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Housing as a Field of Social Reproduction and Struggle for Housing Justice in Romania

by ENIKŐ VINCZE [1]

We publish an article written by scholar and activist Eniko Vincze (Căși sociale ACUM!/ Social housing NOW! – Bloc for housing) after the webinar ‘(Post)pandemic struggles in social reproduction”, available here. The text, which was originally published on LevFem website, focuses on housing conflicts in Romania as a crucial part of the struggles in social reproduction which have been taking place in these months. Housing deprivations, overcrowding, homelessness in Romania – all things which were not created but deeply worsened by Covid-19 – intertwine with the dismantlement of public services, above all the healthcare system. The housing crisis – which also means an increase of women’s domestic work – adds not only to the health crisis but also to the constant precarization and impoverishment of the workers. The struggles for housing must then go along with the claim for higher wages and better working conditions. As Eniko suggests, to organize transnational strikes against multinationals functioning in several countries and affecting the lives of local and migrant workers, could be a way to tackle different but overlapping dynamics of oppression and exploitation. This publication is part of a process aiming at connecting transnationally collectives and struggles in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond. This process led to the creation of the network EAST (Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational) that on the 25th of October will host its first public open online meeting. All the details will be published soon. For any further information about EAST and for taking part in the process, contact: [email protected] . The text has been published also on LeaftEast website

A socialist feminist approach to social reproduction[2] calls for recognizing the fact that the (material and symbolic) reproduction of the labor force is an essential condition of capitalist production. Most importantly, it highlights how capitalism functions at the intersection of gendered dominance (patriarchy), racialized oppression (racism), and class exploitation (capitalism). Reproductive work (including unpaid housework and care for children and elderly, which, in a patriarchal regime, are roles performed by women), as well as the underpaid labor of racialized social categories, and the reserve army of the impoverished labor force are all productive forces of capital accumulation and reproductive factors of capitalism itself.

This reproductive dynamic of capitalism does not only happen at the level of nation-states, but at the scale of the world system. As Saskia Sassen observed: The decline of manufacturing, the growth of the service sector, the spread of temporary, part-time and other ‘casualized’ forms of labor, and unconventional production processes such as sweatshops and industrial homework in the developed countries, all expanded the supply of low-wage jobs and the demand for working-class immigrants to fill them.[3] From the perspective of semi-peripheral countries of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, we should add the following to this picture of reproduction of global capitalism: on the one hand, the economic collapse of the former socialist countries freed a large number of workers, who embarked on transnational migration, among them very many seasonal workers and circular migrants, who do not put a permanent burden on the public services of the receiving countries; on the other hand, the internationalization of production and the export of jobs in IT and service sectors from the developed countries towards these semi-peripheries where the labor force is cheaper, recreate social polarization both between the West and the Rest and within the latter between the high-income professionals and low-waged workers.

Housing as terrain of social reproduction

The reproduction of the labor force usually happens in a home. Generally speaking, in patriarchal capitalism, the labor exploited at the workplace is reproduced due to the unpaid work of women at home. From a political economic point of view, in capitalism housing is a territory of capital accumulation: it is not only a commodity that becomes more and more expensive in the society whose politics favors marketization and housing for profit, but it also functions as an asset for investments made for profit. Housing is therefore, from both points of view, crucial for the social reproduction of capitalism.

Excepting the relatively short period of its Golden Age (the period from the end of the second world war until the 1970s), capitalism delegated housing matters to the market, respectively to the individuals’ private sphere. Capitalism promotes a housing order based on the conviction that it is the individuals’ responsibility to provide housing from the market for themselves and their families, and the state is not accountable for delivering homes to people or for assuring housing as a socio-economic right.

As part of the systemic control over the labor force whose needs are subordinated to profit, capitalism, supported by patriarchy and racism, tries to hide the fact that social reproduction is political. Differently put, it pretends that all the relations and practices through which social reproduction is happening are ‘naturally’ part of the domestic/ private sphere, and all the related needs of the individuals have to be met as a result of personal efforts.

The argument against the involvement of the state in the direct production of housing to meet people’s needs even makes use of the supposition that by this, the state would interfere in people’s private life, which should be free of state control. This ideology is used to disguise the fact that housing is a core domain for the accumulation of capital, and the state’s withdrawal from its role in housing provision serves the interests of housing for profit, or real estate developers.

What does the pandemic reveal about the housing crisis in Romania?

The recent pandemic exposed a whole series of housing inequalities and deprivations in Romania that were not created by Covid-19, but by the profit-oriented housing regime becoming dominant in the past three decades. Nevertheless, these phenomena have been manifested more clearly due to the prolonged epidemic, the lockdown, and the economic recession.

