Dorota Leśniak-Rychlak: Let us begin with a transformational story. When and how did the mortgage loans arrive in Poland and other post-communist countries?
Mikołaj Lewicki: The arrival of mortgage loans in Poland is both a symbolic and a literal marker of the transformation of the entire housing system. You can probably argue with economists and analysts, but I feel strong enough to defend that statement in symbolic terms. Until 1997 – when the Mortgage Act came out – there existed housing loans, but they were granted in a different manner, mainly to housing cooperatives or through housing cooperatives, and the loan was included in the rent of the apartment. In principle, a form of ownership appeared, but it was still cooperative ownership.
Then came the year 1997, and the Mortgage Act was introduced. For the next several years, mortgage loans were not in fact visible in the socio-economic life. They appeared rarely, in specific forms, such as the “Alicja” loan at PKO BP bank, which turned out to be a total failure due to inflation and interest rates. In the years 2002–2003, a version of a foreign currency loan, denominated and indexed to a foreign currency, made its debut. This was not the only form of loan available, but it turned out to be crucial for the future history of credit.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, macroeconomic conditions changed: at the level of public finances, in line with the monetary policy, we managed to reduce the State deficit and its liabilities, and at the same time to stifle demand. Thanks to this, the zloty has become a stable currency with predictable interest rates. We had experienced a major economic crisis and high unemployment. After the stabilization of macroeconomic conditions, the financial sector was willing to offer mortgage loans. But the story of the mortgage loan needs to be related in conjunction with the changes in the Polish housing system. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was not clear which way the latter would go. Various concepts were clashing – one was close to the German system, that is, with incentives to accumulate savings, and with a range of different titles to an apartment: in addition to ownership, there was the rental market, non-commercial i.e. subsidized rent, and social housing. That might have given us a chance to respond to the housing needs of different groups. However, that concept competed against and ultimately lost out to another system, strongly supported at that time by USAID or the World Bank, whose agendas recommended the commodification of housing.
DLR: When did the postulate of housing commodification first appear?
ML: Much earlier than in the 1990s. It was associated with the general trend of neoliberal policy, but in Poland it came to the fore more strongly on the eve of its accession to the European Union, when our country became investment-worthy. The horizon of accession to the European Union was important for three reasons. Firstly, for the stability of the currency and the price of money. Secondly, for the housing issue and its resolution by the State. At that time, the State’s involvement in the housing system in Poland – that includes also the expenditure on housing policy – was limited in order to stabilize public spending, reduce the deficit, and meet the criteria expected by the European Union. Hungary followed a similar trend. Thirdly, Poland’s accession to the European Union was important for real estate investors. Suddenly, we have become a market where you can invest in residential real estate. Commercial real estate had already been globalized and internationalized previously; to this day, lease prices for office space are calculated in euros and dollars.
The year 2004 was important for the housing market, because foreign investors were expected to arrive, and so they did. This fuelled a surge in home prices, the most dynamic in the last thirty years. Even today’s gains are no match for it. Those who were selling or trading apartments at the time were able to generate enormous profits. The “rush code” emerged. The narrative was directed at those who bought their first apartment, in order to live in it: do not delay buying, because housing prices are constantly growing. When weighing our own comfort and standard of living related to income, which also somehow more or less predictably grows, it was necessary to take into account the fact that the more we postpone the purchase of an apartment, the more we will have to pay for it, and the ratio between our income and the costs of the loan can only get worse.
Let us get back to the housing system. In 1997, in addition to the mortgage loan, other solutions were introduced, such as reforms of the housing sector, and experiments with TBSs (Social Housing Associations). It seemed that the rental market would develop in parallel and become competitive to real estate ownership. This was to be ensured by exemptions, various tax solutions that were meant to encourage investing in rental apartments in order to build the stock of those. The plan did not work. All discounts and incentives for private investors have been cut. After 2000, the effects of the transition could already be seen (and the transition itself would end at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century), specifically in decreasing public sector spending on housing, which was radically reduced in 2009 by the liquidation of the National Housing Fund as an institution responsible for the State’s housing policy. The share of housing in the State budget has decreased drastically, which translated into the marginalization of solutions that competed with purely market-oriented ones, focusing on individual ownership and individual investment in property, i.e. primarily the mortgage loan. This is a story about the role of the State in the development of the housing market.
