Hungary: From housing justice to municipal opposition

Hopes raised in 2019 of municipal counter-hegemony in Hungary have been disappointed. But in Budapest, the idea of progressive local government is kept alive by the movement for housing justice.

In autumn 2011, a group of about 30 activists occupied the corridor and some of the mayor’s offices in the municipal building of Józsefváros, the 8th district of Budapest. Organized by the housing rights group The City is For All, the sit-in was a protest against the criminalization of homelessness spearheaded by the mayor of Józsefváros, Máté Kocsis. The Fidesz hardliner (currently head of the party’s parliamentary faction and aspiring minister of interior) had even called for a local referendum to legalize the expulsion of homeless people from public spaces. His chief of staff first tried to get rid of the activists with the help of security personnel. When they failed, the protestors were dragged away by the police and detained at the nearby police station.

Some of the activists were homeless, previously homeless or living in precarious housing conditions. Most, however, were young middle-class allies. Today, some of the homeless activists are still homeless, some have moved into permanent housing, and some have passed away. Many of the middle-class activists have given up activism or have left the country. But a few continue to campaign for social justice, whether as NGO leaders in the housing field, or as elected representatives, policy makers and public servants in local government.

The author of this article is one of the latter. More than ten years after the sit-in, I work in the mayor’s office in Józsefváros as head of Community Participation, in one of the very same rooms that we occupied back then.

The first time I returned was in October 2019, on the night of the municipal elections. I was there as the campaign chief for András Pikó, the winning candidate of the united front of the democratic opposition in the 8th district, who after a very tight race defeated Fidesz locally for the first time in over a decade.

The successful campaign was an example of the links between a resurgent housing movement and efforts to reclaim local self-governance in the increasingly authoritarian political context. Pikó had strong roots in activism and charity work around homelessness, and his candidacy was promoted by the local advocacy organization C8 – Civilians for Józsefváros. I had previously been an organizer of the housing movement and we very consciously built the Pikó campaign around the idea of local self-determination, social justice and grassroots mobilization.

Homes instead of chasing! Solidarity with homeless people / Budapest, 12.04.2016. Image copyright: Gabriella Csoszó

Housing policy in Hungary

In the twentieth century, the housing policy of the national government and municipal authorities in Hungary swung from laissez-faire capitalism to the appropriation of some private property and large-scale public housing programs.

For all its contradictions, state socialism succeeded in ending the severe housing crisis that had affected Hungary and especially Budapest since the end of the nineteenth century, which which no previous regime had been willing to properly address. But while the state invested a lot of state money in the construction of new housing, its distribution often reflected enduring social inequalities. Poverty was not only officially denied and made invisible, but also criminalized through the penalization of what was called the ‘dangerous avoidance of work’.

After 1989, the vast majority of state housing in Hungary was sold off and the construction of new state housing stopped. The proportion of publicly owned units in the national housing stock dropped from around 25% to around 2% today. In the neoliberal era, the role of the state has been to facilitate the privatization of public housing and to support the acquisition of private property through state-subsidized loans and mortgages.

The right to housing does not exist in Hungary. While the Fundamental Law stipulates  that the state ‘shall strive to ensure decent housing conditions for everyone’, neither central nor local government have any specific legal obligations. Municipalities are theoretically required to prevent homelessness, but in practice this does not go beyond maintaining shelters for people who are already homeless and offering minimal financial support for tenants with a manageable amount of debt. In addition, while the national government subsidizes home ownership, municipalities are stuck with the sub-standard public housing units that could not be privatized in the 1990s. With the exception of a handful of municipalities that put resources into developing public housing, most local authorities consider the social housing stock and its residents a burden to be offloaded.

