Pandemic as the last call for radical change of local housing situation
As noted by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, during a session on the COVID-19 experience, “home has rarely been more of a life or death situation”. We were already facing a major housing crisis before this pandemic. An increasing number of people across Europe were living in precarious housing conditions (from overcrowded or under-standardized dwellings to homelessness), largely the result of the commodification and financialization of what is, in fact, one of our basic human rights. If, however, there was any doubt as to whether housing represents an urgent global political and social topic to address, this pandemic has demonstrated why it is an essential injustice that must be prioritized. Long-term radical changes have to be implemented at all levels – from supranational EU regulation to the hyper-local sets of policies and institutions.
During the last three months, national governments across Europe reacted with measures reduced to a logic of policing quarantines and enforcing isolation, demonstrating their complete ineptitude to deal with conditions that capitalism produces (from weakened public services to housing inequalities). Where some additional measures have temporarily mitigated the economic and social crisis that have occurred (such as postponing the credit payment, lowering rent or temporary moratorium on evictions), these have been focused solely on the lockdown period, ignoring the fact that many such interventions may lead to increased pressure on the housing sector and for precarious and marginalized communities.
The “stay-at-home” campaigns have produced a whole series of secondary concerns. First, what about those who do not have a home to stay at? Or live in poor-quality housing? Or cannot afford even the reduced rent due to pandemic-induced layoffs? Second, what about those who have children or elderly to take care of, but have to work from home as well? Who bears the costs of the domestic (re)production?
The COVID-19 outbreak has brought the relationship between health and housing quality into sharp focus, exposing how vital secure and adequate housing is to good health. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was evident that the precarious living conditions (existing prior to the pandemic) of low-income families corresponded to a susceptibility to various health problems – including the coronavirus. Health vulnerability emerges directly from inadequate living conditions, whether from uncertain tenancies or the deprivation of basic necessities such as clean water, heating, light, fresh air, etc.
A recent piece by Nathaniel Barker focused on the context of the United Kingdom, illustrates sharply how inadequate dwellings affect the health of its tenants. In the first instance, areas with more overcrowded housing have proven to be more prone to the risk of contagion. Furthermore, not only is class a determining factor of contagion, race plays a role too. Whilst “around 2% of white British households experience overcrowding”, Barker notes, “30% of Bangladeshi households are affected – as well as 16% of Pakistani households and 15% of black African households.”
The UK is certainly not the only country to demonstrate this trend. Recognising that self-isolation (the ultimate pandemic prevention strategy) is simply impossible in overcrowded housing, we should look at the Eurostat statistics that show that among EU Member States, almost half the population in Romania (46.3%) were living in overcrowded households in 2018. This was also the case for Latvia (43.4%), Bulgaria (41.6%), Croatia (39.3%) and Poland (39.2%). Although many other countries, such as Serbia, have no reliable statistics, the reality is they have an alarmingly high percentage of population living in under-standardized dwellings. Aside from the question of sufficient living space, precarious living also includes other features, such as sufficient lighting, access to clean water or simply keeping the unit warm enough. As 2018 statistics show, the share of people who could not have access to heating was 34% in Bulgaria, followed by Lithuania (28%), Greece (23 %), Cyprus (22%), Portugal (19%) and Italy (14%).
Despite the lack of comprehensive statistics for Serbia, the coronavirus has made clear that people living in collective centers (for the refugees from 90s wars and internally displaced people from Kosovo), as well as those living in informal settlements or on the streets, were extremely exposed to the risks of virus and further impoverishment. To illustrate this, we can turn to what the Serbian organisation the Initiative for Economic and Social Rights – A11 – states in its most recent report: most of these settlements are not built out of solid materials, almost half of households there have no access to electricity, 39% have no access to drinking water or sewage system, 40% do not have a toilet and a bathroom, while 39% do not have sewage system. Due to restrictions on mobility, as well as the lack of resources, these tenants were prevented from acquiring basic necessities for nutrition and hygiene as prerequisites for maintaining their health.
Even for those living in less dire circumstances, the state of wellbeing and our mental health are linked to our housing conditions. If staying at home makes longstanding inequalities even worse, harmful effects on people’s mental and physical health should be an issue of wider social and political concern. Once (and if) the COVID-19 pandemic does end, the health hazard caused by such housing related deprivation will not stop. Inadequate housing conditions and precarious tenancy will further deteriorate the already fragile health among the vast portions of population, making them even more susceptible to any virus or illness to come.
Home office – conditions and costs of (re)production
Aside from health issues, the pandemic has also revealed the changing relationship between housing and work, with many of us experiencing such intense home-working for the first time. A few weeks after the initial illusion that we will have all the time in the world to finally take control of our lives and achieve that longed for work-life balance, experience of remote work for several weeks, as well as the implied announcements that it could become a “new normal”, brought to the surface intensive discussions and concerns.
