Enikő Vincze: Romania’s housing problem is already hitting the middle class

Interview with the professor and activist on the subject of housing, the right to the city movement in Romania, the development of Cluj and the possibilities of cooperation between housing organisations in the EU

Enikő Vincze is a professor at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and a housing justice activist and member of the Căși Sociale ACUM!/Social Housing NOW! group, which brings together ethnic Romanians, Hungarians and Roma, and public intellectuals from different fields with victims of housing injustice. Over the past 10 years, she has researched and published on Roma racialisation and racism, processes of ghettoisation and territorial segregation, housing policy and its outcomes, and racialised unequal urban development. She is co-editor of recent volumes such as Racialized Labour in Romania: Spaces of Marginality at the Periphery of Global Capitalism (Palgrave), and The Romani Women’s Movement Struggles and Debates in Central and Eastern Europe (Routledge).  Enikő participates in direct action, strategic litigation, activist research and publications of the local, national and European movement for housing justice 

Enikő Vincze participated in the conference “Urban Inequalities”, organised in Sofia by the Collective for Social Interventions with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. She gave this interview on the housing movement in Romania, development issues in Cluj-Napoca and different aspects of EU housing policies. 

Ms Vincze, you came to an event in Sofia dedicated to activist practices and urban social theories. You also represent the housing movement in Romania. What do we need to know about this movement in Romania, which has gained momentum in recent years?

This meeting is a unique setting in the Central, Eastern and Southern European region. I think that implicitly it is also trying to create a space to express perspectives from this region on global issues or on how global issues, such as urban inequality, manifest themselves in our countries. So I very much appreciate that this opportunity has come up thanks to my colleagues in Sofia and I am glad that I was able to contribute to the discussions.

I am a person who also works in the academic sphere, so I did not come here just as a housing justice activist. But as I always like to combine them, in my presentation at this forum I also tried to combine the two dimensions through which I act. Of course, I do no

t do housing activism alone, but together with several groups in Romania. We have a history of about 12 years. I know the situation in Cluj better, but organizing has happened in similar ways in Bucharest and Cluj, through Căși Sociale ACUM in Cluj, and in Bucharest through the Common Front for the Right to Housing. There are more parallels between our local movements, even before we met and formed the Bloc For Housing, our national network, in 2017. So somehow without knowing each other too well beforehand, we had the same idea of organizing or observing the issues of the housing crisis.

Both in Cluj and Bucharest, there was a group eviction of several Roma people, which caught our attention, outraged us and we felt we had to do something about it.

In Cluj there was an eviction from some houses in the former state housing fund and informal shacks that people had built around themselves over time, when, after 1990, young people grew up and had nowhere to move. And in Bucharest there was an eviction of several families from a retroceded building.

Later on we started to document and analyse what other factors made these evictions possible, beyond the institutional racism affecting impoverished Roma evicted from their old homes. We analysed the housing legislation before and after 1990, we analysed the retrocession legislation, we documented the surrounding real estate development. All of those proved that the land where the evictees lived had acquired a high value on the real estate market. So, the municipalities had somehow cleared the areas of so-called undesirable elements, thus contributing to their increased real estate value.  

In general, we have seen how the development of these cities, such as Cluj and Bucharest, and the way Romania has been transformed since 1990, with privatisations and so on, affects the citizens, i.e. the inhabitants of the cities, unequally. They are unequally affected not only economically, but also through the existence of institutional racism, which makes evictions possible and has the impact that we have seen it have on low-income Roma people. 

We, Roma activists, having more privileged social positions, have learned together with the direct Roma victims of evictions, how to communicate with each other, what is the importance of joint action and what we should think and do together to express not only solidarity, but first of all to put pressure on public administration authorities to fulfil their obligations towards people and in housing issues.

What can be said about the social or professional profile of the activists or participants in this movement? And, moreover, where do they find the energy for activism? It seems to me an important question because in Bulgaria we have the same processes related to evictions and so on. But there is no such resistance. So what is the secret? What differentiates us?

I personally felt and still feel a deep revolt, an anger towards the public authorities because of the injustices they do every day. They happen both at central and local level, and thus facilitate and accentuate the harmful effects of the capitalist economy. They do this through their economic, fiscal, social, housing, health, education and other policies.

Local and central governments have the instruments of power in their hands. They decide on budgets and directions of development, and all their decisions so far show that they leave people homeless.

