George Zamfir: Romanian “solutions” to housing problems only feed the housing market [VIDEO]

The Romanian expert on housing issues from the Cluj-Napoca’s organization Social Housing NOW! discusses with Cross-border Talks about current problems with housing in Romania, which hit not only the poor, but also the middle class. George Zamfir points out at various solutions to housing problems on local, national and European level and explains which of them could be working and which of them are fake. He also has a take on the idea that cities should becoming affordable and accessible to all their citizens, rather than just for the rich. It is a pity that urban planning is left exclusively to the private sector in Romania, Zamfir concludes.

The Romanian expert on housing issues from the Cluj-Napoca’s organization Social Housing NOW! discusses with Cross-border Talks about current problems with housing in Romania, which hit not only the poor, but also the middle class. George Zamfir points out at various solutions to housing problems on local, national and European level and explains which of them could be working and which of them are fake. He also has a take on the idea that cities should becoming affordable and accessible to all their citizens, rather than just for the rich. It is a pity that urban planning is left exclusively to the private sector in Romania, Zamfir concludes.

Watch or listen to the talk or read the full transcription of the talk below.

Housing issues in Romania

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks, where we continue our series on housing issues. Having spoken to an Austrian man involved in solving housing problems, we are now turning our attention to Southeastern Europe, more specifically to Cluj-Napoca, the leading city in Transylvania, Romania. We are going to speak with George Zamfir, who is a PhD with research exactly on the issues of housing and an activist of the housing movement. We’ll be dealing with a number of issues, mostly on Romanian, but also on EU level.

George, thank you for accepting our proposal. And let us start: what are the issues which involve housing which Romanians face? We published an interview with Enikő Vincze. She said that the middle class in Romania is also suffering from housing problems. It’s not only the poor. So what are the housing issues which plague both the lower and the middle classes in Romania?

Hi, Vladimir. Thank you for the invitation. We are dealing in Cluj-Napoca, at the organization Social Housing NOW!, mostly with public housing. The problems arise, first of all, from having insufficient public housing to the general need of housing in the city. It’s obviously a problem that’s very important, not only at the local level in Cluj, but also at the national level and obviously at a much, much wider level. We hear experiences of our comrades in the Coalition for the right to housing from all over Europe, that the problems are arising all over. We actually recently organised a series of workshops against evictions where we invited a couple of comrades from places such as Barcelona, Serbia and Budapest, and we seem to face a very, very similar set of issues.

What’s happening in Romanian housing is very dire. I have just double checked a couple of statistics just to see if anything changed in the meantime.

So at a European level, Romania tops the chart. It’s the worst place in terms of housing. We have the highest rate of overcrowding in the EU, as well as the lowest number of rooms per person.

And even though the homeownership level is the highest in the EU, we actually have a very important rental market which is not actually accounted for because it’s mostly an informal market. This kind of rental market is very significant in the larger cities such as Cluj. Just as a side note, we talked a lot in the recent years about corruption and anti-corruption, but no one seemed to talk about how so many landlords are just breaking the law and nothing is being done about that.

But the main problem is that the state actually left the questions of house building and distribution to the market, which is not something out of the ordinary compared to other other countries. The problem is that it not just left the market to solve the housing issues, but it actually had to produce a market.

First Home progam

During the crisis in 2008, 2009, the Romanian government proposed one measure. It was a program called the First Home. In its description it was said that its aim was to actually support the banking system, not to collapse. What it actually did was to support the production of mortgages from the program. The program is still going on now, even though there’s a lot of criticism, even from pro- capitalist people, who say it is creating this kind of market distortion.

Obviously, from the left, we have a different set of criticisms to that. But I just wanted to mention that to show that the market is not just this kind of ethereal stuff that is happening. The state is very proactive and it is also pouring a lot of resources into it. These resources could have been otherwise used in in the production of public housing, which would have solved a lot of the problems because the market rates are highly unattainable for a lot of people, because wages are very low. So we can actually get to one point that you made. Is the housing crisis affecting the middle class as well? Well, yes, it does.

It’s not a very recent process, that’s been happening. But very recently, a couple of issues arose as well, one of which is the interest rates for mortgages. The central bank increased the interest rates so much that monthly payments have increased in the last year by more than 50%. If we think about who can actually obtain this kind of mortgage, it is mostly people of whom we would think of as being a part of the middle class. So they are even more affected by what’s happening in the financial system. In addition, construction costs rose all over the world during the pandemic. Romania and Hungary are two of the counties where construction costs went up the most in the 2010-2020 period. All of these factors combined suggest that there’s a lot of problems when we talk about accessibility to housing and more particularly to the middle class.

