrived at her door to see ”their house”. It came out that the building was returned to ”lawful” owner, altogether with its tenants. In next months new owners started to threaten people. They attempted to break into Brzeska’s flat saying that they have  registered address there (in Polish law, if someone is registered to particular address, it is illegal not to allow them access to this address).  Only after intervention of the left-wing activists informed by Jolanta Brzeska, police stopped landlord’s heavies from breaking in. ”Cleaners” were using all sorts of means to make inhabitant’s life unbearable. They were reducing common spaces and conducting construction works without any regard for the tenants, hence making living in the building unbearable.

Tenants’ protest, banner slogan: Tenants are not a Commodity

Mrs Brzeska and other tenants decided to fight back. In 2006, together with left-wing activists, they formed Warsaw Tenants’ Association. It was campaigning against reprivatisation and housing policy of the local authorities. In 2010, it participated in issuing first report on crimes committed in the process of privatisation, which unfortunately was ignored by politicians.

In March 2011, charred body of Jolanta Brzeska was found in a forest at the outskirts of Warsaw. From the start of the investigation regarding her death, the police and prosecutor promoted the version of events in which Mrs Brzeska somehow managed to commit suicide by self-immolation. After two years, the proceedings on this case were suspended.

Graffiti commemorating Jolanta Brzeska

Jolanta Brzeska has become a symbol of tenants’ resistance. Slogan ”You cannot burn us all!” was appearing around Warsaw and also in another Polish cities also experiencing the consequences of  reprivatisation of houses. In March 2017, as a result of social pressure, Ministry of Justice renewed proceedings in Mrs Brzeska’s case, announcing that it most probably was a murder.

In second half of 2017, after countless tenants’ protests, the issue of reprivatisation was made public. It emerged that for many years local politicians and civil servants were cooperating with ”house cleaners”, likely giving them information about former owners and their claims. In result, number of lawyers and civil servants involved in this procedure were arrested.

The scale of this affair is tremendous. Thousands of houses were given to private owners, often without adequate checks of the documents and legality of their claims. Landlords gained rights to properties in most expensive parts of the city.

The subject of reprivatisation is nowadays being used politically by the ruling party against the neo-liberals who govern Warsaw. However, tenants movement do no trust the politicians, especially the ruling right-wing,  which also was involved in the robbery of the communally owned flats. Tenants groups demand more efficient proceedings on the case of Jolanta Brzeska’s murder, new law that will cancel all landlord’s claims and compensation for tenants that fell victim to the process of reprivatisation.

Pics: Warsaw Tenants’ Association

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