DLR: The last piece of the puzzle is missing, namely the privatization of the housing stock.
ML: We do not fully know the scale of the transfer of property. I found no reliable data to show how many apartments were ultimately privatized, no estimates of their value. We know one thing: the transition had enormous economic consequences. Private apartments appeared on the market, they could be sold, they belonged to someone. The owners could adopt different strategies: to sell the apartment, to exchange it, or to keep it. In a social sense, the privatization of the housing stock played an even greater role: home ownership has become the norm.
Data from the Central Statistical Office of Poland’s household budget surveys show that this norm did not come out of nowhere. We fantasized about living in our own, beautiful, spacious apartment in a new building, while at the same time rental – even market-based – began to be associated with something transitory, related to a specific stage in life, or with a life’s failure. The tenants are either young people, or those whose socio-demographic and financial situation is worse than that of apartment owners.
To sum up: three macro-processes – changes in the financial sector regarding the zloty and macroeconomic stability, the related change in the State’s housing policy, and privatization – led to the situation where the mortgage loan, although it had appeared legally and institutionally back in 1997, only started to play a major role from the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the years 2008–2009, the mortgage credit was already the main actor in the boom in the housing market in Poland, and then in the history of Swiss-franc debtors, emblematic of what was happening with mortgage loans. Then mortgage became naturalized; from the second decade of the twenty-first century onwards, it has entered the horizon of thinking about the future for the majority of young Poles who are becoming independent, starting a family, and looking for a place to live. Young Poles know that a mortgage is practically the only way to acquire an apartment of one’s own, unless you inherit or expect to inherit a flat.
In Poland and in Slovakia, unlike in the other two Visegrad countries, there is an intergenerational transfer of housing, and inheritance is gaining importance as a way to obtain your own apartment. In Hungary and the Czech Republic, it is the norm – or rather a social necessity – to buy a flat. The Polish market is not moving towards the market of active investors who trade in apartments like on the Anglo-Saxon market. We are heading towards polarization: some will indeed enter this kind of business, but at the same time we will see the growing number of people waiting for a flat in the family stock to become vacant, similar to Italy. The latter method of obtaining a place to live has already become relatively popular in Poland. In the population of households, some 10–15 per cent of their representatives from younger age cohorts report the so-called free use. They do not formally pay for the apartment they occupy, meaning that they live in it thanks to family relations. Another dozen or so per cent hope that they will one day inherit an apartment. The process of marketization of the housing sector does not have to end with a flourishing society of speculators. It may well be based on the transfer of property within the family.
DLR: In the People’s Republic of Poland, there was a conviction that an apartment was one’s due (although one had to wait for it for a long time). How did it happen that we stopped seeing housing as our right, and began to perceive it as a commodity, and then as a financial instrument?
ML: Let me indulge in an intellectual exercise here, because this process is yet to be investigated. I’m under the impression that an apartment as commodity is currently legitimized in the discourse. The younger generation are aware that their parents got their flats for free or bought them at low cost, therefore, it had been much easier for them. Now the apartment can be bought or inherited. In terms of buying, there is a growing challenge, as the actual relationship between the earnings and the prices of flats is becoming increasingly unfavourable for buyers. In subjective experience, this means that since I cannot afford an apartment, I simply have to recognize that I must wait for something to become available within the family resource. Such an apartment will not be a commodity; it will be an inheritance – or an inherited property. The above circumstances lead us towards a social order based on the patrimonial principle. The decision by the head of the family – about who inherits what – is of primary importance. Scholars who study this area and deal with the housing sector also write that we are already seeing a trend towards developing a sort of a patrimonial system. Therefore, family ties will certainly be broader, and people will try to control them.
This behaviour is in opposition to the belief that there is a continuous and dynamic process of individualization, meaning that each of us wants to become independent as soon as possible. It seems that the importance of family ties in Polish society will continue to grow. We have two Polands: one tries to individualize, become independent, go on its own; and the other is unable to do so, it lives by the hope of inheritance.
