Modern capitalist societies have always combined elements of the social and the penal state when it came to dealing with social inequality and poverty. Hungary is no exception. The state responses to housing poverty since the regime change in the late 1980s have included both approaches, but with a growing emphasis on punishing and criminalizing poor people and other marginalized communities.
In this presentation, I will first talk about (the lack of) state policies regarding housing in post-socialist Hungary and then attempt to explain why the state is cutting back on social services and criminalizing homelessness instead of devising a sensible housing policy.
First, let me give you a short historical context. During state socialism, housing was a central issue. At the beginning, the state aimed to decommodify housing and provide it for the workers as a form of entitlement, or rather reward. After the Second World War, the communist government nationalized apartments and the proportion of publicly owned housing stock reached 50% in Budapest. Most of the housing in the countryside remained in private hands.
In addition to nationalization, the government developed a system of distributing housing units for families based on various criteria. The state invested a lot in new housing construction – the results are the (now) infamous housing projects, which most of their residents considered a huge improvement over their previous housing conditions. In a way, housing was used as one of the main tools to maintain social peace, especially after the 1956 Revolution.
Under state socialism: housing was an ideological issue that had very tangible material consequences for many people. Housing conditions improved immensely for all segments of the population together with other social indicators such as education, literacy, quality of life etc.
At the same time, the distribution of housing was very unequal. The socialist middle class benefited much more from centralized housing policies than the rest of the population. Those who were already in a better social position had access to much better housing and had a much higher chance of accessing publicly subsidized housing. Many workers lived in private homes, which they built and which were much more unaffordable than public housing.
In an effort to eliminate Gypsy colonies, the Roma were also offered housing in the form of what was called “houses of reduced quality.” These were almost always placed in segregated areas of cities and villages. Again, these were of much better quality than the colonies they had previous lived in, but much worse than public housing. The state’s housing policy towards the Roma – in line with many of its other policies – signaled racism as an integral element of the regime.
The emphasis on public housing changed in the 1980s as the socialist economy was not able to produce enough housing of good quality and the state started to support private construction and home ownership. The shift to market economy was visible in aspects of economic and social policy.
As a result, at the time of the regime change, housing privatization was already under way. After 1990, privatization took place at a great speed and without much regulation. The public housing stock dwindled – today in Budapest it is 6% and 3% in the entire country as opposed to the 50 and 25% during socialism, respectively. Again, privatization was more beneficial for higher classes as they could buy their apartments at a fraction of the market price. By contrast, many poor and old people bought apartments in buildings that they could not maintain on the long run (which resulted in some of them wanting to sell their apartments back to the municipality, without much success).
In the end, local governments got stuck with the housing stock in the worst condition, which also had some of the poorest residents. Today, local governments consider housing as a burden and not an opportunity and want to get rid of most of their housing stock.
One way to get rid of both housing and their residents is through urban rehabilitation. Local governments attract (foreign) investors who knock down old buildings and get rid of tenants. In certain cases, social housing tenants get apartments in other districts. Many commentators have observed that this is a way for municipalities to export their “problematic populations,” very often poor Roma citizens, to other parts of the city.
State socialist housing policy had many flaws, but it at least existed and plans were made about how to provide housing to the general population. Since the regime change, the Hungarian state has fully embraced the most extreme version of neoliberalism and governments since 1990 have taken a 180 degree turn on housing: today, neither the local, nor the national state want to have anything to do with it and the predominant view is that taking care of housing it is a completely private issue.
The only period when Hungary had some kind of housing policy in the post-socialist era was between 2000 and 2004 when the Fidesz government introduced subsidized mortgages. Most of these subsidies went to support homeownership for the middle and especially the upper middle class. While the state indebted itself with these subsidized loans for years to come, the housing support for low income people remained extremely small (today the generally available housing subsidy for low-income people is a maximum of 30 dollars/month).
When the same ruling party was in power again, they helped out those defaulting on their mortgages as a result of the 2008 financial crisis by negotiating settlements with the banks and introducing a moratorium on evictions, but again, this mostly benefited the higher class. While for some time, the evictions moratorium applied to those living in public housing, it was lifted for them after a while and the moratorium definitely did not apply to squatters. In all, despite the prevailing rhetoric about housing being a private issue, the Hungarian state seems to differentiate between housing for different parts of the population and clearly prioritizes support for private property, home ownership and the more privileged sections of society.
Today in Hungary many more people are affected by housing poverty than before and most do not get effective or in fact any support from the state. Undoubtedly, the most vulnerable people affected by housing poverty are those who have no housing at all, the homeless. While no reliable statistics are available and there are many definitions of homelessness, there are around 30 to 50 thousand people in Hungary who live in shelters, on the streets or places not means for human habitation such as forests, caves etc. In other words, this is the number of the effectively homeless. The number of those on the verge of homelessness is much higher, probably in the hundreds of thousands.
