A Város Mindenkié: resisting homelessness and housing crisis in Hungary

A Város Mindenkié, in English The City is for All, was established in 2009 to advocate for housing rights in Hungary. Homeless people, those experiencing housing poverty and their allies, work together to overcome homelessness in Hungary by campaigning for social housing policies and for a homeless care system and by fighting against the discrimination and stigmatization of homeless people.

What is The City is for All’s mission?

Our initial mission was to be an advocacy group where homeless people would work together with activists who have housing. Later, the housing poverty focus shifted towards other groups facing housing struggles, and now we also deal with evictions, gentrification and try to look at the big picture, so I would say that form working on homelessness we expanded to the housing crisis as a whole. Currently, we focus on two campaigns, one is anti-evictions, and the second on ways out of homelessness. These are our two main strategic focuses, but if you check our website news sections, you will see many updates on the criminalization of homeless people as, since October 15th 2018, most current topic in homelessness.

Apart from these two campaigns, The City is for All also set up other separated organizations, one is Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület, in English From the Streets into Housing, with which we try to provide social houses for families breaking out from homelessness. There were many concepts on how to implement renovation of houses, one was that the tenants who live in a rundown flat could renovate it so that they could reduce the value of the worked from their rents. But now, we renovate empty apartments and reuse them into social housing. We negotiated with municipalities to get access to vacant flats, and in exchange for their renovation, we get 5 years contracts for the users. Now, we handle a stock of 23 flats in Budapest and the tenants are all families that were homeless people, touching on another aspect of The City is for All’s political activism and it addresses the lack of proper social rentals available for poorer people.

Közélet Iskolája, in English School For Public Life is also part of The City is for All network, and it does training for people who would like to become activists and stand up for themselves. For its first five years, it was focusing on The City is for All homeless activists, providing different training for homeless people and allies, such as English, computer classes, and lessons on how to schedule and organize things. Later, The School For Public Life generalized all this knowledge and shares it other vulnerable groups.

The third group is Street Lawyers, it was also founded inside The City is for All and it also operates now as an independent organization now offering volunteer legal support for people in need. Street Lawyers’ activity started in 2010 when volunteer lawyers from The City is for All went every Friday afternoon to Blaha Lujza Square, meeting point for many homeless people in Budapest, and offered legal advice to those in need. This action grew into a self-standing legal entity of volunteering lawyers who help not only homeless people but take housing cases to court, deal with evictions and have a line for people punished by the new Criminalization law.

Last, there is also a The City is for All branch operating in Pécs, medium-size city in Southern Hungary.

March for the right to housing. Photo by Csoszó Gabriella.
Why is there such a big gap in public housing in Hungary?

We have to date the housing crisis back to the political transition time. During the Communist era, private property was communized and therefore it was in the State’s hands and handled locally. Because of the socialist economy plan, Hungarian cities used to have huge factories set up by the State and, as there were not sufficient houses to accommodate workers, the State also set up workers shelters. With the political transition, at the beginning of the ’90s, there was a huge economic crisis, most of these factories closed down and many workers lost their jobs and therefore their houses. At the same time, the privatization of public housing started, and it has never stopped since: people could buy the rented flats where they were living for a below market price and this is how many people became a homeowner in Hungary. Even today, 90% of the population lives in an own proprietary, 9% lives in market rentals and only 1% can live in a social rental. Back then, only the people not living in rental and those who couldn’t afford even the submarket flat price, didn’t buy a house. As the better-off tenants were living in better conditions, with the privatization, the segment of population which remained in municipality rentals were the people with bad financial conditions in the worse flats.

We contributed to a study written for Habitat for Humanities, an international housing organization which also has an office in Budapest. In this graph, you can see the Hungarian housing expenses: red section is homeless shelters, the brown section is municipalities housing stock, the dark brown is about saving people with crashed loans, green represents other social elements of housing expenses, and the blue ones are housing expenses not socially bound.

Analysis of the housing expenses in Hungary. Graphic by Habitat.hu.

As you can see from the graph, out of all housing expenses just a smaller scale is being spent on social issues. The other thing is that the total housing expenses are not high, only about 1.5% of social expenses are on housing, and this is 0,3% share of the GDP expenses, a very low ratio.

Analysis of the privatization of housing in Hungary. Graphic by Habitat.hu.

Regarding privatization, in the second chart you can see the second era of privatization in Hungary: the grey line shows the total amount of municipality housing stock; the light blue lines show the number of crashed loans are being assisted by the government after the mortgage crisis of 2008.

The big privatization was supposed to finish by 1996, but you can see how the housing privatization still goes on today. In the post-privatization era the State owned houses halved and the number of is decreasing constantly: this means that each municipality is selling these apartments on their own without following a plan. The situation didn’t change much since the ‘90s, and there have been no housing policies from the government ever since, nor we have ever had a ministerial representative for housing issues in Hungary.

Which are the main causes of homelessness in Hungary?

There are few main causes of homelessness. First, there are few public houses available in Hungary, the total number of 4 million flats in Hungary and out of them only 2% are available for public use and also out of this small stock there are many flats empty, but another problem is that they are not distributed regularly across the country and some municipality have none public housing stock, so if a household cannot afford a market rental then they have nowhere to turn to for supported housing possibilities and can become homeless.

Not only it is easy to slip into homelessness, but once one is there, even if working hard, there is no way of breaking out from it. One of the main problems in the homeless care system is that there are not enough shelter places for homeless people. There are not exact numbers measuring the number of homelessness but some statistics are available. Officially, there are 11.000 shelter places but the number of the people in need for a shelter is above it. We estimate about 30.000 homeless people living in the country and many of them are not getting social care or social work.