DLR: You write a lot in your book about the importance of family ties also among people who decide to take out a loan. You have devoted much space to the family’s support in raising one’s own contribution to the loan, taking care of one’s children, or financial assistance in purchasing furniture. About the title of your book “The Social Life of a Mortgage” – I’d like to ask you, to which extent is the mortgage experience a social experience? How does it affect society? What group of Poles does it concern?
ML: It must be clearly spelled out that the percentage of credit recipients is not that high – and if we were to stick to the data, it would be difficult to claim that mortgage is important for the entire housing production and distribution system. In 2018, in a representative survey by Eurostat, 11.7% of households declared that they were recipients of a mortgage loan. In this respect we are far behind Spain, where every second household is repaying such a loan. Two things must be taken into account: the increasing number of credit recipients, and the lack of alternative forms of title to an apartment, including a rental contract. The Platforma Obywatelska (Civic platform party) government towards the end of their term in office, too late realized the necessity for the existence of home rental market. After the financial recession, it was already made clear that mortgage loans alone would not solve the housing problem – but now the second decade of the twenty-first century was coming to an end, and no programs had been launched that would have given the rental market a strong boost. The lack of alternatives means that the credit market has been growing dynamically all the time.
The second issue concerns the normative level: the ownership of a flat is evidence of social status, of the fact that we have a predictable life trajectory – no longer as individuals but as families. Loans for home purchase in Poland are mainly taken out by couples, and so people burdened with credit are sending a signal to the society about what stage of life they are at, and what their plans are for the future. In this sense, the mortgage radiates much wider.
A study by Marta Olcoń-Kubicka and Mateusz Halawa – systematic research, albeit not yet covering the entire population – shows that there has been a normativisation, related not only to those who take out a mortgage. The wedding custom of gifting the bride and groom an envelope with money towards their own contribution is a certain social norm. One of the reasons that people get married and put on a wedding is because along with the ceremony, there comes a chance to collect money for their own contribution towards the loan, creating conditions in the family circle that will support endeavouring to acquire property.
DLR: You are writing about household debt in your book. How would you explain what it is, exactly, in the context of the configuration of global capitalism?
ML: Research shows a steady trend in household debt. It did not arrive with the transition and the advent of neoliberalism; it had started earlier, but we only now understood its nature. The banks’ portfolios show that the value of loans to individual households is growing proportionally to the loans granted to entrepreneurs. In the global trend, household debt begins to affect the configuration of the financial sector. Banks are slowly ceasing to be the resource and the player that develops the production sector, and their customers are individual households who are not so much saving money, but getting into debt. We must remember that household debt is integrated into institutional systems. For instance, the debt of the entire Dutch society, which is higher than the country’s GDP, does not mean that the poor, indebted society must take out loans in large amounts. Note that households are getting into debt because they are encouraged to invest in the market. This phenomenon has been typical of the last twenty years; Poland and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have become part of it, and the political and economic transition in the region has coincided with the dynamics of this process. The most emblematic examples of this tendency are the stories of Ireland and Spain, the two countries that have modernized themselves thanks to EU accession and globalization. Modernisation was coupled with financialisation, and the development of those countries largely resulted from the relationship between the financial sector and the housing sector. Homes have become “high-quality collateral”. Housing investments, in addition to meeting the housing needs of the Spaniards and the Irish, secured the capital needed to generate capital in the financial markets. Apartments are needed to dynamically develop financial market instruments that have nothing to do with housing, or borrowing for housing purposes. This changes the logic of the relationship between supply and demand.
When we think about why mortgage credit market grows, we usually primarily consider housing needs. People have to satisfy these needs somehow, so they buy apartments on the market. We wish they had another choice, another option. The situation in Spain and Ireland was different in the way that they already had a developed and privatized housing stock. Agents and financial brokers would accost ordinary people, and use hard-sell techniques to peddle credits. They presented loans as a unique opportunity, cheap money, a great investment, and a way to earn money. They did this because banks needed the security of these forms of capital.