Movements for housing justice

Citizen actions around housing and housing justice swelled at crucial moments of social transition in Hungary. Examples include the rent strikes at the beginning of the 20th century as capitalism started to replace feudalism; the mass squatting of state-owned housing during and after the 1956 revolution; and the homeless sit-ins and tenant organizing during the transition from state socialism to market capitalism in the late 1980s. After the regime change, there were small-scale grassroots efforts towards housing justice, including organizing by homeless people, a short-lived squatter movement, and student activism around homelessness. The most prominent struggle for housing justice in the 1990s and 2000s was the movement against evictions and housing segregation by the Roma civil rights movement. Building on many of these experiences, The City is for All group (founded in 2009) gave new impetus to organized efforts at just housing.

For almost a decade and a half, the aim of The City is for All has been to give a voice to people living in homelessness and housing poverty and to establish an enforceable right to housing. In the early 2010s, about two-thirds of the group’s members were homeless, formerly homeless or had experienced housing poverty, while one third were activists and organizers with stable housing. The group managed on innumerable occasions to stop the eviction of poor families and individuals through legal advice, political pressure or civil disobedience. Via strategic litigation, it also put an end to the arbitrary destruction of self-built shacks by local municipalities and played a key role in reversing legislation that allowed homeless people to use only one drop-in centre a day. In addition to individual and collective advocacy, The City is for All also served as an incubator for other organizations working for housing justice, including the Streetlawyer Association and the From Street to Homes Association.

Beyond these direct achievements, the most important impact of The City is for All was to bring the issue of housing from relative obscurity to the foreground of national and local politics. Not only did the group mount a direct challenge to the efforts of Fidesz to turn homeless people into arch-enemies of the nation, its relentless emphasis on housing as a human right also forced opposition politicians to prioritize housing and commit to policies such as no evictions without alternative placement, the decriminalization of homelessness, and support for social housing. Of course, the question remains as to what we gain by lobbying opposition politicians and parties if they never have a realistic prospect of coming to power and putting these commitments into practice.

Municipalism in Hungary

Discussions about the role of local government and its relationship to national government have been running in Hungary for the past two centuries. In the mid-19th century, centrists and municipalists fiercely debated the best strategy to achieve Hungarian autonomy in the Habsburg Empire. While the centrists believed that Hungary needed a strong national government to be able to assert its rights vis-à-vis Austria, the municipalists wanted to strengthen county and village governance for real local and national self-determination.

After the collapse of the state socialist system, which reduced local municipalities to administrative managers, there were high aspirations for strong local autonomy. A new law on municipalities gave even the smallest villages the right to self-government. Municipalities could elect their own mayor and local assembly members, run their own institutions, levy their own taxes, set their own policies and more. But growing administrative, financial and political restrictions meant that municipalities never fully became effective vehicles of self-governance.

After the takeover of the country by Fidesz in 2010, the central government started to systematically dismantle the vestiges of strong local self-governance, slowly but purposefully depriving municipalities of powers, money and competences. The path of the current regime is clearly towards the slow bleeding out of municipalities, in order to again reduce them to local units of central administration

The version of municipalism popularized internationally by Murray Bookchin in the 1970s and ’80s has recently become an important reference point for a subculture of Hungarian activists. The author of this article was the one of the Hungarian participants to attend the first ‘Fearless Cities’ conference in Barcelona in 2017 and brought home the idea of feminist, progressive, green and participatory municipalities. The School of Public Life, an NGO that promotes the learnings from Barcelona en Comú and the Fearless Cities Network, made it onto the municipalist map created by the European Municipalist Network. The two Our Common City conferences, organized by the School of Public Life in Budapest in 2019 and 2021, were inspired by the Fearless Cities Conference and featured sessions on municipalities as vehicles of social justice. Another conference organized by the Solidarity with Rojava activist group in 2020 about revolutions from Washington to Rojava also featured many municipalist speakers, including a presentation by Debbie Bookchin, the daughter of Murray.

A number of the municipalist ideas and practices from Barcelona made it into the winning mayoral campaigns of 2019, particularly that of Gergely Karácsony in Budapest. The municipality of the Hungarian capital now cultivates intense diplomatic relations with Barcelona, whose town hall is headed by the mayor Ada Colau, elected in 2015 on the municipalist Barcelona en Comú platform.

