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Housing poverty and (missing) housing policies in Hungary: A radical re-imagination of housing is what we need (part 2)

Note from the LeftEast editors: the first part of Mariann Dosa’s text on the housing policies in Hungary can be read here.

Any housing policies that prioritize equity need to be based on broadly accessible public housing, because it is the only way forward that transcends the structure of neoliberal capitalism and hence, offers radical change in our thinking about housing and the actual way in which people live.

In contemporary Hungary a mere 3% of the total housing stock is public property. As a comparison it is 32% in the Netherlands, 23% in Austria, 17% in the Chech Republic. But these are also not very high numbers. Under these circumstances housing is a constant struggle for wide social strata with all of its repercussions – homelessness, severe health problems, lack of access to important public services–including education, families being torn apart, and even incarceration eventually.

An inevitable strategy to radically increase the public housing stock and make sure through legislation that everyone is provided with appropriate housing is grassroots organizing. That is, mobilizing people currently deprived of adequate housing opportunities, constantly pushing for more and more public housing (by construction, renovation, and re-occupation), and never losing the vision that community ownership is the way to achieve equity while also working on gradual changes that facilitate the long-term expansion of community housing (for example local housing first programs, or community-based housing renovation projects).

But I also argue that something even more radical is needed and that is a fundamental re-imagination of the idea of housing. I want to emphasize in the very beginning that I do not talk about lowering our standards of what adequate housing is, especially not lowering such standards when it comes to marginalized people. In what follows I demonstrate how our very concept of housing is entrapped in and compromised by the neoliberal logic and in this way actually serves this logic very effectively, and offer some thoughts about how to shift this concept.

At the time of the regime change into laissez-faire market capitalism, 19% of the housing stock was publicly owned in Hungary. Then a wide armory of social pressure was employed to push people to promptly adapt to the changing environment and “desire” what the new regime wants them to desire. The trope of ‘a decent home’ became a key element of identity formation both on the individual as well as the community level. Just as ‘Europeanization’ and modernization play a crucial role in justifying so called urban redevelopment and gated community projects and hence legitimize dispossession and marginalization, discourses about individual home ownership and consumerist home beautification fast flooded public consciousness to normalize systemic transformation.

Advertisements (see picture below) pushed people to take up home improvement loans and mortgages.

'Our fridge is Swedish, the coffee machine is German. Why not have an American kitchen_ 10 different home mortgage options'
‘Our fridge is Swedish, the coffee machine is German. Why not have an American kitchen_ 10 different home mortgage options’

Home design magazines disseminated “Western”, meaning more modern and higher quality home designs with special tips for dwellers of large prefab housing estates paradigmatic of the mass public housing provision in the previous regime.

In this way, housing conditions of the previous system were systematically repudiated as ugly, uniform, isolating, and inconvenient, although the functional aesthetics of the Bauhaus or IKEA uniformity has very rarely been contested. And this renunciation was coupled with the glorification of emerging market capitalism. The same media pushed for individual capital accumulation via home ownership framed as acquiring security, even though many people actually became indebted due to mortgages they had taken out. And they pressed for meeting the norms of Western consumer capitalism in terms of home improvement and design.

As an elderly character of the popular series ‘Neighbors’ paradigmatically noted regarding refurbishing their prefab estate apartment “This is the regime change of our apartment.”

That is, the emerging ideas of housing in post-transition Hungary constructed new identities on the individual level and a new social classification that was functional to the establishment and sustenance of the new regime. An example of the classification is when people reject compact prefab housing estates as “mass housing”, but press for the warehousing of homeless people in mass shelters.

We need another re-conceptualization of housing today to succeed in liberating housing from the profit motive and take it under community control. Again, this must not mean the lowering of standards, rather, a discursive shift regarding the very essence of housing: conceiving of it as a fundamental human need, a key domain of equity and environmental sustainability, and therefore, a right, rather than a form of capital and yet another province of consumption. And going back to a point I made earlier, grassroots movements could and should play a leading role in this re-imagination by leading public deliberations on the matter, providing their expertise, and push progressive, emancipatory discourse forward so that they reach public consciousness.

In closing I suggest what I view as the basic elements of this re-conceptualization. In my view the absolutely necessary constituents of a just and humane concept of housing are:

›   security of tenancy – with state guarantee;

›   healthy conditions – secured by state supported maintenance;

›   meeting spatial needs but in an environmentally sustainable way – excluding excess space use, suggesting multistory buildings;

›   furnishings and equipment meet basic human needs in the given social context – including study and recreational needs;

›   integrated (along all social fault-lines) – secured by anti-segregation policies;

›   fully accessible – both physically and financially;

›   sustainable resource use.

photo_mariannMariann Dósa is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Oxford. She is also an activist, and active member of The City is for All grassroots organization. As an independent analyst, Mariann has been investigating social marginalization and gender-based discrimination in Hungary in a number of research projects in both the academic and the policy worlds. She has been active in actual policy development with domestic as well as international think tanks and political parties.