The long-durée underdevelopment of public services was disclosed most importantly by the shortages of the healthcare system, such as lack of the proper number of public hospital beds, the accessibility of free medicine, and the insufficient number of professional personnel. [4] It was also disclosed by the high prices of private healthcare services, unaffordable for many, and by the refusal of the private units to offer their help for free during a health emergency. Moreover, when talking about viruses, disease, and death, we should keep in mind that social and economic conditions are a factor that shapes human health or the lack of it. They generate enormous inequalities in terms of life expectancy between groups of various economic standing. There are inequalities in life expectancy depending on the life people are forced to live or in terms of their bodies’ ability to defend themselves against diseases depending on their housing and working conditions and diet. In 2018, life expectancy at birth was 75.3 years in Romania, while the EU-28 average was 81 years, and even higher in Switzerland (83.8 years), Spain (83.5 years), Italy (83.4 years), Sweden (82.6 years) and other states. [5]

Similarly, the following fact could be also easily noted during the pandemic: people living under inadequate housing conditions cannot respect the rules of hygiene and physical distancing as a way to protect themselves from the infection. These manifestations of housing crisis now became even more critical for the many who are living in overcrowded homes and residential areas or houses lacking utilities including running water; have been faced by insecurities due to informal/ unconventional housing; have experienced homelessness; are under the risk of eviction due to a reduced financial capacity to pay housing costs, etc. All these realities are also rooted in the underdevelopment of the public housing fund, which is less than 2% of the total housing stock in Romania.

The shock felt not only by people but also by the state institutions and public authorities in the face of the new pandemic, should have been a warning sign for everybody about the fact that life for many was not normal even before. Therefore, it could have been expected that the measures to be taken as a reaction to Covid-19 should not consist in a return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’, but should be about interventions dedicated to solving the manifestations of housing crisis mentioned above.

How to imagine other possible worlds in the context of the pandemic?

Nowadays, the optimistic scenario of the current health and economic crisis, according to which at this critical moment, especially in key economic areas, workers could renegotiate their interests with employers through unions, seems to be eroding. Nevertheless, it would have been and still is a good idea to negotiate wage increases and labor protection as a condition that companies receiving state aid or benefiting from tax cuts should fulfill.

We, the activists for housing justice, would have liked to integrate housing measures in such potential new deals: increasing the amount of social housing to be allocated as emergency homes to homeless people and people living in inadequate and crowded facilities; prohibition of evictions; supporting families who do not have the resources to pay for utilities and ensuring they have access to water, electricity, gas or other sources for heating; and, in general, implementing a medium and long-term governmental program for the construction of public housing so that the state can meet the housing needs in different localities.

The current crisis shows that labor is essential to any economic activity and without labor the economy cannot be saved (not even in this period of financialized capitalism). The Romanian labor force is one of the most exploited in the EU because of the low wage system and of the overwhelming private housing sector dictating high housing costs. Furthermore, the uncertainties surrounding the resolution of the healthcare crisis and the economic recession must make us all recognize that the ‘normality’ interrupted by Covid-19 is not normal. This is because it is not normal that almost half of employees earn the minimum wage, which is about half of the value of the decent minimum consumption basket. It is not normal that so many people live in overcrowded spaces or improper conditions, or they do not even have a roof over their heads, or they are at risk of eviction given that they cannot afford to pay their rent, mortgage, or utilities due to their low income. It is not normal that the public healthcare system is unable to meet the needs of the population impoverished by economic exploitation even in peaceful times, not to mention periods of shocks generated by the pandemic.

The Manifesto for Housing Justice released in March 2020 by the Bloc for Housing stated: “The emergency social measures are pressing today, but they are not enough to guarantee an exit from the epidemiological and economic crisis. They are not enough to reduce the dramatic effects of similar future crises, which, as we know, are inevitable in capitalism. This crisis must not be ‘solved’ as the previous ones were, in favor of capital. It is vital to denounce and to surpass the structural adjustment programs, which promote more privatization and austerity as a one-size-fits-all solution. These programs were imposed over the last few decades by the big international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These programs result, everywhere and always, in measures against the public sector and poverty, in underfinancing public health, education and housing, as well as in subordinating the development of all economic and social domains to the foundational logic of capitalism: the rush for profit. The Bloc for Housing asserts that to surpass the crisis and to institute a just social and economic order, which serves people’s interests, it is important that the state invests in public services, especially in public housing […]. The time has come for the rich to pay for everything that they stole through workforce exploitation, real estate speculation, and the theft of the government’s resources to the disadvantage of the many. We need radical measures to make sure that the economic post-crisis order will be one of equality and social justice. The time has come for those privileged by the system all over the world, who have accumulated profit and enormous wealth over the last decades, to pay their dues. They must contribute significantly to the costs of the programs needed for everyone’s state of health and economic situation to improve once and forever. It is time to end the regime where the real estate developers, the great renting companies, and private utility providers make an enormous profit off the backs of those who barely survive from one month to the next!”[6]