They are not interested in the social and human aspects of eviction. Instead, they keep talking about the sanctity of private property, building discipline, urban regeneration.

In Cluj, for example, what do you think was the solution offered to evictees in a central area of the city? The city council found a piece of land near the waste dumps and built them modular houses, housing units for the homeless, as they call them. And these interventions and plans by the authorities are outrageous.

If you walk around the city with your eyes open and see the suffering of the people, you can’t help but want to do something with them, for them, by increasing the pressure on the authorities who try to hide behind liberal ideologies about meritocracy and competition.

Is Romanian society more supportive? Or do people care more?

There were, perhaps, suddenly more of us who had this tendency to politicise things, to see individual human destinies as part of something bigger. It outraged us, as I said, that this could happen to some people. In addition, we saw how this eviction from housing tried to justify itself through racism and hatred against the poor and the Roma, or a desire to prove that they had no place in the city.

According to these positions, they can work in the city, especially do the hard and low-paid and stigmatised jobs such as those in the sanitation industry. But we do not want to see them in the city among us. 

I, for my part, doing research since 2000 in the field, about inequality, poverty, marginalization, seeing what happened in Cluj with the evictions, I felt that I could no longer simply do research on these topics. So for me, in addition to the already mentioned revolt, the impetus for activism also came from the desire to go beyond the limits of an intellectual and academic approach to acute social problems. I felt I had to do something. The most handy thing to do was to try to be with the victims of these evictions.

Since then, of course, we have been thinking together about what to do, and we also get challenges from time to time about the possibility of co-action between Roma and non-Roma. For example, some may challenge me, saying, if you are not Roma, how exactly is it possible to believe that what you are doing is something credible. Or that only Roma can act for the good of the Roma. To this I always say that political solidarity has to be built around values we all believe in, like anti-racism and equality. It does not naturally follow from one’s ethnicity or social position.

What I can do as a public intellectual is to create situations in which we can all act together, and in which the possibility increases that the demands of those who are otherwise not heard by the authorities can be heard. I am convinced that non-Roma people also have the right to fight against racism, and the anti-racist struggle is made stronger by trans-ethnic collaboration and solidarity.

Don’t you face a verbal resistance? Don’t you hear that there is a kind of international cabal to support Roma? In Bulgaria it seems to me that there have been cases when cities try to build social housing and a nationalist tendency revolts that more housing is being made for those who don’t deserve it.

Yes, yes. There is also this position on the part of the majority of the population, which the city of Cluj, for example, takes up from time to time. They say that it is a risk to build more social housing in Cluj, because if we do so, too many poor people will come to Cluj. This is a thought that shows the racism of the majority not only towards the Roma but also towards the poor.

How do you deal with this majority resistance?

For example, by saying that the people they disregard, and the institutions and the more privileged people of the system forget about, do useful work for the city. They have the right to the city, to its services of all kinds. We are therefore trying to bring their work out of invisibility, and to make public opinion recognize its value.

In the case of Cluj, for example, we are talking about Roma people who live near waste dumps. A good number of them, as I was saying, were forcibly relocated there from the city, and some of them work in sanitation. So basically they do the cleaning in the city, they collect the waste of the local population.

Another part of the residents of Pata Rât actually work on the waste dump, they are the oldest residents here. They do the sorting work on the landfills, because there is still a need for this work on the non-environmental landfills still existing in the town. Majority population and many public institutions pretend they do not know about it. Or that this work is not useful and valuable.

If one day these people refused to go out to work, we can figure out what the city would look like.

So we try to bring these facts forward, knowing that these people are not sitting on their hands and expecting free help from the state or pity. These people are simply claiming their right to be city dwellers, as are others. Since they work and live and were born in this city, they have a right to adequate housing in the city. It is unacceptable for them to live near toxic waste dumps where they are doomed to premature death.

Pata Rat area. Photo by George Zamfir.

It is a legend that Cluj has the most successful urban history in Romania, that it has attracted foreign investment and developed the IT industry, and so on. For example, the Sofia Save Sofia housing movement went to Cluj, met the mayor and was very pleased with what they saw. How do you see the Cluj success story?

