The international organizing is extremely important for the leftists, but at the same time it is very demanding and resource-consuming. What are the conditions in which our struggles for spatial justice take shape?
The important factor is that the actors that decide on housing policies operate on an international organizational level. The recent research by Ioana Florea and Agnes Gagyi brings a perspective of a world-system theory into the social movements studies. Even the countries that might appear to be the EU’s conservative critics (e.g. Hungary) are actually very well incorporated in it by the financial mechanisms enabling (besides other things) the functioning of the housing market. The semi-peripheral position of the Czech Republic and the consequent need of the government to keep the wages low is one of the factors that fuels the housing crisis. Together with the high interests’ rates, it makes mortgages unaffordable. To their historical surprise, the Czech middle classes start to rent, but the protection of tenants’ rights is nowhere on the horizon. The Czech tenants’ movement is a response to this particular position of the country in the European economy.
However, it is quite hard for the urban movements to struggle against the position of their country in the global economy. We must name our enemies and demonstrate that they are the ones to blame, not the “crisis” or “low supply in construction”. Most of us have heard the names of the vulture funds: Vonovia, Blackstone, or Akelius. To bring an example of the Czech Republic, one can name the Association of rental housing that unites developers and investment funds (such as Heimstaden), consulters and financialists, asset and real estate managers. The Association provides a structure that is able to secure the profit from the rental housing starting from the construction and finishing with the property management. This structure enabled Heimstaden that already owns 42.500 units in Moravian-Silesian region to buy flats directly from the developer FINEP in Prague. Worth to note, that Heimstaden Bostad AB is an investment fund that unites not only Heimstaden with its 45% of all assets, but also the Swedish pension funds and insurance companies that together make more than a half of the assets of the fund. The Association that enables deals like FINEP-Heimsaden and seeks commodification of the basic human needs like housing is the very origin of the housing crisis. And it relays on its international ties.
Purchases like a FINEP-Heimsaden in Prague deal demonstrate the process of the monopolization taking place at the real estate market, makes housing inaccessible for the common citizens. Under these conditions, only the investment funds and institutional landlords can afford to buy housing. Such monopolization is the opposite of what is considered to be a “free market” by the deluded preachers of neoliberalism and fans of post-1989 economic transformations. Without an intervention of states and municipalities, the real estate market will become more and more enclosed and the access of the small actors to it will get harder until the point when the whole city will be owned by the institutional landlords. This is a dystopia that could become a reality in the case we do not act. Attempts of governments and municipalities to prevent dystopia is toothless without a brave systematic change that could be done only by the grassroots actors on the international level.
This tendency is not unique for the Czech Republic. With more or less variability, the similar processes are happening in the whole Europe. Worth to note that the tendency towards the monopolization and the accumulation of power of institutional landlords is contradictory to the demand of social, cheap or decommodified housing, the ban on holiday accommodation or rent regulation. The law of demand and supply works here as well: the less housing there is on the market, the more landlords will earn; the fewer actors are on the market, the more those who are present will gain. Our goal is to name them and to demonstrate the schemes they are using. This is not possible without us being organized on an international level.
European action coalition: an internationalist structure for the right to housing and the city
European action coalition for the right to housing and the city is an internationalist answer to the urban capitalist organizing. It has a fluid structure of a network and an organization.
Firstly, and most importantly, the coalition enables exchange of practices and experiences between the local movements. This is an extremely important process, especially while starting a movement. New movement is always a political experiment. The Czech tenants’ movement in which the author of these words is an organizer, is a good example of it. It would be impossible without an inspiration from abroad: the very idea of a tenants’ syndicate came to us because we knew about the London Renters Union or Community Action Tenants Union. We have been studying their tactics and organizational forms and then we applied it in the Czech context. Now we can exchange information, tactics, strategies and receive feedback from other European tenants’ movements. We do not have to invent organizational forms from scratch, and this accelerates our growth. Without a structure that supports international ties, such an exchange is hardly possible.