DLR: So some kind of fictional narrative was created…
ML: The idea was to find credit recipients who would hedge more important and more profitable financial instruments. That is why no one thought much about the terms of mortgage loans, or analyse whether they were safe, whether they met the actual needs, whether the construction of housing made sense. At some point, it all ceased to matter.
The whole phenomenon of “ghost cities” in Spain and empty quarters in large towns of Ireland is due to that rush, that bandwagon. Construction was not about providing saleable and attractive flats. Instead, flats were built as a collateral against more substantial capital.
DLR: Why is an apartment a good collateral for the bank?
ML: Banks assume that the value of an apartment will always grow. The apartment has a material aspect, i.e. it is inalienable. There will be tenants. Also, we need to remember that – contrary to what might seem – the financial market operates according to stereotypes, representations, and fantasies. Investors are guided not only by numbers, but also by beliefs and intuitions. Hence the speculative manias. For a long time, the political and economic system followed one simple rule: let us separate ordinary people, with their ordinary needs and the pursuit of their fulfilment, from the financial sector where investors earn serious money. They are prepared for that, they know the risks, and so they protect themselves. It wasn’t until 1980s in the United States, and then in Europe in the process of market integration (primarily financial markets), that the idea of linking the two was conceived – because it would facilitate the creation of instruments involving mortgage loans for individual people – a specific Spaniard who wished to buy an apartment to move in, or to invest – with an investor in Wall Street or in Madrid who intended to speculate. The combination of these two created an explosive mixture – or rather, a narcotic drug – and now it is difficult to back away from it.
DLR: It caused the crisis of 2008, and yet the system persists…
ML: Nothing extraordinary happened within that system. We can expect that since Poland – a country in Central and Eastern Europe – has already become globalized, it will also be involved in the process. Poland’s situation is slightly different from that in the Western European countries that I mentioned earlier: we do not have surplus capital here, meaning that agents are not looking for potential credit recipients to generate more capital. In Poland, banks grant mortgage loans because they earn their rates of return as well as the interest rate they charge on the loan. The real estate market is not liquid enough. There is a shortage of properties that change hands quickly, so the market is not attractive enough for the type of operations that have been conducted in Spain.
DLR: Does this mean that the “wall of money” does not work in our country? You wrote about this – let us explain what it is.
ML: In Poland, the “wall of money” does not work in the same way as in the aforementioned Western countries. The basic problem of the global financial sector is capital surplus, meaning that it has a lot of money generated by successive financial operations, and is looking for new sources of profit. Inevitably, these sources are increasingly risky – after all, how many options are there to invest in a predictable way, with a good rate of return? And rates of return must be preserved. Consequently, risky investments are secured by financial products that appear to be more secure – such as the promise of future, consistent mortgage payments. On the other hand, progressively more risky investments are being sought. For an investment banker, the “wall of money” means that although he may have safe investments in his portfolio, they will not achieve his primary goal of increasing the rate of return, or at least maintaining it at the current level. Surplus money has to be employed somehow. During the financial crisis, it was transferred to Central and Eastern Europe.
The search for new sources of profit gave the main impetus to increase the share of mortgage lending in the region. We are talking about the years 2004–2008, but it continued beyond that period, only with different dynamics. Banks withdrew loans partially due to the recession and its effects. For example, in Hungary, the financial crisis had much greater repercussions, it turned into a social crisis, both due to the effects of the economic collapse, the crash of the financial sector, the collapse of investments, and also in the aspect of mortgage loans denominated in foreign currencies. Hungary – and Croatia as well – incurred more severe social costs of credit loans than Poland did.
After 2008, it quickly turned out that mortgage loans, especially those denominated and indexed to a foreign currency, known as “foreign currency loans”, are simply a dangerous tool. Because of them, there is a growing group of people who have already gone bankrupt or may soon go bankrupt. As a result, there is a growing pressure to do something about these loans, or to call them by a different name, institutional and financial regulations notwithstanding. In Hungary and in Croatia there has been a shift transforming the importance of the mortgage loan. Orbán called the banking sector the “foreign capital”, and announced a payback for driving so many Hungarians to the brink of bankruptcy, or to the actual bankruptcy and losing their homes. He got the State and the public sector involved in solving the problem, but shifted part of the costs of resolving the Swiss franc issue to global banking networks. In Croatia, on the other hand, a strong consumer movement has led to a turning point in court proceedings.