At a strategic level, cooperation between political parties and locally embedded grassroots organizations and an activist approach to campaigning were important innovations in the opposition’s local election campaigns in 2019. With the old opposition parties having lost their appeal, the new grassroots approach was essential for the victory of unified opposition candidates in many cities and in most districts of Budapest. For a short moment, there seemed to be a chance not only of challenging the total political hegemony of Fidesz, or at least of creating a counterbalance at the local level, but also of the rejuvenation of opposition politics inspired by social movements and grassroots work.

After the 2019 victories, new municipal leaders needed time to figure out how municipalities worked while often facing entrenched, old-fashioned bureaucracies and fierce pushback by Fidesz. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic just six months after the elections made the transition more difficult still. At the same time, Fidesz was tightening its grip on the country, using its parliamentary supermajority to introduce rule by decree, first during the pandemic, then in 2022 on the grounds of the Russian war against Ukraine. Today the country is basically ruled by a state party.

Although the hype around a more inclusive and progressive approach to politics waned after the election victories, some municipalities still show the potential for building counter-hegemony. Especially in bigger cities, there seems to be a turn towards more participatory forms of governance, with various levels of commitment as more and more municipalities experiment with participatory budgeting, among other things.

In some of the newly emerging opposition municipalities, there also seems to be a greater emphasis on sustainability, especially in transport. At the same time, there is no sign of feminism gaining any real entry into local politics, which is a hallmark of western municipalism. Even in the most progressive municipalities, decisions are still made predominantly by men and executed by women and there seems to be little or no effort beyond symbolic gestures to change this situation.

The Budapest 8th district

Despite expert consensus that the housing crisis in Hungary cannot be addressed without the active involvement of the central government, Fidesz believes neither in social housing as a solution, nor in the right of every citizen to dignified housing. As one prominent Fidesz politician put it: ‘everyone is worth as much as they make’.

Despite the endless policy papers and strategies presented to the government by NGOs, not to mention protests and sustained struggle by grassroots advocacy groups, it is clear that for the national government, housing policy equals supporting home ownership. Extravagant amounts of public money have been pumped into supporting the buying of private homes, evenif cheap loans now come with strings attached, such as the obligation to bear children (the so-called childbirth incentive loan equals around €36k and is waived after the birth of the third child).

As a result, municipalities continue to be the scale at which housing policy can still be meaningfully pursued. Even if the opposition victories of 2019 brought no significant changes in housing policies in general, a few new local authorities are attempting to engage with issues of affordability, accessibility and homelessness. Here, public servants and elected politicians already committed to the issue of housing have also led the way in innovations around participation and sustainability.

One example is the 8th district of Budapest. Józsefváros is one of the poorest and most multicultural parts of Budapest, with a significant number of Roma Hungarians, many immigrants and refugees, and an intensifying trend towards gentrification. The district has been a cradle of social justice struggles throughout the 20th century including the workers’ movement, labour unions, the feminist movement and the 1956 revolution. It was also the focal point of the struggle against the criminalization of homelessness in the 2010s.

With more than 4000 public housing units, the 8th district has one of the highest proportions of social housing in Budapest. However, the municipal stock is in a terrible condition. Not only is housing among the top three most important problems identified by local residents (along with public sanitation and public safety), it was also at the top of the current mayor’s election program in 2019.

It took a while for the new Józsefváros municipal leadership to move beyond talking about the need for a socially inclusive and sustainable housing policy and to actually start implementing it. The new administration has had to deal with the deeply rooted culture and institutional setup of its predecessor, which considered social housing as a commodity to be sold rather than maintained for the collective good and regarded social housing residents as second-class citizens.

Around 800 units of publicly owned housing lay vacant in 2019 and some buildings are in an extremely poor condition; many units are still not equipped with toilets. The municipality needs a lot of money for renovation but as an opposition-led local authority, it can only rely on its own resources and cannot expect support from the national government. The Józsefváros municipality has come up with a compromise – one that is certainly not celebrated across the board but seems to be the only viable way forward.

