Note from LeftEast Editors: The English translation of this interview, which first appeared in Hungarian, is published on LeftEast thanks to our cooperation with Hungarian portal Mérce within the framework of the East European Left Media Outlet (ELMO). You can read the original article at: https://merce.hu/2023/10/15/mindenkinek-laknia-kell-valahol-elindult-a-11-
The Budapest Housing March (Lakásmenet) was held for the 11th time this year on Sunday October 15th to raise awareness among the public and decision-makers about the housing crisis, which now affects one in three households. The demonstration, which started in 2011 as the Empty Homes March, this year was organised for the first time by the From the Street to Home Association (Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület; ULE), which took over the baton from the advocacy group The City is for All (A Város Mindenkié; AVM).
The organisers also wanted to raise awareness with regard to the upcoming local elections, putting pressure on candidates to address the housing issue.
The fact that Fidesz continues to portray homeless people as the enemy and to launch smear campaigns against politicians and NGOs that provide care for the homeless makes the Housing March particularly politically topical.
Homelessness is not the only problem here, it is rather the most serious symptom of a general problem affecting a large part of society. Rising rents, the profit-driven property market, the increase in the number of empty homes, the mass construction of office buildings instead of residential buildings, AirBnB, etc. are all symptoms of the housing crisis, of which homeless people are the primary, but not the only, victims.
This is what the Housing March is against; its organisers want to make the housing system less profit-driven, for example by curbing short-term housing rentals, increasing the number of social rental housing, introducing a rent cap, and promoting individual housing as a real long-term solution instead of crowd shelters.
At the gathering site on the Nehru shore of the Danube, our colleague interviewed Valeria Dósa, a former teacher and representative of the Roma organisation 1Hungary, who said that they are taking part in the demonstration because Roma are increasingly affected by the housing crisis and many live in segregated areas, and they wanted to make this visible in the march. 1Hungary also aims to end segregation in education. Dósa said that the new law now being presented nominally as a anti-segregation law, does not address the problem in any meaningful way, as it contains legal loopholes. In response to our question, she also said that there are no concrete figures on how many students are affected by segregation, but it is certain that Roma are over-represented among the so-called “special educational needs” students.
The host of the march, podcast host Jakab Tóth shared his personal experiences of the housing market in Budapest, and reiterated the organisers’ call for political decision-makers to pay more attention to housing.
Dezső Szegedi, a volunteer activist for the City is for All movement (AVM), said that he grew up in the suburbs of Miskolc, in a flat without comfort and in poverty. After the regime change, most of the people there lost their housing, which is why the issue is important to him. It is an outrage when people lose their housing, especially when families are broken up as a result, even though it seems that these evictions could have almost always be prevented with social assistance. He added that the majority of citizens who contacted AVM would not have received help anywhere else.
He stressed that there were no winners in the evictions, except some of the bailiffs.
He called into question government policies that only enrich the few. He wants a country without poverty and where housing is a basic right. He ended his speech with a quote from Attila József „Jöjj el, szabadság! Te szülj nekem rendet” (Come, freedom! Give birth to an order for me). The crowd, which our colleagues on the ground estimated at around 300 people, then set off for Erzsébet Square.
Aram Shakkour, a board member of the Spark Movement (Szikra Mozgalom) responded to a question from Mérce. He highlighted that Spark considers housing a priority, which is why 15-20 of its activists participated in the event. In the past, Spark has also campaigned against AirBnB for raising rents. Shakkour said that AirBnB is a good illustration of housing becoming a commodity instead of a home, and that their campaign against enforcement is to ensure that no one is put on the streets.
Balázs Krivácsy, speaking on behalf of From the Street to Home Association, said that they are fighting for the right to housing through housing agencies and other social programmes such as the “shack to apartment programme.” While these programmes provide concrete help to people in need, the association also aims to raise awareness. They also want to put pressure on the state to carry out social work, because housing is fundamentally a political issue, and that is what the march is all about.
Dezső Szegedi, who gave a speech at the Nehru-bank, gave an interview to Mérce, He said that the AVM’s mission is to help those who are under imminent threat of eviction. They thoroughly review the cases and then enter into dialogue with the institutions that initiated the eviction. In the majority of cases, an agreement can be reached with the municipality in question. Szegedi also volunteers for the 1Hungary initiative. He said that discrimination is a big problem for the Roma, and that the census of settlements being carried out is only a “cosmetic” measure. The situation is made worse by the fact that government policy typically favours the upper middle class. Social housing should be built, but the whole social policy needs to be rethought as well.
András Jámbor, a member of Spark and member of the Hungarian Parliament, told us that he came to the march because there is a housing crisis and that it has many symptoms, from the behaviour of the bailiff mafia to the number of empty flats. In his constituency, the lack of insulation is a big problem, as is the fact that people are forced to live in small flats. The Spark Movement is trying to improve this via its own means: an energy efficiency programme, which connects applicants with experts to advise them on how to reduce their energy bills, and financial support. As an MP, he also considers advocacy and stakeholder organisation important. In his capacity as a political representative, he is particularly concerned with the issue of the bailiff mafia, and he is assisted in this by several of his opposition colleagues, who are trying to get Fidesz to show its true colours by proposing amendments.