Lack of social oriented housing policies in Romania

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: You spoke a lot about negative policies, about leaving the housing problems to the free market and the consequences. I am wondering, are there any examples of socially oriented housing policies in Romania, either on national or perhaps on local level? Or are there any significant achievements of housing movements who might have stopped the most tragic consequences of neoliberal approach to housing? Perhaps there are some historical examples connected to Romania or its neighbors that could be inspiring today? Or do we need to invent new housing policies from scratch?

The housing activists usually have a very bleak view on the policies and the recent solutions. I think that’s in many ways understandable. Obviously, there have been things happening in the last couple of years. For example, in Cluj, the municipality introduced a couple of programs. Cluj-Napoca is now one of the most famous cities. It’s been growing financially enormously in the last ten years. It’s one of the cities that actually benefited a lot after the crisis and inherently from the austerity, the very harsh austerity measures imposed by the prime minister during the crisis who is now the mayor of Cluj. I’m not really sure if that’s a coincidence or not. But we look at what’s happening from an economic perspective here and we see that there’s been a lot of money in the public coffers, sufficient money to actually invest in numerous public housing projects. The problem is that obviously the municipality supports private investment and private developers and the whole real estate banking system. These are actually kind of false solutions.

False solutions to housing problems in Romania

I will go through them. One very important one is the rent subsidy offered by the municipality of Cluj, which was introduced in 2018 and was slightly changed in the last few years. People earning very little mone per month could apply to this rent subsidy. What they had to do was to actually search for a landlord willing to sign a contract with the municipality and then sign a rental contract with the renter, agreeing that the municipality will actually pay the rent directly to the landlord. So, again, this is happening in a rental market, which is highly unregulated and mostly informal. The pool of landlords who would have been willing to actually go through all these processes is very small, if we take into account the fact that most landlords are usually racist and classist.

The rent subsidy was actually offered for a period of maximum three years – just a very short term in housing. Then, the people in need were actually pushed to once again go into the city and check out how racist and classes the land owners are. So it’s no wonder that according to an evaluation of the program that we asked for in the beginning of 2022, there were not so many people who actually benefitted – just a couple of thousand people benefited from the rrental subsidy program. It is just one example where what seems to be a good idea has actually been turned into a very regressive idea. It’s not a progressive housing solution. They actually mean to push people on the rental market and to become accustomed to being a renter. Then they’re just washing their hands.

If people from the informal ghetto areas near Cluj-Napoca would get a stable, informal housing and move out for three years, that would definitely not be a solution because they would not afford to pay the rent after three years. This is one example of, let’s say, pretty genuinely inventive housing policy at the local level, which actually seems to be very regressive policy. And what they mostly aim for when they propose this kind of policy is like: how can we support the housing market? Everything they do, everything they propose is in that direction.

National housing programs

There’s also a couple of national housing programs, such as housing for young people, but they all deliver insufficiently in relation with the general housing needs. If we talk about historical examples… you can say what you want about the Communist housing policies. However, in sheer numbers they actually did deliver and they did deliver in a time when the housing crisis was obviously very, very huge. Romania used to be a very predominantly rural country at the end of the Second World War. The Communist policies were basically a part of the whole urbanization project and obviously industrialization project. But putting those aside for a moment, if we talk about housing measures and delivering the required number of houses for people to live in, that’s a good example that we still haven’t properly processed the Communist housing system, the whole production and distribution system. And we still haven’t actually taken out what was best from that system. I think there’s still a lot to unpack there. The World Bank is also coming up with this kind of proposal now in the last couple of years to extend to regulate the rental market. But it’s nothing, as there are also measures that aim at supporting the housing market – overall not really a good idea.

National vs. European solutions to housing problems

You spoke about local and national solutions. Could the housing issues of Romania or Cluj-Napoca be resolved on a European level? It’s known that housing is being considered more and more a human right. Possibly there could be European programs, funds, policies which somehow encourage more public housing or other issues. What’s your take on a pan-EU solution for housing problems?

Among the housing rights activists, there’s been an ongoing debate about the potential role of the EU in solving the issue. Well, first of all, I think empty declarations don’t do much. We had plenty of those also at a national level and we hear them from time to time at a EU level.