By tearing down and selling residential buildings that cannot be renovated at a reasonable price, the municipality generates enough income to renovate many of the other buildings and individual units, while also providing safe and healthy accommodation to those who need to be relocated. While this will cause the municipal housing stock to dwindle temporarily, the number of vacant units is significantly reduced and living conditions for social housing residents greatly improved. If the municipality manages to stabilize the number and condition of its housing stock, in the long run it can start to acquire or even build new social housing.

One way the municipality intends to increase its housing stock is by launching a social housing agency that incorporates private apartments into the social housing system. There are many controversial aspects to this strategy (tearing down housing instead of renovating it, selling properties to private developers who will further gentrify the district), one thing is certain: after decades of privatization and abandonment, the 8th district is committed to breathing a new life into social housing policy and finding sustainable ways to provide dignified housing for local residents.

Prospects

At the moment, both the housing movement and municipal governance in Hungary face an uphill struggle. The political heart of the housing movement, The City is for All, has recently suspended its community organizing activities and now focuses on direct help and advocacy in individual eviction cases. Other housing organizations such as the From Street to Homes Association, the Streetlawyer Association, or Habitat for Humanity are doing relatively well, but their work focuses more on delivering services than advocacy and especially organizing. This means that the movement risks losing its base and political edge.

At the same time, some members of the housing movement and a few progressive housing policy experts now work for local governments in Budapest and are pushing through important systemic changes in the way housing is maintained, managed and distributed. Some of the movement infrastructure, know-how and people power has therefore been transferred to a small number of municipalities, which turn movement goals into political and practical realities. The challenge for the housing movement is to move beyond these limited achievements and (re)build itself by building a base, training new leaders and becoming strong enough to push municipalities even further and hold them accountable.

A recent development in the 8th district provides a good example for how this dynamic may work. Recently, a local tenants’ association was formed with the mission to organize social housing residents. The group originated in a local Lutheran church and was also initially supported by the 8th district municipality indirectly through an EU grant. The group has gained strength and managed to formulate a collective voice for some of the most important grievances of social housing tenants. Combining different tactics, from research through negotiations to media pressure, the group has got the municipality to listen to its members and take them seriously. New regular meetings with the municipal staff have already had tangible outcomes, such as the creation of new positions for managing tenant complaints and holding regular community forums in municipally owned residential buildings.

While the grassroots push from the outside was essential, these improvements would not have been possible without the creation of two new organizational units within the municipality itself – one specifically dedicated to housing and the other to community participation. This example of the combination of institutional reform and grassroots organizing illustrates the kind of interaction that can develop between a committed and willing municipality and a grassroots group able to provide collective representation. It is a model that could and should be pursued elsewhere.

Municipal elections will be held again in 2024. It will be up to the voters to decide if they want to stand up for the progressive direction some of these municipalities have taken. After the high expectations raised by the 2019 elections, the new opposition municipalities may find it difficult to convince voters to support them again. Partly for reasons for which they are themselves to blame and partly because of the hostile political and economic environment, they have not always been able to accomplish as much as they promised to. Adding to the challenge is that by electing independent or opposition mayors and representatives, municipalities risk being denied financial support and cooperation from the central government, which may further hinder their development.

The 2019 municipal victories were a chance to create a real political alternative to authoritarianism at the local level as well as a political basis for strengthening the democratic opposition. Many municipalities missed this opportunity and got bogged down with everyday management and/or party politics. Others made important, but less visible advances. There are rumours that Fidesz wants not just to centralize the local government system but dismantle it altogether, leaving municipalities with only symbolic powers.

The hegemony of Fidesz can only be challenged through re-democratizing Hungary and creating a political and social alternative that has a tangible and practical impact on people’s everyday lives. To achieve this, progressive municipalities and social movements have very similar tasks ahead of them: building power from below, supporting young people, women and minorities to become leaders, creating working and sustainable communities; pushing for the just redistribution of resources; and, most importantly from a political perspective, learning to work with each other in a strategic and effective way.

Published 23 May 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi / Eurozine

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