In Poland, we have not experienced a transformation of the significance of a mortgage loan. It is still socially legitimate – implying that it is considered the main, even the only way of obtaining property. True enough, we know the history of Swiss franc debtors, but frankly, it is not teeming with social drama. Instead, it illustrates the risks involved. It tells us: “you are entering dangerous ground”, rather than “someone has done us harm”. The Swiss franc credit recipients are constantly trying to be heard in the public sphere, so far unsuccessfully. I believe that the problem has become “juridized”, that is, the claims were transferred from the political sphere – in which we say: “banks acted dishonestly” (the categories of justice and injustice can be seen in Orbán’s discourse) – to the sphere of courts and lawyers, decided case by case. Orbán took advantage of the topic politically, but he also politicized the whole problem, theoretically financial and economic one; he said that it was unfair, and the relationship with the banks had to be changed. Society in Poland does not wonder: something has happened here, there is a large social group involved, and we cannot lay all the blame on these people. We let it slide, in a similar way as we let the re-privatization slide.
DLR: What are the social and spatial consequences of mortgage credit? How is space created as a result?
ML: Researchers dealing with urbanization agree that without the mortgage credit, we would not have experienced the same dynamic suburbanization as the last two decades had seen. The faster the prices and the demand in the housing market grow, the greater the tendency towards suburbanization. Flats are becoming more expensive, especially in city centres, and so are loans – therefore, we settle further from the centre, in worse locations. This is quite an obvious correlation. I’m talking about big cities. The situation is a bit different in lesser towns, where the market is smaller, the prices are not so high, and there is more space. It is a simple derivative of the land value and investment opportunities of individual credit recipients. Few people can afford to live in the city centre. Increasingly luxurious investment projects are being built there, which are often the subject of speculation, in other words, real estate trade.
Let us start getting used to the sight of vacant buildings and flats; indeed, they will be more common in the city centre than on the outskirts. Flats purchased for investment purposes, for long-term or short-term rental will fall victim to that phenomenon. In Warsaw, more than half of the apartments are bought with cash, and this is while the prices are rising. It is not some money pulled out of a mattress. The buyers pulled the money out of their previous investment in an apartment, and put it into a new one. There is even a name for such manoeuvres: flipping. Small entrepreneurs speculate in the housing market in the short term, and they are among the drivers of prices. They are crowding out those who want to buy a flat to live in and start a family. The latter are left with lower standard housing outside the city centre. The cities are developing extensively.
Along with the dynamic suburbanization, there grows a heterogeneous, less valued space, burdened with higher risk from the developers’ point of view. Individual, small developers are starting to dominate within it. This is an important signal for all architects and town planners. Suburbanization is not about purchasing large tracts of land by large investors who decide to build a large-scale housing estate near the city and we cannot assume that what they build will be a logical, rational urban or suburban structure, with a high degree of density, but relatively comfortable. Comfort-related requirements are growing: people want apartments, plus a gym, and a space for themselves. Large real estate developers take this into account at the planning stage, but in the suburbs, that is in the areas with the highest dynamics, small-scale concerns tend to dominate. The latter work in the short term; they wish to build and to sell right away. They do not need to create a brand. There are so many suburban areas that if the investment project does not work out in one part of the city, they can simply move to another part. The implications are simple: a standard of housing that is not too high, fairly low expectations as to the integration and blending of the project into the surroundings, shifting costs onto the future tenants – because this is about short-term profit. Yes, the fault lies with the developers, but also with the local authorities. The latter encouraged people to settle in suburban municipalities, because they wanted more tax revenues, and they did not care much about the urban composition.
The process will continue. Growing expectations of the residents mean that the market may become a bit more civilized, that is to say, investments of a higher standard will be created, but it is not a given. Investors do not think in terms of creating an urban fabric, which is best demonstrated by the notorious gates and fences. I think the developer uses them to clearly show the residents how far his power extends. This generates the kind of urban composition that triggers conflict. Inevitably, in this chaos, functionally divergent spaces arise, and the people who live there have to deal with that somehow.