The global trend in flexibilization of work has already introduced working from home as one of its strategies, such as the case with platform workers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly enlarged its scale. As the International Labour Organization states, partial or full lockdown measures may have affected over 80% of the global workforce. Not all of them could work from home and have, probably as early as it could be legal (although not necessarily safe) returned to their workplace. On the other hand, among those who could and have worked remotely, it seems that some will permanently re-decorate their home to an office. A widely cited Gartner study conducted with 317 chief financial officers and business finance leaders showed that 74% plan to move their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions after the pandemic ends.
With full awareness that this tendency applies to only part of the global workforce, and that it does not compare to the exploitation of the workers in factories, companies or so-called essential workers (although it could be argued what essential refers to), its nevertheless important to acknowledge the interests that lie behind such a tendency, as well as the possible strategies that will put further structural pressure on the workers. As Vuk Vuković notices in his article “Čuvajte se rada od kuće posle pandemije” (“Watch out for the remote work after the pandemic”), the most immediate consequence of remote working is the erasure of clear borders between the space of leisure and space for work. This will in effect produce the situation of longer effective working hours, since the work cannot be “left at the office.”
Feminist activists and scholars will be the first to warn us, drawing on analysis of unpaid social reproductive work in the home, how the plan to partially or fully transfer work to the home will have a series of detrimental effects. Firstly, there is no doubt that the firms whose workers work remotely will significantly reduce expenditure on office-space (real-estate expenses), associated technology, and the soon to be ‘superfluous’ employees that provide supporting services (IT, maintenance, food preparation, cleaning, etc.). However, such work still needs to be done – only at home – meaning all these features must be provided by the workers themselves. There will have to be a physical space from home that will serve as an office (whether one lives in a one room apartment or a house). Since remote working requires technology, paying for high quality wi-fi will no longer be an option, but a necessity, for those working from home. Provision of food, cleaning and maintenance will be now provided by the workers and their families. Thus, the home as a site of social reproduction through “free” labor will now be even more leveraged, since it will also include care-work during work-time. Needless to say, it is inevitable to refer to the gender imbalance in domestic labor, where women are still considered to be main bearers of such tasks.
The pressure of having a secured housing solution will be even more relevant, once it becomes the very prerequisite of the possibility to work. And how convenient for a system of capitalist production to decrease the fixed capital costs and transfer these production expenses to the already unpaid reproduction ones! Although there might be some reduced costs on the workers’ end (such as the cost of commuting or meals), it will hardly be sufficient to cover all the additional costs that will be produced through the new working mode (such as higher utility bills or better internet at home). Whether firms will cover these additional expenses will be determined solely by effective struggles for worker rights, which themselves have been consistently repressed and even criminalized.
No return to normal
This correlation between the right to health protection and labour rights, on the one side, and housing, on the other, certainly does not exhaust all dimensions of the housing crisis. However, what these points do vividly illustrate is the extent to which the intrusion of neoliberal policy into the housing sector has been deeply hazardous. Furthermore, the recession that awaits us around the corner will additionally worsen conditions, leaving many with even bigger debts and with less opportunities for generating income. It is, therefore, more urgent than ever to fight and ensure the adequate living conditions for all.
This moment offers a unique opportunity to organize and amplify the work that many municipalist movements and collectives are already doing to develop an array of systemic alternatives. Despite the lockdowns and physical distancing measures, local networks all over Europe have continued to support vulnerable social groups creating a basis for future collective mobilization towards more radical political change. However, such change must aim at institutional reorganisation as well as the revision of national and local housing policies. The right to housing cannot be separated from the right to good health, and increasingly the right to work. Rather than isolated policies that address only the worst excesses of an extractive and profit-orientated approach to housing, we need a transformative and universal approach that recognises the right to housing is, in many ways, a right to live.
[Addendum: While this text is being written, the City of Belgrade is in the process of adopting a new ten-year strategy for housing. Our collective, the Ministry of Space, together with four more collectives and movements gathered around the struggle for housing as right (Joint Action Roof, Who Builds the City, A11 – Initiative for Economic and Social Rights and Housing Center), has created an alternative proposition. This includes objectives and measures that aim for the decommodification of the housing sector and to ensure, through different strategies, universal access to affordable and adequate housing. It is on the issue of housing – more than many others – that the local government of Belgrade has the opportunity to break with its history of centralised power detached from communities, and to demonstrate it’s capacity to respond to a needs and rights based vision from below.]
Photo: Architecture of Doom