The drama of tenant advocacy

A wonder of technology is its ability to allow us to be everywhere at once. And so it was that today, via Skype, the Amsterdam Tenants’ Union was able to host a discussion in Amsterdam that was simultaneously in Bratislava (Slovakia), Cardiff (Wales), Barcelona (Spain) and Tuzla (Bosnia & Herzegovina). All of them had the common first and foremost goal of fighting for the rights and quality of life of tenants. The topic for the day was the differences in the precise contexts, aims and practices of the fight across Europe, and what the different groups could learn from each other. Moderating was the Dutch journalist Michiel Hulshof.

article by Crispin Pownall, ISHF team

Speaker 1: Winnie Terra, Amsterdam Tenants’ Union/Huurdersvereniging Amsterdam

Terra started off by outlining the size of the ATU: an umbrella for 15 tenants’ associations representing 200,000 households across Amsterdam, both private rentals and social housing. She pointed out one of the facts that makes and keeps Amsterdam so special, which is that more than 50% of housing is social-rent. The big challenge ATU is trying to address is how to motivate tenants to stand up for themselves. The ATU is hoping through this event to build bridges with other tenant associations across Europe—and maybe one day hold a gathering with associations across the world like the ISHF! There was some feedback from the audience: a concerned audience member raised the point that Amsterdam’s rental landscape still feels inaccessible. But this is one of the things that ATU is fighting to improve.

Speaker 2: Edin Osmanbegovic, Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia’s tenure structure is a product of the post-communist transition, Osmanbegovic tells us, where families hang on to the flats they had at the transition, passing them down to successive generations. The post Bosnian War governments’ help in transitioning to home-ownership for those not already in possession was minimal and restricted to favoured groups such as demobilized soldiers. Data on the exact tenure landscape today is minimal, because of the ‘bureaucratic spaghetti’ of Bosnian politics. And how may, for instance, a new graduate get a home in Bosnia? “Almost impossible”, says Osmanbegovic: there are only 13 social homes in the whole of Tuzla. She points out that she is speaking from a less developed country with a very different historical development to most of our other speakers, so the opportunities and constraints are also very different. How might she approach governments to get them to facilitate social housing and tenant rights, she asks?

Speaker 3: Antoni Vidal, Barcelona, Spain

In Barcelona, where rent regulations are next-to-none, the average rent is around €800 per month… and the average wage is only €900! “Imagine the drama”, says Vidal, of people trying to get by and all the while tenants’ organizations trying to advocate for them while the basic facts are so dismal. Even social housing is €600 per month, but this only makes up 2% of the total housing, most of this going to the old and students. It is the tenant associations’ agenda, says Vidal, therefore, to get the government to drop their owner-occupancy goals, enlarge and empower the non-profit housing structures including rent subsidies, and raise the level of social housing to 15%, a number Vidal’s organisation identifies as necessary to avoid crisis.

Speaker 4: Steffan Evans, Cardiff, Wales

The shortcomings of the UK’s social housing have come into horrific and tragic focus this week with the Grenfell Tower fire, reinvigorating the fight to improve tenant lives and ensure they are protected. In Wales, the situation may seem okay at first glance: waiting periods are only three-four years if the applicant is in need. Wales’ government, given devolved power since 1999, has always been progressive and provides funding for housing associations to build social-rent homes. However, one challenge is the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ from the central government removing rent subsidies for homes with empty rooms to make way for larger families—in lieu of providing the penalised with smaller homes to actually move into. Another is how to cultivate and invigorate tenant participation beyond the so-called ‘super-tenants’ who have the time and means to attend every meeting. One scheme is repaying tenants who complete surveys with vouchers for supermarkets.

Speaker 5: Tadeus Patlevic, Bratislava, Slovakia

Like Bosnia, says Patlevic, Slovakia’s housing landscape is a descendent of the post-socialist transition. After 1991, the government allowed tenants to buy their flats for €1000, which 95%– all but 2,000 families—of Bratislava ended up doing. Families who owned a home before 1948 were given homes too. This created a polarisation between majority haves and minority have-nots. Patlevic’s organisation’s starting point was the 2,000 families shut out from the home-buying. However, also like Bosnia, this has created a situation where people hang on to their homes for as long as they can, and where this combines with inadequate construction levels to create a situation of inaccessibility and unaffordability, especially for singles and the young. Only 1000 social-rent flats exist in Bratislava. Patlevic says that his organisation’s main goal for now is to convince Bratislava’s municipality to build more new housing.

After this enlightening and constructive discussion on differences and similarities, the question turned to what future collaboration between tenant associations could look like. There are a few ways: tenant associations can raise awareness of each other’s plights, share resources where they can and advise one another on how to secure funding. The talk is brought to a wonderful close by Hania Sobolweska’s beautifully odd and energetic performance, a crash course on how to decorate your home like an ‘Eastern European kingdom’ (‘first step: always pretend you are unprepared, and keep your bag ready’).

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