Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Squatters & Vile Estate Developers

In August 1980, when I was just a small child, my family did a big tour of Western Europe, made easier by relatives in the Netherlands. When we visited Amsterdam, I remember we got in the middle of a big protest or what - I saw water guns holding crowds at bay and riot police hovering on crane platforms beside a house.

Two decades later I tracked down the bit of history I was an underage witness of: it was the 19 August storming of the Prins Henderikkade ("PH-kade") building, one of the last battles between the kraaker (squatters) occupying empty old buildings, and police enforcing the property rights of vile estate developers. Estate developers who'd keep the houses empty and let them go crap, so that they can tear them down and build expensive new buildings. My parents remember talking to a far-leftist on-looker, who upon learning that we are from Hungary, said that such housing problems must be unknown to us in our social security.

Well, now that was a bit ridiclulous: in the "shortage economy" of late 'real existing socialism', one had to wait years for a house, flat or a building permit; if building on their own (like we did) construction took at least half a decade; and the dictature's idea of social housing was Soviet-style ten-story concrete silos where you can hear your neighbours across the wall, where it is always too hot (either due to the Sun or crappy central heating), and where families whose houses were razed for these monsters found flats with maybe half the area. I don't know if there was a silly hidden policy behind this to force-create the egalitarian-minded socialist man, or (more likely) was it just the usual blind technocrat operation ("we can make X tons of concrete & Y meters of pipes, & the five-year plan foresees Z new flats"). At any rate, the result was rather the creation of the anti-social man: the inhabitant who cares shit about neighbours or the common stairway interest, even if he gets back the same treatment.

However, then came our shiny new capitalist world.

Construction of social housing fell almost to zero. Repeating the mistakes of the West, and that in accelerated fashion, middle+upper class suburbanisation and inner-city (+ concrete silo orbit-city) ghettoisation was allowed without limits. (Ironically, in my city Budapest, this process stopped itself about five years ago: while barely maintained commuter trains were too dirty for the suburbanites, radial roads within the city just couldn't swallow their cars each morning - fed up with traffic jams, many started to move back.)

And in place of bulldozer-minded apparatchniks, now we also have the vile estate developers. The vilest of course are those employing the so-called Apartment Mafia: first tricksters pretend to be from some authority, let people sign papers that turn out to be documents stating they sell their house - and after the tricksters come the (sometimes fake, other times real) lawyers and security guys who do the eviction. But let's turn to 'legal' businessmen. Among them, even the smallest estate sharks show a level of recklessness and arrogance outstripping old Party anti-capitalist propaganda. Two examples:

Near where I work, a developer wanted to build an office block. They bought an empty parcel still not built up since WWII, and the neighbouring old house - which was under heritage protection. After much squabble, they got a permit to rebuild the inside of the old house, keeping structural walls and the facade. What they did then was to start construction of the office block's basement in such a way that the empty shell of the old house got destabilised - they had to tear it down before collapse. Then it was revealed that construction started already with the old plans (new office block on both parcels). This created such an outrage that the developer was forced to build a replica of the old facade onto his office block... and now the building stands empty: the whole construction was a speculative scam, there wasn't sufficient market for offices.

A much lesser fish but even more brazen was the guy who ran a small restaurant in a rented state-owned building beside the Citadel (a 19th-century Habsburg fort). One day he decided he needs an extension - and started to build without a building permission, without informing either the owner or the heritage commission, across terrain filled with history from the Celts through Romans and Avars to WWII... When the heritage commission took notice, even when the press took notice, he said fuck y'all - and built on. At the point when the opposition started to blame this on the government, he should have known money into pockets and creating facts won't be enough - yet he (he!) went to court, claiming his building permit took too long...

Yeah these two failed, but these are the exceptis caught up by the media, while hundreds of other cases fall under the radar and hence succeed. (I know some.)

What I can proudly announce now is the appearance of a counter-movement, a latter-day Budapest version of the kraaker, inner city youths who organise protests and even some squatting. I may report more on them in the future via a relative who knows some of them.


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