The Tenants' Defense Committee has a big fight on its hands, but the memory of their murdered friend keeps them going.
The Communist-era buildings in Praga, Warsaw, don't face the same problems as the pre-war housing. But without proper legislation the communal spaces (such as parks and schools) can be privatized at any moment.
On a brisk Thursday afternoon, a line forms in front of a newly privatized four-story council estate in Warsaw's Praga district. A century ago it could have been an impressive piece of art nouveau architecture, but—worn away by the years, like most of the buildings in Praga—it now stands as a bleak contrast to the city's shiny financial center. The people forming the line live in the neighborhood, though with the nascent privatization of the area it's hard to tell how long they'll be able to stick around for.
The local Tenants' Defense Committee, which those in the line are waiting to consult, was set up to tackle this problem, beginning its life as a small family affair.
"A multiplex cinema was erected in front of our window, where an old movie theater used to stand. The vibrations resulting from the use of heavy machinery began to topple the weak foundations of our house. The council was suspiciously slow to act, so we organized a protest," says Teresa Jasińska, who formed the committee several years ago with her husband, Marek, and their daughter. "Word of mouth spreads quickly around here, so as people heard about our success they started coming to us for advice."
The committee's provisional HQ
The help they offered at first was primarily from a legal standpoint, but this changed radically after a series of unexplained fires hit the district's estate buildings in 2011. Basements, attics, and storage rooms caught fire in rapid succession; at one point there were as many as three fires in a single day. The committee recruited a few more members and put together Patrol Okrzejówki, named after an early 20th century socialist who fought for Poland's independence.
Wearing fluorescent vests bearing the patrol's name, the residents took to the streets, arm-in-arm with members of the anarchist Polish Syndicalist Union and denizens of Warsaw's few remaining squats. For months they have been voluntarily taking turns in nightly patrols, aiming to deter whoever was repeatedly setting fire to the local buildings.
"You won't burn every one of us!" was the brigade's rally call.
The Okrzejówki Brigades' makeshift uniform, modeled by one of its members, 76-year-old Kazimierz Dąbrowski
Nobody in Praga believes that the fires were an accident, but every investigation so far has been closed due to lack of hard evidence. The police have stated that they also believe the arsons were intentional. Those lining up in front of the committee's provisional office point at the building's new owners but refuse to give me their names.
The buildings were privately owned before the war, but were later nationalized by the Soviet-approved government in an effort to both crush the bourgeoisie and streamline the reconstruction process. Some of these previous owners—or their families—have tried to reclaim their property from the government, saying it was unlawfully confiscated, but they often get fed up with the drawn-out legal process.
This, according to Marek Jasiński, spokesperson of the Defense Committee and founder of the Okrzejówki Brigades, is where the new breed of owners step in. He claims that the same few companies have been buying out the former owners' and the fire victims' compensation claims. Then, armed with a host of lawyers (and, as sociologist and local whistleblower Jan Śpiewak alleges, sometimes using falsified documents and bribes), they manage to break the council and end up owning more and more neglected homes.
Praga, with its pre-war buildings and soon-to-be finished subway line, which connects it straight to Warsaw's business hub, is sure to attract big money. And big money is just what the private building owners want—not the meager rents paid by former council tenants. What big money wants in return are renovated houses (or new ones, replacing the demolished structures), beautiful neighbors, and a porter. Which, in the developers' eyes, means that most of the current tenants need to go.
"It's a mafia," says Witold, who just joined the line at the committee's door. Of course, by "mafia" he doesn't mean Tommy guns and cement shoes, but that the landlords will allegedly use illegitimate techniques to evict their current tenants, exploiting their lack of knowledge around the few laws that have been put in place to protect them.
He comes straight from the courtroom, having won a case against his new private landlord. He asks not to disclose the details of his situation as there are still legal battles to come. "I asked the committee for legal advice. Consulting professional lawyers on my and my mother's income is a definite no-go," he says, before reciting some 1960s Polish poetry.