I think that the EU could be a mechanism that could help implement the right solutions for the housing crisis in the EU. But there’s a lot that needs to happen for that to come true. I think that we need EU policies that directly support the production of public housing through either direct financing or through various fiscal arrangements. And if we look at the energy markets, we see the whole trend of transition to green sources of energy. There’s a lot of potential to go into this kind of direct financing and also all sorts of fiscal arrangements. We know that the mechanisms are there and they just need to be applied to housing.

In concurrence with that, the EU institutions must send this direct message that housing for profit must come to an end. They need to do all the other kind of measures that are correlated with the previous one, so also directly support the production of of public housing and also stop the production or prevent the production of housing for profit or at least tax it a a lot more. There’s a lot of measures that could be taken, or at least directed from the EU at national levels. Obviously, we know that governments, the EU can’t actually do too much. We do have this in the program where states can actually loan a lot of money to restart their economies.

The National Plan for Recover and Resilience in Romania

You mean the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience?

Yes, the Resilience program. We have the resilience program, which, actually, I think is a very interesting idea, conceived of as coming in a very special moment in history. We had the pandemic which affected the economies of the EU states. It needed to happen, so we would have had less casualties and fewer casualties. But this kind of direct financing of special projects which come with very strings attached, could be used for housing as well. So I think even though the whole resilience program and the funding program, it’s very debatable. Some of it could be used for housing.

We, the housing activists in Romania, actually did propose this to them. We did propose to the European funding ministry in Romania to add construction of public housing in the resilience plan. And they did. But so far we haven’t heard about any concrete plans to actually access the money. We’re actually afraid that that was just something that they added up in the funding plan, but something that’s not going to happen because to actually obtain housing, you need to plan very much ahead. And we don’t see that at the local level. The mayor is very loud about solving this kind of housing problem and also building more public housing, but without any kind of financial plan, without any financial allocation for the next year to actually start the project – so there’s no way to have it in a couple of years from now. What they’re doing at the national and local level, they’re actually stalling the implementation of ideas.

We will need a very, I would say, radical change of attitude and approach to housing. We need to be aware and need to be active at the local level and, you know, personally and, you know, assembling in groups, we need to promote housing as a general human need, not as a commodity. And I think there’s a lot there’s a lot of examples that could be made at local levels that could be expanded further on.

Affordable and friendly cities

You said you need a radical new approach to housing and to start thinking of housing as something that everybody should have access to. Some housing activists are saying that we also need a radical new approach to city planning as well. According to them, we need not only affordable housing, but also affordable and friendly cities, not a city space that is oriented towards accumulation and transporting people to work. Have you got any reflections ideas on that topic?

Yeah, I think we do well, for example urban planning in Romania has been, basically, completely privatized. The zonal urban plans are being made by private architecture firms at the request of clients who are usually developers. So there’s obviously a very direct interest to monetise planning as much as possible. And we definitely need to change that.

There’s a lot of examples of organizing at a very local level, at most local levels, like neighborhoods or blocks, which is great. I’m afraid that without widening the perspective, at least to an urban level, these models are very hard to maintain. I think that we need to get involved in urban planning and it’s a very complicated affair. You need so much knowledge to actually be a part of it. It’s great to have more people involved in that. But, you know, not everyone has a BA to be able to actually read, understand the regulation, exactly what needs to be changed.

I think there’s a need for something else. It’s great to have as many people involved in the planning process as possible. But I don’t want to fall into the maybe other side where, you know, people who are able to actually be a part of the process are being a part of the process. And there’s a lot of other people who are. Because of various issues they are not able to be a part of the process. So without any kind of proper regulation of the whole planning, this whole new restructuring of the planning process. We risk another type of takeover by other interest groups of interests. So I think we still need to pay a lot of attention to that. It’s insufficient to just have something at the local level and think that that would naturally expand at a wider city level or county or national level. There’s the same for that in a literature on development development is like the pressure to participate. Party participation is still really right. You need to participate or else you will not be a part of it. But not everyone can participate. So I think that that very strictly applies to this, this as well.

The housing question is a universal problem. I think that most of our viewers have had some housing related problems.This shows us that the housing question has become one of the key problems in modern Europe. Europe boasts to be the place where human rights are supported. A couple of years ago, it was the European Parliament which claimed that affordable housing is a human right as well. So it is indeed the time to pass from declarations to action, and it is time for even more organizations to secure our human right to affordable housing. Well, thank you very much, George, for being with us today. I would also like to encourage everybody to subscribe to Cross-Border Talks, not to miss any of our extraordinary guests. Thank you for your attention and see you all soon.

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