Noting how limited the government’s measures in social, labor and housing were during the state of emergency, even though the special circumstances provided an opportunity for giving more adequate support to homeless people, people at risk of eviction, people who cannot pay huge rents, people who earn the minimum wage or even less, the Bloc for Housing addressed a Memorandum to the Presidency, Parliament, Government, and three Ministries in particular. The Memorandum entitled “The current epidemiological crisis is also a social and housing crisis. Maximum emergency: decent minimum wage and adequate social housing for the most affected people”[7] was signed by 53 organizations and over 100 people involved in civic organizations and/or social activism. The demands of the Memorandum included, among others, the following: coverage of social services and social benefits and various aids during the state of emergency for all vulnerable persons; increasing the guaranteed minimum income and redefining it as a decent minimum income to provide all people with the necessary financial resources to cover the value of the minimum consumption basket for a decent living; increasing the stock of social housing through various means (construction, conversion, expropriation, etc.), so that it meets real local needs; adopting the ‘housing first’ model in allocating social housing and supporting the beneficiaries through an integrated package of social and healthcare provisions for as long as needed.

Today’s crisis calls for reconnecting several themes and creating a broad social movement.[8] It also calls for rethinking how a society built on equality and social justice for all can be achieved. It is necessary to connect all anti-racist, anti-nationalist, and feminist movements, which could join other international movements, for a society without exploitation and liberated from the domination of profit. We could witness that militarization and surveillance were the tools used by the Romanian state in a state of emergency and alert under the guise of fighting a virus. This draws our attention to the risk that the state, when it aims to strengthen its power, does not do so to end inequalities and injustices by promoting measures usually taken up by the social state, but  rather, is willing to turn into a police state and a state favoring austerity measures. All this to further support the ruling capitalist class in old and/or new ways. Facing their coalition, in addition to imagining other possible worlds, we also need to re-build our political subjectivity.

Last but not least, LevFem and Transnational Solidarity Strike has asked us, how to connect our struggle with other fights from the region in a powerful transnational initiative? Let me put here an idea that could complete the initiative of immigrant/transnational workers to organize in their receiving countries under conditions in which neither the latter nor their home countries take responsibility for their employment and housing rights. To jointly react against the  exploitation of these laboreres, which is related to the free movement of capital across national borders, for example, to organize transnational strikes against multinationals functioning in several countries, could be a challenge to think about in these terms.

[1] Professor at the Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and housing justice activist in the local movement Căși sociale ACUM!/ Social housing NOW!, and the national network of several activist groups from Romania, Bloc for Housing. This text is based on her contribution to the webinar organized on the 28th of June 2020 by LevFem and Transnational Solidarity Strike with the title: Responses to Covid19 and (post)pandemic: social reproduction, migrants and women in Central/Eastern Europe and beyond.

[2] See for example in Susan Ferguson: Social Reproduction: What’s the big idea?, https://www.plutobooks.com/blog/social-reproduction-theory-ferguson; Tithi Bhattacharya (ed): Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, Pluto Press, 2017

[3] Saskia Sassen: The mobility of labor and capital: a study in international investment and labor flow, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988

[4] Information retrieved from the Tempo-online database of the National Statistical Institute shows a decrease by over 40,000 hospital beds from 1990 to 2000; by almost 30,000 beds from 2000 until Romania’s integration into the EU; and by almost 8000 more from 2007 to 2010. Then, in 2011, President Traian Băsescu launched his program to build a “highly efficient state” while his party colleague, Prime Minister Emil Boc, “made work more flexible”. And out of a desire to comply with the imperative of endlessly continuing privatization in many more sectors, as a condition for getting further loans from the IMF and the World Bank, they began to cut hospital beds, saying: “too many hospitals with too many beds and too much activity in hospitals.” They started this work even earlier: from 2009 to 2011, almost 12,600 hospital beds have disappeared from Romania. After 2012, the number of beds in public hospitals fluctuated a bit up and down, so that in 2018 it reached 125034. Of course, these data are national aggregates and do not reflect the large inequalities between localities, counties, and regions in this respect. Switching to the very present, we should note that in 2020 the Romanian Government cut funding for healthcare and increased the funds allocated to the Ministry of Interior by over 13.16% compared to 2019. The budget for the Ministry of Defense also increased by 16.1%.

[5] See Eurostat data.

[6] https://bloculpentrulocuire.ro/2020/04/02/manifesto-for-housing-justice-fighting-the-pandemic-of-capitalism-and-racism/

[7] https://bloculpentrulocuire.ro/2020/04/28/memorandum-decent-minimum-income-and-adequate-social-housing-for-the-most-affected-people/

[8] The Bloc for Housing (with all of its member groups: Social Housing NOW!, The Common Front for the Right to Housing, The Right to the City, ERomnja, RomaJust), alongside with several other activist initiatives in Romania (among them: Romania – Land of Cheap Labor; Urzica; Justice. Respect. Equality. Protection. Transparency; Mahala – Militant Workers’ Community) and from the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City, is working today to reconfigure the political discourse on capitalism and its crisis, but also to outline radical post-crisis perspectives. Besides, we are in solidarity with Roma organizations that rise against racism and police abuse. Moreover, we are looking for cooperation with the trade union initiatives that militate for decent salaries and working conditions.