The homeless care system is organized on layers of intervention: the first layer is the homeless streets system which contains streets social workers visiting people on the street, in the next level people go to crisis shelters, accessible night only at night and without belongings. These are the only homeless shelters accessible for free, but they don’t allow people to stay in a fixed space because they have to check in every evening. In the following layer, homeless people can rent a bed and a cupboard in a room for a monthly fee, for the total of one – two years. The homeless shelter fee is around 30.000 HUF (about €100), much below market price, but the next step would be to move to market rental which takes much more money because of double rental, furniture and moving in costs, deposit. Because there are no further steps, and no housing allowance people can’t leave the homeless care system. As you can see from the social expenses, the government doesn’t have a strategy on social housing policies and there isn’t a housing stock available for homeless people and for struggling households. Moreover, the gap between rental markets and below market municipal rentals is becoming bigger and bigger.

How was homeless people criminalization introduced in Hungary? What changed with the new law issued on October 15th, 2018?

The first Criminalization law was launched in 2012, but the Constitutional court deleted it and in 2013 the Fidesz government voted the possibility of criminalization up to the Constitution so that the Constitutional Court couldn’t delete it again. The law issued in 2013 gave local municipalities the possibility of issuing local bills that would exclude homeless people from specific areas of the city or send them to social labor. Some municipalities issued local bills against homeless people, but most didn’t and there were no also many offenses registered so this means that they were not pushing it through. What changed with the bill issued in October 2018 is that instead of having municipalities deciding, homeless penalization has been written as a law in the Parliament: the bill was implemented at a higher level of law, compulsory in the nation. The government also created new legal assets only used in such cases, such as the oral warning of the offenders so the policeman is the only one to register the legal warning. Street Lawyers are dealing with this issue more in depth and they also help homeless people prosecuted by the new bill: only during the first week of criminalization, they registered 193 cases.

Protest in front of the Hungarian Parliament. Photo by Csoszó Gabriella.
How does The City is for All operate?

The City is for All is not a registered organization, but an independent advocacy group. We have an activists core of 35 people, few hundreds volunteers and a few thousands supporters. The activists core decides on strategies and sets up calls for actions to which the volunteers take part by helping in the organization of, for example, marches or petitions; the supporters attend the events or sign the petitions and support us.

We have two weekly meetings, one is a planning meeting with the core activists group and then we have one meeting for each campaign open to everybody. Each meeting has coordinators and moderators and strict participation rules (to raise the hand, to talk in order, be concise) which are useful because sometimes we have 10 participants but other times 30 people come and it is important that everyone has a chance to talk. We encourage people with housing needs or people who recently came to take part by letting them speak first, so we have ways of empowering those who are less likely to share their opinion. We also train newcomer to become coordinators and we train people so they can moderate these meetings, at the moment I am coordinating one of the campaign meetings and it’s quite a job. We also have strategic planning meetings, every summer, and winter we go for three days to set up the strategy for the next half a year making a wide schedule that helps us as a guide for the weekly planning meetings, which are just few hours long.

How do you finance The City is for All?

The City is for All can’t access European fundings because it is not a legal entity, so it asks for donations from supporters, while From the Streets into Housing is funded by the European Union Direct Access grant because the Hungarian government doesn’t fund us. From the Streets into Housing provides the legal entity for The City is for All which maintains independence. Between the two organisations

there is a clear distinction: The City is for All does the grassroots, public, advocacy actions while From the Streets into Housing does service provision advocates with decision makers, influences changes on the local municipal bills to support homeless people in getting into the municipality propriety. Both of us are engaged in advocacy, but The City is for All works on a bigger picture of the housing crisis and From the Streets into Housing works and advocate specifically on getting houses. We also keep its separate bank account, but our association does the accounting and the contracts.

We imagine ourselves as a family of three organizations: The big one is The City is for All, then there is From the Streets into Housing, we overlap a lot with The City is for All (we provide them with a bank account and some activists and volunteers are the same for both organizations); Street Lawyers who are also tied to the family as they take the cases of many The City is for All activists, they provide legal advice for actions and legal background for our advocacy; The City is for All at Pécs is connected with The City is for All in Budapest but not with the others; School for Public Life provide training for The City is for All but they are not bond with the other two.

How do you think the homeless care system should change?

We believe in a long-term plan for integration and rehabilitation of homeless people and in an improvement in social housing. In Hungary, there are housing expenses but they are not socially bound.

Big part of the housing expenses is the family allowance on housing, which is for people you already in better financial situations. This is a support for families to buy a house when they have three children, stable income and a share to invest in the flat. Anyhow, the total share of expenses of housing remains still low. The Fidesz government is reaching out for a picture of the enemy and working on dividing society and erase solidarity between social groups and there is also a right-wing theory that says that only worthy people should receive help, so there are many financial, political and ideological reasons behind their strategy. But even if we only consider the financial aspects, not creating a homeless care system is short sighted.

We registered a positive results from our work with From the Streets into Housing: over 90% of our the tenants, who are all breaking out from homelessness, are keeping their houses and they pay rent. Of course, we also need crisis shelters in case somebody loses their house, but this should just be a small part of a homeless care system. Until today, the Hungarian government has been only pouring little money on the homeless shelters. If they would start into a long-term plan for integrationand rehabilitation of homeless people, the expenses could even out in the future. We believe in this, and studies show that investing in social housing is worthy.

Interview with Vera Kovács, Budapest, November 2018.