Throughout the fall of 2021, the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory (IFDT) of the University of Belgrade and the Housing Equality Movement have jointly organized a series of five reading workshops under the title “Housing Issue: the Economy of Housing Inequality”. The aim was to bring together those interested in contemporary housing issues and offer space and opportunity to read and analyze some of the most important texts enlightening the topic from the perspective of political economy. Sara Nikolić from the IFDT and Jovana Timotijević from the Housing Equality Movement, in an interview by Sonja Dragović from LeftEast, who also took part in the workshops, tell us more about this program and about critical engagement with the politics of housing in Serbia and beyond.
Why did you think it was necessary to organize the “Housing Issue: the Economy of Housing Inequality” reading workshop series, and more specifically, why now?
JT: When it comes to the neoliberal urban development policies, including urban renewal, endorsement of private investment construction, financialization of housing, etc., contemporary Belgrade resembles other European capitals and major cities to a great extent. We are facing an increasing lack of affordable housing since the break-up of the socially-owned housing system in Yugoslavia, due to the rapid decrease in investment in public housing and the massive privatization of the public housing stock. In order to start living independently from our families, we are pushed to the market to resolve our housing needs, yet the pace of rising rent prices far exceeds the average increase in incomes. At the same time, the rental market is not regulated at all, which puts most long-term renting tenants in precarious positions where their rights are not recognized, and their quality of dwelling and living depends for the most part on the personal affinities of the landlord. With privatization as the “right answer to every problem” and the introduction of private services into the role which (in spite of being privatized) still bears the title of “public bailiffs”, the frequency of forced evictions has risen over the last few years, forcing many households out of their only home. The flourishing of the housing market continues and private investment in unaffordable housing keeps growing, supported by the state as a contribution to nominal economic growth.
All these manifestations of the commodification trend have rapidly worsened living conditions in the entire country, and it is precisely the legacy of the Yugoslav housing policies that have somewhat slowed down the fast track towards massive, extreme housing exclusion and spatial segregation that our cities are currently on. Of course, simultaneously, there had to be some kind of forced consent constructed among the general public, achieved through the persistent promotion of private ownership over housing units, combined with deregulation and precarization of all other models of having a home. Housing has been depoliticized and removed from the public agenda, while we have internalized the personal guilt and responsibility for “the failure” of not having a home of our own.
In such a context, there is a huge assignment in front of us to work hard on not only repoliticizing the question of housing but also re-integrating the right to housing into our institutions, regulations, and the way they are implemented.
SN: So, we knew we wanted (and needed to) talk about housing. The challenge, however, was to find an angle so that we do not lose focus, retell what we already know, and part apathetically. Our goal was for the cycle of reading workshops to have a self-educational character, so we decided to start from the area imposed as a prerequisite for a more thorough approach to housing, either from an activist or research point of view. So, to improve our understanding and our arguments in advocating for adequate housing available to all, we decided to tackle this very nightmare called The Economy.
The answer to why now is much simpler, and if we are being honest, it is primarily about logistics. For several semesters already, the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory organized cycles of reading workshops open to researchers, students, activists, and the interested public. Some of the topics covered at these reading workshops in previous years have been Ethics and Politics of Care, Capability Approach, Social Engagement, and others. Individual researchers, activists, and organizations that make up the Housing Equality Movement (A11 – Initiative for Economic and Social Rights, Ministry of Space Collective, Who builds the City, Housing Center, and Joint Action Roof Over Head) have been collaborating with researchers from the Institute for quite some time, participating in programs and research projects, exchanging literature and knowledge from the field. So, when the Movement was formed, the logical result of this individual and sporadic cooperation was to continue with closer and more effective joint engagement in the popularization and politicization of the housing issue. But if we go beyond logistics and empty slots in the semester program, the momentum in which this joint endeavour takes place is also worth mentioning. The very fact that today, after many years of neglect and avoidance of the housing situation, an entity such as the Housing Equality Movement is being formed, as well as that a scientific institution recognizes its importance and contribution to social theory and the society itself, is an indicator that shows the development of new understanding of the significance of housing as a fundamental place of social reproduction.
Was it challenging to design the program – especially in terms of the scope and relevance of the literature – and to bring it together during the COVID-19 pandemic?
JT: It seems that the challenge here was twofold. First, as Sara previously mentioned, since this was a self-educational endeavour, we all had somewhat scarce knowledge of the economic perspective on housing – but, anyway, there we were, choosing relevant literature for the workshop series on the economic perspective of housing! We have turned right away to some of our favourite sources within the housing topic such as Manuel Aalbers or Raquel Rolink and then looked further “into the unknown”. Nevertheless, the search and the discussions we had while conceptualizing the entire series were also a process of learning and sharpening our focus a bit. Needless to say, as the workshop series was unfolding we have learned that we made some wrong judgments, in terms of the volume of literature and its relevance. That only made the process more constructive, as it offered insights for similar future endeavours.
Another challenge, as you suggest with the question, has certainly been the pandemic. Since at the time of start we have already been in the state of emergency for almost two years, we were determined to organize the workshops in a physical space, as we were convinced that it would make discussions more spontaneous and thus more productive. However, another wave of the rising number of COVID-19 cases has forcibly moved us back to online gatherings. Nevertheless, this has allowed for a great thing to happen – we had participants from the region joining the sessions, and many of us had been able to regularly follow the workshops in spite of having to stay in self-quarantine sometimes.