Zsófia Ádám spoke on behalf of the Torch (Fáklya), which, she explained, is a member of an international revolutionary Marxist international, whose position is that the housing crisis can only be solved by revolution. Although they also believe that they must fight for the will of the workers to be conveyed by the municipalities and that the number of social rented housing units should be increased, their ultimate goal is socialism, because housing poverty cannot be eradicated within the framework of capitalism, without revolution. The Torch hosts a biweekly open programme at Auróra, reading the classics of Marxism together. More information can be found on their Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the number of participants in the demonstration had swelled to thousands.
At the destination point of the march, Vera Kovács and Lenke Pálfi, members of the From the Street to Home Association, gave a speech. They stressed that housing is a human right, yet today it is treated as a simple commodity. “It is not normal that it is controlled by the market”, Pálfi said. Kovács went on to say that all candidates for local government should have something to say about the housing crisis. That’s why the From the Street to Home Association is part of a recently formed “housing coalition” that wants to make housing more visible in the elections. The coalition is preparing proposals that anyone could include in its programme.
The From the Street to Home Association members said that “In order to alleviate today’s housing crisis, it is necessary that, regardless of party affiliation, political parties, representatives of local initiatives and independent candidates, together with local people and expert organisations, think about ways out… [N]ot by supporting individual candidates, but by showing: the room for manoeuvre a politician has; what proposals and measures he or she can put forward to help out of the housing crisis; what law or local ordinance changes could help the most and what can be done to make them happen.
Spark’s, Shakkour highlighted the security that a home provides and shared his personal experiences and difficulties with housing from his childhood. He became a member of Spark in order to make the security of a home attainable to all. We need to think of ourselves as one people helping each other. Housing should not only be addressed in campaigns. In his opinion, housing should not be dependent on credit or on having children, but should be a basic human right for which we should struggle for together.
Dósa, who beyond being a member of the 1Hungary initiative is a “Roma, graduate, intellectual, woman, and teacher who left her career” spoke up, saying that 1Hungary believes that there is only one Hungary, whose citizens should have equal rights. But this is still not the case, as many people in Hungary today do not even have basic rights; not even the right to live somewhere. Roma people, the majority of whom do not have adequate housing, live at a particular disadvantage, in poverty. This situation is further exacerbated by educational segregation. In the place of segregation, co-education is needed. If Hungary does not tackle this segregation “without political blinkers” and with the involvement of those concerned, it will, in her view, cause enormous damage to society as a whole. Roma are discriminated against in the rental market and in the workplace, and unaffordable deposits required in the rental market make it impossible for them to move up. Concluding her speech, Dósa stressed that almost a million people in Hungary are struggling with housing problems, “abandoned by the authorities”, and that we cannot keep silent about them, “because we have a common homeland, there is only one Hungary”.
Ákos Horváth, a member of the ADOM Student Movement, said that while many people are trying to plug the holes in the social safety net, only the state can really fill them. He also spoke about students who do not have access to a dormitory and cannot even save to later attain their own property. He regretted that the government had abandoned its plan for a Student City..
Béla Schelb, from From the Street to Home Association, spoke about the difficulties faced by homeless people. In the current circumstances, he argued, it is almost impossible to break out of homelessness. Instead of housing, the unhoused are provided with crowd shelters, and losing their home means losing the right to work and family. He is outraged that the ‘family-friendly’ government is breaking up so many families through evictions. “The war is going on next door, but the victims are here too,” he said, referring to inflation and the cost of living crisis. He stressed that since the regime change , no government has done anything to end homelessness, but have instead persecuted those living on the streets. “A drowning man who has fallen into a river would not be shouting if he could swim to shore”, he said, sending a message to those who believe that homeless people could get themselves out of their situation. Many of them resign themselves to their plight, while they are also resigned to politicians selling their votes for potatoes, when this should not be left alone. Despite all the investment and the appearance of beautiful buildings, the country is in a miserable state. In contrast, he proposes a new investment, the ‘road to fulfillment’, where simple homes are built, not luxury villas. “We are hungry, we want to live well,” he concluded.
Starting at 6pm, housing activists and their supporters held a performance at Blaha Lujza Square. They sat on a “solidarity field”, artificial grass spread out on the floor of the underpass. They chose this form of awareness-raising because in December 1989 the homeless in Budapest demanded better social services in a very similar way.
A plaque in the underpass commemorates this event. The poor people’s two-week action was a success: as we wrote in a previous article, the Metropolitan Council started negotiations with the protesters and the organisations supporting them, and shortly afterwards offered to move 200 people into the gym of a secondary school in Csepel as a temporary solution. In December, they also opened a building in Vajdahunyad Street to provide temporary accommodation.
In the framework of Sunday’s performance, housing activists and professionals, and especially of those living in it shared their experiences of housing poverty. Among others, Péter Győri, a social worker who was present during the 1989 protests, spoke about his experiences in this interview.
Noémi Lehoczki is an author at the Hungarian left-wing news site Mérce.