I am not very familiar with the work of this movement or organisation, but the name Save Sofia sounds similar to the Union Save Romania, which grew from an environmental movement and then became a political party. At the beginning it claimed to have no political ideology, but it acted as a right-wing party along the way. This party grew up quite quickly with a wave of new promises for something good, which the traditional parties either did not deliver or people no longer trusted them. So many people started to trust USR, especially middle class people and environmentalists, and the party quickly got into local councils, into parliament and then into government, and now back into opposition at central level. But sadly, it has become perhaps the strongest mouthpiece for further privatisation, for example in health and education.

So… maybe the Save Sofia movement shows similarities to the way things happened in Romania with the savior ideology? If so, I am not surprised they did not seek us out when they went to Cluj.

Anti-corruption is an issue for them.

Yes. And in Romania, this party, reduces all the problems of society to the existence of corruption and refuses to see, because it has a right-wing orientation, how capitalism actually creates injustices, inequalities but also systemic corruption. 

Continuing to talk about the success of Cluj, we should mention that it is a success of the neoliberal city, which is also based on portraying itself as a magnet city, a smart city, a city of festivals, an investor-friendly city.  In the four or so terms of office of Mayor Emil Boc, Cluj has been very receptive to the ideology of the neoliberal city. The municipality has learned how to attract foreign investment, but also how to attract a population that is induced being worthy of this city if it is able to pay the price and costs of living in Cluj

As part of this process, the city was created as a paradise for real estate developers, linking investors with a population capable of paying the high costs of the profits they earned. The City Hall has done much both ideologically and propagandistically to build this image.

Often, the story about Cluj overlaps with the success story of a neoliberal mayor responding to the demands of creating a neoliberal city, in which even local government becomes entrepreneurial. The model thus created can be, and is further promoted in the market of all kinds as an example for other cities in Romania. In these processes, including at the local level but also in translocal promotion, World Bank experts have played an important role. 

An example of gentrification in Cluj urban landscape. Photo by George Zamfir.

On the other hand, the mayor of Cluj has learned how to systematically produce new and new promises of infrastructural development, roads, parks, bicycle paths, bus lanes, some of which were never realised. Others were realised very late, being replaced on the fly by new promises. Their supposed attractiveness hid the previous non-realisations. 

Romania in general has developed through the middle class. It would be a middle-class success story. This is how we have understood Romania’s development in recent years. But I suppose Romania does not just have a middle class. And how do people feel in Cluj who are not IT-savvy or maybe do not have this access to technocratic science but live in this city?

Somehow this image has been created, that the so-called IT-ists are to blame for the city of Cluj being so exclusive or so expensive. But, actually, what you have to see is that everything happened the way it happened because of the basic law of capitalism, which is the accumulation of capital.

In today’s capitalism, the ideal of post-industrial development is that of the digitised economy and the service-based economy. This is the context in which IT-ists appear in Cluj, and the rupture between them and the rest of the population is created both practically and ideologically. But let us not forget that this social category of IT-ists is also very diverse. Not everyone earns the high salaries that promote the field, but it is true that salaries in this sector exceed the average salary, and this is put into play when trying to justify the high costs of living and working in Cluj.

Let us not forget either, that they work for multinational campaigns in an outsourcing regime, and have lower salaries than their colleagues in advanced capitalist countries. And, after all, they too are employees, they sell their labour force to their employers and in this sense they, like other working classes, are subject to labour exploitation, they are not unionised. More recently, since home work has become familiar and is starting to become permanent, they often take over labour costs related to the cost of work space and utilities.

In addition to IT workers, Cluj is also a banking centre. Many work in this sector, or in the insurance sector, and in the public sector, including university education and local public administration, where salaries have increased in recent years. So there are several social categories in the city who earn at or above the average salary, who are targeted as money consumers by developers and financial institutions, but also by services or event organisers. That should be more of a concern – to ask who is profiting from this development and from the divisions created between the working classes. They are the big investors including real estate developers and IT capitalists.  

I have a double question. First, briefly, what do you think is the biggest success of the housing movement in Romania so far? And secondly, how do you see the interest from some of the nascent Bulgarian movements for the right to the city? To what extent are you open to interaction with them?

The question of the success of social movements is a very delicate issue. We often lose hope and confidence in our own strength. We know a lot of things, we do a lot of actions, but we do not really see concrete victories that match our expectations. But this means that housing is very central to the capitalist political economy, and for this reason it does not allow itself to be changed. The success of housing activism cannot be measured in the same way as activism for parks, green spaces or bike lanes. 

But we must not downplay our effects. The important thing is to be consistent and consistent in what we do over years or even decades. And that is the ability to insist on certain things.