Secondly, as a founding member of the tenants‘ movement mentioned above, relating the local critiques to the international level can also take a form of the collective actions. They are decentralized and take place in different cities all over Europe at the same time. Here, I would like to point out two actions that EAC focuses on. The first one is the Housing action days that usually take place in the end of March, when in some countries the moratorium on evictions (due to the low winter temperatures) is over. This year there were more than 120 actions in 60 cities Europe-wide. Some housing action days took a form of huge protests like in Lisbon with unprecedented 30.000 people, other of much smaller but equally important actions like squatting, occupations, or local meetings.
Another action that unites activists on the international level is a protest against the MIPIM, which was one of the first actions the Coalition organized. MIPIM is the biggest real estate market event that takes place every year in Cannes and connects politicians with investors and developers. In 2023 it hosted 6.500 investors, as well as delegates from over than 90 countries. MIPIM is a great example of the social- and green- washing: It ingests “change”, “inequality”, “sustainability” and spits out the investment opportunities. In 2024 it will start with a half-day summit for co-living housing solutions that promotes the affordable and sustainable living. For those interested in the whole program, you can purchase a visitor pass for 2.110 Euro.
What are you doing there?
Decentralized actions can expose the local governments complicity within the processes of turning the cities into investment opportunities. It is rather easy: One has to find the list of MIPIM participants among the local representatives (usually, shared internally), write an open letter to the municipality asking what the plans of the politicians are, take a photo in front of the municipality building asking e.g. “Ostrava, what are you doing at MIPIM?” (Lately, Ostrava spent more than 320.000 Euro for having its the stand at the market). This year the protest in Cannes and local actions were accompanied by the workshop on MIPIM exploring the meaning of this market for the real estate business. While such small actions are not going to stop our municipalities from participating in it, it is definitely worth spreading awareness about the structures and practices of the commodification and financialization of housing and urban space. Again, it is worth undermining the capitalists’ desire to normalize extraction of value from the urban space. Several years ago, the Coalition stated:
“‘Mipimism’ is the cynical celebration of the systematic dispossession of the majority of inhabitants from their right to the city by a minority of global real estate managers and investors.”
Thirdly, international structure enables the easier access to data, research, and analysis. Urban neoliberalism requires the cooperation of banks, investment, and vulture funds, financialists and developers. Making local critical arguments is not possible without us sharing the information on an international level. When we started a range of actions against Heimstaden in Ostrava, we immediately received a research paper on similar topic that was made by the French colleagues. Moreover, international structure helps us to reflect on our own experiences and practices. During the last meeting in Paris this year we discussed the Housing First program in the working group on end of homelessness. To the very great surprise of the Czech colleagues, French comrades were heavily criticizing it. They were claiming that the French Housing First is different than the one in the Czech Republic where it seems to be a program to house people unconditionally. In France, on the contrary, the Housing First program is conditional (job, alcohol and drugs using, social relationship are considered), and also, it has a probing period of 32 months. The difference initiated a hot discussion. It means that the operation of the program is a political decision, not a characteristic of the Housing First itself. This in turn demonstrates the political nature of our struggle with all the consequences of this.
Finally, the Coalition is an organization that makes the political statements supported by all the members. It helps the local movements to address their problems on the international level and gives more credibility to their arguments. This applies for example to condemnation of the Karbasian law (criminalization of squatting and tenants who stay in the apartments after the eviction deadline) in France or support to the law on housing in Spain. The Czech tenants’ movement also gained the international support for its campaign against the Heimstaden that operates in 10 European cities.
Of course, the international organizing includes many problematic points as well. The lack of capacities and resources, which we all tend to use in our local struggles is one of the most urgent ones. International organizing means an extra work and the question of sustainability is always on the table. As one of the founding members of the coalition claims: “Groups that are very active in their counties have no time and resources to share. People are tired, most of the groups are volunteers. We have to think and work more on this issue.”
Yuliya Moskvina is a sociologist.
The publication of this article is part of PERSPECTIVES – the new label for independent, constructive, multi-perspective journalism. Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.