The program did attract participants from various fields of study and practice; were you counting on this? Seems like the housing issue easily crosses the disciplinary bounds.
SN: Exactly! We hoped for a diverse group of participants while choosing the literature and designing the program, but the final response exceeded all our expectations. Lawyers, economists, architects, urban planners, journalists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, art historians, gender theorists, activists – some of whom are tenants, some heirs to apartments, and some seeking to solve their own housing problem through housing loans – have combined their knowledge and experience and made this cycle of workshops a truly interdisciplinary endeavour. Such a group structure best illustrates the importance and complexity of the housing issue.
JT: And just to continue Sara’s last thought…aside from illustrating the multidisciplinary character of housing as a topic, it also suggests the inter-sectoral character of the institutional and informal infrastructure needed to transform it substantially. We certainly need this multiplicity of perspectives on housing, of experiences about different housing conditions, of specific skills and knowledge, all in order to substantially transform the perception of housing (as a right, rather than a commodity, as well as a political question, rather than an economic given), to push the understanding of good living conditions towards the idea of secure and adequate housing for all, and to develop the regulatory and institutional system that would sustain the necessary transformation.
Do you think the fact that several people regularly tuned in from outside Belgrade and Serbia signals the need for more of this kind of exchange in the region and beyond?
JT: We were very excited when we received several applications from the region. It is expected, as we share the experience of Yugoslav self-management and the housing policy that prioritized housing as a right and a precondition for decent living conditions of all workers. Even though the pace of the neoliberal restoration of capitalism that happened in each of the former Yugoslav states from the mid-90s onward differed, we do suffer very similar consequences of the process. This also, to a certain extent, stands for all post-socialist CEE countries. It is, therefore, useful to not only exchange our resources and experience but to aggregate our struggles within and beyond the region, since the logic we are opposing far exceeds state borders.
Both the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory and the Housing Equality Movement are committed to social change, and to the development of the power of people’s agency to transform society for the better. How does this program fit into the broader framework of what you strive to achieve?
JT: Housing Equality Movement is fairly recently established among the five organizations that already have a history of particular or joint struggles related to housing justice and policy – Joint Action Roof Over Head has been fighting against forced evictions for years, Who Builds the City is pioneering a contemporary non-speculative housing cooperative model in Serbia, A11 Initiative for Economic and Social Rights has been advocating for the right to housing for the most unprivileged social groups, Housing Center has a portfolio of numerous architectural projects for social housing with a strong focus on the participation of social housing tenants, while Ministry of Space collective has been working mostly on the research and policy level – in general, on urban planning particularly related to housing. Such a diverse set of experiences motivated by the same understanding of the right to housing and the necessity of its politicization promises to bring a strong front for wider mobilization around the struggle for fairer and more accessible housing.
Cooperation with the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory comes as a continuation of the collaborative projects that some of the organizations from the Movement already had and underlines the necessity of jointly working across different sectors and disciplines, if we are looking for a radical change. The reading group workshops hopefully not only strengthened our capacities but also potentially sparkled motivation among participants to join the struggle in whatever way they find appropriate and useful.
SN: The Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory inherits the legacy of the Yugoslav Praxis School of philosophy. Relying on that legacy, in addition to the Group for Social Engagement Studies and many other laboratories, we have recently established the Laboratory for Theory, Creation, and Politics of Space (PerspectLab). The tripartite name of the laboratory reflects our idea of engaged research. Both PerspectLab and the IFDT itself endeavour to make their results reach beyond a traditional academic audience. In that sense, the cooperation with the Housing Equality Movement and the commitment to address current social, political, and economic problems – such as the problem of housing commodification and the destructive nature of neoliberal housing policies – fit perfectly with the Institute’s decades-old orientation and determination to produce critical knowledge that contributes to society.
What do you consider to be the most important outcomes of the “Housing Issue: the Economy of Housing Inequality” program? Any plans for developing it further?
JT: There is no doubt that this program has just opened our appetites for further collaboration.We have received an encouraging number of confirmations from the participants that they would like to continue working together. Our first concrete suggestion is a compilation of texts that would tackle the specific situation in the region, as we have concluded numerous times during the program that we sorely lack access to documented research and analysis focused specifically on the local and regional context. There are numerous reasons for this – from depoliticization of housing that reflects on the resources for substantial studies in this topic, to the lack of institutional provision of basic data, or the structural asymmetry within European academia in terms of the language of publications and territories being researched… The list goes on and on. Hopefully, this publication will be a small contribution towards increasing access to reliable housing-related data for the wider public in our countries and better visibility of the work and struggle in the area of housing. In addition, we have all expressed curiosity for further exploring the format of collective self-education and will certainly work towards future series covering other aspects of the housing question.
Sara Nikolić is a research associate at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory. As part of her Ph.D. thesis, she tackles cultures and modalities of urban dwelling, as well as post-transition relationships towards self-management and “third places” in the New Belgrade apartment blocks. Her main research interest lay in the area of urban ethnography/anthropology, and she prefers to explore those by relying on critical and sensory ethnographic techniques. On the activist side, she is engaged with the mutual-aid collective Solidarity Kitchen and eager to share recipes for self-organizing and preparing food in bulk.
Jovana Timotijević is an architect, currently working as a program coordinator in a research and activist collective Ministry of Space. She is also engaged as a research associate at the Faculty of Political Sciences, where she is working on a Ph.D. thesis. Her research and activism cross the disciplines of critical urban theory and feminist and queer politics.