DLR: Ultimately, they self-organize in their own ways. You studied these processes with Joanna Kusiak in the context of the development of Białołęka. Now I would like to address the social function of credit, its contribution to creating social stratification and distinction. In your book, you invoke Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase: the “choice of the necessary”. Mainstream media have been feeding us beautiful stories about choosing an apartment, and then furnishing it according to our status or our aspirations. It is only hard data – or the very fact of the mortgage – that reveals to what extent the housing situation is determined by creditworthiness or the lack thereof.
ML: “Choice of the necessary” was coined to describe the basic experience of the lower class. Of course, Pierre Bourdieu created an oxymoron. While we experience something as an option, we are actually deprived of any choice. In theory, we can buy an apartment or not buy it. We can do it with someone, or we can do it on our own. We can buy a cheaper or a smaller flat. We ourselves decide whether we include another room for a child, although this will cost us more, or whether we stick with a safe option, just one room and a kitchen. People rarely notice that their choices are embedded in a certain logic that led them to the fact that, for example, they do not think of long-term rental as a viable option for an extended period of time. The dimension of aspirations is important in this context. The market of apartments for rent offers a low level of security and comfort of living. Rental dominates: it is expensive, mainly due to limited supply, therefore it does not present an attractive alternative to ownership; also, its conditions are mostly determined by the landlord. As flats to rent are in short supply on the market, ownership remains the only option, while rental is a temporary condition. And so: the waiter hands you the menu, you are hungry, but you can only choose salad. Sure, there are various ingredients to choose from, but you cannot order any other dish.
So far, our career opportunities, and thus our social and economic status, our social position and our earnings, have been determined by our profession. I believe that a second order is growing around us, in which housing becomes as important a resource as the profession. Consequently, a mortgage is used as the primary leverage that allows us to possibly climb higher up the ladder, and therefore the functioning of the mortgage market is of paramount importance.
Sociology used to believe that one’s profession was a derivative of how the market develops. Today we could say that credit places you in a specific class division. If you manage to buy a good flat cheaply, in a good location, and at the same time you get attractive credit conditions, then you are a winner on the market. We know from research that apartments in the suburbs are usually bought by those who were not able to afford buying one in the centre, and furthermore they had low creditworthiness, so they had to pay more for the loan. These people are therefore potentially the most exposed to a possible turmoil resulting from the change in the status of their property (as its value may decrease), and if their source of income is unstable, they may find it difficult to repay the loan.
DLR: Added to this is the role of the State in creating housing policy. In the post-transition period, the State supported the activities of developers and banks through the so-called housing programs.
ML: This logic is striking in its simplicity. In 2009, the boom on the housing market ended, as the availability of mortgage loans denominated in foreign currencies was declining, and ultimately reduced. At that time, the government program was gaining pace, called “Rodzina na Swoim” [Family in their own home], which de facto consisted in subsidising loans to support individual investments in home ownership. A similar program, “Mieszkanie dla młodych” [Flat for the young], continued regardless of changes in the government. Some will say that we have a consensus on the housing issue, in that it is increasingly market-oriented, while others will complain: we submitted to powerlessness. The State cannot solve the problem, although we know that with private property alone it is impossible to meet the housing needs of Polish people.
Recently, I have been thinking about the housing issue in a demographic context. The population was shrinking rapidly even before the pandemic. When was Polish demography in the black? This was immediately after the boom on the housing market in the 1980s. Towards the end of the 1970s, the People’s Republic of Poland produced two hundred and twenty thousand flats per year. We remember that these were substandard flats (and we still find the “Alternatywy 4” comedy TV series funny today), but they were also more accessible. Soon after, there was a demographic boom. It allowed us to enter the transition with an important resource pool: of people entering the labour market. Currently, in the studies among young Poles, we can find declarations about attachment to family values, and I would read them not only in the context of fantasies about creating a wonderful family, but also in the context of the resources that the family brings with it. The respondents also report that what they need the most is housing. We can already see how dramatic this problem can be.