A memorial to Jolanta Brzeska, a murdered activist, in the committee's HQ
Fear, he says, is the main tactic employed by building owners in trying to get rid of their tenants. "The people around here are mostly simple folk—not primitive, but simple. When they're sent an official-looking document they won't question its validity. They don't believe they have a right or possibility to not agree. Out of all the families in my building, I was the only one who decided to fight against the 300 percent rise in our rent. I ain't no anarchist—I just won't allow anybody to take advantage of me."
Witold believes that the more individualistic societies are, the easier it is to exploit people. "You're weaker if you feel you're alone," he says. "It's a popular trick. That's the reason why no big company ever asks for a class action. Atomization has killed the trade unions, and now it's killing our neighborhood."
In turn, the Tenants' Defense Committee is trying to get people back together. Their events have managed to gather people from all social backgrounds and are a rare opportunity to see pensioners (a group generally perceived to be more of the Catholic-conservative outlook) shouting their discontent alongside anarchists, syndicalists, pacifists, and every breed of welfare supporter.
They demand fairer and more realistic rules on the distribution of social housing; a program that will ensure that municipal properties are not privatized and demolished to make space for office blocks and condos; and, finally, the construction of new council estates in lieu of subsidizing developers who build on cheap land on the city outskirts, fueling the gentrification of the center and putting a strain on public services.
Graffiti reading: "In memory of Jolanta Brzeska. You will not burn all of us."
To achieve what they've set out to do, they are now shifting from street activism to political work. As well as lobbying the city council, they organize two open advice sessions at the committee's provisional headquarters every week, where everyone is welcome to come and ask for help. "It's not an easy job," says Bożena Jasińska, a law graduate. She also claims that development companies have started to spy on them.
"We had several individuals claiming to be students wishing to take internships with us. Upon further investigation they turned out to be professional lawyers working for the real estate sector—a few of them even confessed to this," she says. "Apparently, what they really wanted was to infiltrate our organization and get to know the ways in which we operate. One can only guess why."
Three years ago, one of most prominent activists involved in the tenants' movement was found mutilated in a forest on the outskirts of Warsaw. Her name was Jolanta Brzeska, and she was 64. Initially, suicide was considered a possibility.
"Surely, with her hands tied behind her back, face down in a bonfire, miles away from her own home, she must have done that herself," Jasiński sarcastically notes. Since then, the possibility has been eliminated by the court, but the investigation itself was canceled earlier this year due to a lack of murder suspects.
"The queen of slums," neoliberal mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz
Presently, Jolanta Brzeska's daughter, Magdalena, is also in a legal battle with the new owners of her home. They accuse her of owing them more than €14,000 ($19,000) for living there illegally (after they allegedly destroyed her contract).
“The hope of ever finding the murderers might have been forever lost in the first days of the investigation,” wrote Gazeta Stołeczna, the biggest local newspaper in Praga, on March 1, the anniversary of Brzeska’s death. “Everything was happening too slowly or didn’t happen at all; it took the police a week to even identify the victim [...] and only after a few months, after the court experts have concluded that the murderers were affiliated with the building development sector, they decided to search the car that the owner of her house had been using on the date of the murder.”
The "Troubled House," where the Jasieński family live and came up with the idea of the Tenants' Defense Committee
Jolanta Brzeska has become a symbol for the tenants' movements across Warsaw, her portraits adorning the walls of buildings throughout Praga. With similar problems in all major Polish cities, the Tenants' Defense Committee has a fight on its hands, and the memory of their murdered friend is what keeps them going.
They are currently working hard to gain broader public support by staying on the right side of the law; they recently stopped taking part in eviction blockades, which involved clashes with the police and generated a lot of negative publicity, even if the evictees were grateful.
"For an average Pole, the idea that housing is a right rather than a commodity is still something that only the dirty squatters or crazy Amnesty International activists moan about," says Polish writer Jaś Kapela. "Going into debt is the way of obtaining shelter that had supposedly been blessed by God and the market alike. Our society still believes in such ghosts as God or the free market. The only fact that slightly shatters that faith is that 60 percent of Polish citizens have absolutely no chance of getting a mortgage loan."