I think that has been our greatest political success. That after 12 years of activist insistence we managed to put housing rights on the public agenda, to turn it from an issue that for many people was a personal issue into a political issue.

For example, in Cluj last year, we were pleasantly surprised in a way that the local development strategy that the World Bank has drawn up for the city for the next seven years, until 2030, very often quoted our writings of all kinds. Academic articles, articles from the newspaper Cărămida, documents posted on our website or facebook page. Both in describing the problems and proposing solutions to increase the stock of social housing.

Then, a concrete victory was that we won a court case against the city hall, on the issue of illegality and discriminatory character of the criteria for awarding social housing, developed and implemented by the Cluj city hall. We challenged the administrative practices at the National Council for Combating Discrimination, but also in court. As a result of these actions, the city hall had to change most of the criteria we challenged.

But beyond this success and the fact that we have enjoyed it, the important thing is that beyond the criteria, the social housing fund is increased. And on this issue we need more pressure from many people who need adequate social housing in this city, because their income is lower than the average income in the economy and they do not own a home. For this, we are still needed to contribute to the mobilization and solidarity of all those who suffer from the housing crisis in Cluj and who are ready to express their discontent with our group of activists.

In order to help create a mass pressure that matters in the eyes of the local administration, in our political analyses and messages we talk about the high costs of housing, of rents, but we also talk about the harmful effects of privatized urbanism, of chaotic spatial development, and how people’s suffering and housing needs are turned into sources of profit made by real estate developers. All these things are already beginning to be felt by the middle class in our city. I believe that until housing seems to be “only” a problem of the poor, it is not likely to be taken up by policy makers as an issue. But now, when the middle class in big cities is increasingly feeling the housing crisis, translated in their case into the financial inaccessibility of adequate housing, then the chances of mobilization increase.

On interaction with counterparts?

I hope to continue our collaboration with the group that has now organised this conference in Sofia. Of course, it is easier to work with people who have similar political ideological beliefs. But it is always difficult to bring together activists and researchers in academia and practitioners in public administration positions.

However, I think it is very important that activists from Central, Eastern and Southern European countries come together.

Participants of the City inequalities: from right to city to taking control conference in Sofia.

Often when the housing crisis is discussed at European or international level, the perspective of this region is less recognised. We are dominated by the perspectives of advanced capitalist countries where, for example, the housing financialisation is put in different terms than in our countries.

However, we also need to work together beyond regional differences, because pressure is also needed on the European institutions to change their economic, fiscal and monetary policies so as to increase the chances of ensuring access to adequate housing for all.

It is in our interest for the European Union to adopt a housing policy. Then, to change its economic policies which, for example, through competition law, have supported the free and unregulated movement of real estate capital and, through its fiscal policies, have limited public investment by Member States in public services, including public housing. So a lot should be changed at all levels, local, regional, national, transnational. 

Should this housing problem be solved at European level, for example through the Structural Funds or the NRDP? Or should it be a problem solved locally by local administrations?

National states are politically responsible for the rights of their citizens. So they should also respect their obligations in the field of housing. From which budgets they do? This is another matter, of course one can discuss how to supplement the public budget with resources from the European Structural Funds.

However, projects are technical things, they come and go. They only have project objectives and managerial responsibility. They are implemented where there are competitive actors in winning projects put out to competition. That is why we argue that ensuring the right to adequate housing for all is the political responsibility of the state, which it can exercise through political decisions and appropriate legislative changes, based on long-term strategies and concrete annual plans for the realisation of public social housing.

As far as the European Union is concerned, I was thinking not just of European funds, but of changes in economic policies, such as the European competition law, as I said above. This law, for example, makes it impossible for a state, in order to eliminate company profits from the costs of building new housing, to build social housing through state companies. Why? Because private companies, on the basis of that law, could challenge this at the level of the European Commission.

In the French elections, Jean-Luc Melenchon and his party stood opposed to a Europe of competition. It is an opposition that you also support if I understand correctly.

Yes, it is. And I am convinced, that our struggles for housing and housing justice will be successful if we too manage to be part of the wider political changes. I am thinking of those changes, which show that there is an alternative to capitalism and it is increasingly needed. Not just for economic reasons, but also as an alternative to the nationalisms and wars that some today are responding to the crisis of neoliberal globalisation. 

Photo: Enikő Vincze (source: Enikő Vincze)

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