There is a danger that we will follow the Spanish scenario. In Spain, private property was not firmly rooted – but at one point the State, ruled by the dictator Franco, figured out how to promise the people that they would become “a better sort”. He turned to tenant-owned housing, in order to make owners out of workers. The same process in Poland was initiated by the privatization of apartments. Spain was financialised: the society of landlords then entered the global financial circuit, and in a short time we had five hundred thousand “sidewalk” evictions. The situation in Poland may evolve in a similar direction. The other dimension of the class question is social reproduction. Clearly, at some point in their lives, young people face a barrier that makes them postpone the decision to start a family until they feel secure enough. Recently, I have noticed that people who think about housing also think about retirement. When the pension system collapses, it is only one’s own apartment that will provide financial comfort and security in the old age. This raises questions about other elements of the welfare state.
DLR: The stories about the relationship between the financial markets and the individual fates of the people in Central Europe inevitably lead to the conclusion that the new system, colloquially speaking, is evil. Empty housing shells are created in city centres under the guise of building actual housing, while people are being pushed out into a hostile environment. Overzealous pouring of concrete, pathological real estate development. In my observation, the housing estates of the last decade are even more optimized in terms of profit; now developers only think in terms of Excel sheets. Is it possible to somehow unscrew the tight neoliberal system, to explore alternative paths?
ML: I want to make it clear that I am not demonizing the mortgage as a certain solution, which provides people with a home of their own. The point is that it should have its place within the institutional system – rather than being the only option, with no alternatives.
DLR: Is the operation of financial markets and the treatment of housing as a resource for the production of financial instruments not equally problematic?
ML: Although there is a lot of talk about how dysfunctional this relationship is, at the same time both particular interests and the above-mentioned ideologies, coupled with the relative weakness of nation-states, mean that criticism does not lead to actual change. Joe Biden and Barack Obama purportedly said that the financial sector is terrible and that they wanted to do something about it, but nothing has happened. Before financialisation, there was a ban on combining investments in the financial market with the capital of individual bank customers, including credit recipients. Nobody brought back that restriction.
We will not change this. We can exert social pressure towards better living standards, but again we will run into a big problem. I can imagine a reformed order at the local level – that is, increasingly better organised cities. I can imagine regulations that will reduce the amount of “wild”, uncontrolled urbanization.
There is a growing group of people who are aware that quality of life does not end with one’s own apartment and the fence around one’s own property or neighbourhood. The number of aware citizens holding local governments accountable and making demands will grow – so far, I am observing that in particular districts of Warsaw – but this does not mean that their demands will translate into demands towards the State as a national organism. I do not feel particularly optimistic. I believe that such big changes only happen as a result of crisis events. We will probably start to think differently about housing and lease under the influence of the coronavirus pandemic. Some time soon we will witness the bankruptcies of speculators on the housing market, we will see how many apartments remain vacant in the middle of the city.
At the same time, I am under no illusion that this crisis can improve the lot of young people. Researchers need to look at a broader context. Currently, protests of young people, organized for various reasons, are considered separately, case by case. At the discourse level, we do not see any connection between the protests of young entrepreneurs and the Women’s Strike. Meanwhile, in the experience of individuals, they all blend in with the question of life opportunities, next to the mortgage and the housing issue. I see the multitude of movements in which young people engage as part of a certain social process, although I do not believe that the State or the politicians will begin to change the system and to make it rational. PiS failed to launch the housing agenda as a rental program. This shows that even if someone comes with meaningful program ideas and makes the first moves: passing legal acts, establishing new institutions, at some point they end up running out of steam.
DLR: Can the slogan and the belief that housing is a right, and not a commodity reappear in public discourse? Do you see an opportunity for such discussion and such values to break through to the mainstream media?
ML: The importance of the mainstream is decreasing. Young journalists come along and they create space for other types of language and ways of expression. I think that, among other things, the pandemic, the experience of life’s instability, the importance of where you live, will accelerate the process of realizing that the logic of individualization must be replaced by some form of solidarity. Of course, I do not mean solidarity of quasi-patrimonial order, based on inheritance and the reproduction of inequality. Disputes over the city space will break out as well, and all this will be in line with a language alternative to the discourse of individualization (read: privatization).