During state socialism, homelessness and poverty officially did not exist. On the one hand, full employment was supposed to take care of all social problems automatically. On the other, those who were on the streets, did not have a job or did not fit social norms, were institutionalized or jailed.
At the end of the 1980s, there was an explosion of discourse around homelessness. This was in large part due to the spontaneous demonstrations and sit-ins organized by homeless people at major train stations in Budapest in the winters of 1989 and 1990. Initially, there was a lot of public empathy with the plight of homeless people and the state was forced to provide services for them. These efforts lay the foundations of the social services and homeless shelter system that exists today.
However, the initial empathy turned into indifference and then growing hostility. By the mid-2000s, both the general public and decision makers basically had enough of homeless people. Among average citizens, this may have been the result of a general insecurity that people were experiencing. On the part of politicians, it was rooted in a frustration with their inability to adequately address even the most visible forms of extreme poverty. One sign of this growing official impatience with the losers of the regime change was the introduction of workfare from the 2000s.
In 2002 the mayor of Budapest started a program to clean underground passages of “graffiti, illegal vendors and homeless people” – as his program put it. The shift in policy from 1990 is well illustrated by the fact that this same mayor used to be a member of the progressive resistance during state socialism and published accounts of homelessness when it was still largely a taboo topic. Twelve years after he took office, he started to resort to force to get rid of homeless people from the most visible public spaces.
In this process, homeless people were gradually pushed out of the moral community of the public, which also lay the foundations for the more punitive policies that were coming up. In 2009, for example, a local mayor in Budapest created homeless free zones in his district by designating certain places where homeless people would be “banned, tolerated or allowed.” Then, a major shift happened around 2010.
In 2010, with the election of the Fidesz government, Hungarian politics in general took a more authoritarian and anti-poor turn. Leading politicians started talking about the need to stop “homeless crime” and an intensive anti-homeless campaign started in the 8th district of Budapest – hundreds of people were detained for minor violations over a month in an effort to push them out of the district. The images government politicians evoked about poverty and homelessness were very similar to those in vogue during the anti-vagrancy and anti-begging laws of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The peak of this wave of criminalization was the passing of a law in 2011 that made living in public space a crime, with a punishment of up to $700. While these kinds of laws are widespread in the US, this was the only law of its kind in Europe. We do not have official statistics yet, but fines for this crime must have reached thousands of dollars over the months that it was in effect. In a very surprising turn of events, a few days ago, this law was declared unconstitutional by the Hungarian Constitutional Court and repealed right away. While this decision definitely does not put an end to the harassment of homeless people, it signals that at least the remnants of a democratic political structure of checks and balances are still in place in Hungary.
At the same time, more homeless shelters are being opened in Budapest and touted by government politicians as the perfect response to homelessness. One of these new shelters is equipped with a detention center and a police station, which reflects a covert plan by the government to create detention centers where homeless people who refuse to use shelters can be taken by force. Most probably, the development of the government’s original idea was moderated by the broad public outcry against it and the jail is not used for its original purpose. However, it remains a fact that today in Budapest, homeless people sleep in a shelter that also has a jail cell.
Still, there is no sign of a comprehensive housing policy that would address the root causes of the situation. In fact, the mayor of Budapest said in an interview that it was not his job to provide housing to anyone and that grassroots organizations like the The City is for All, should stop nagging him with this nonsense, as he calls it.
According to Gregg Barak and Robert Bohm (1989), the criminalization of homelessness often occurs in reaction to an economic crisis. In fact, the first attempt at large-scale criminalization appeared as capitalism started to emerge and people were made landless by the land enclosures in England. Similar tectonic changes took place in Hungary in the late 1980s: the shift from state socialism to neoliberal capitalism was a huge shock and state policies tended to make the situation even worse.
The Hungarian state is in a crisis of both legitimacy and social reproduction. Despite the current populist rhetoric against the West, Hungary is totally dependent on the global economy and is unable to reduce the size of its surplus populations. Social services are stigmatizing and inefficient. The criminalization of homelessness goes hand in hand with austerity measures that punish the most vulnerable groups in society such as the Roma, the poor, the disabled and undocumented migrants. This is undoubtedly a response by the ruling class to the prolonged social and political crisis that Hungary has experienced since the regime change.
While the ruling elite itself is not in an economic crisis, they are in a political one: they need to secure their dominance in an increasingly failing society. In this way, it is not necessarily the economic crisis itself that triggered criminalization, but the political failure of the ruling class to stabilize the economy and fulfill the promises of the regime change. In this way, through demonization and criminalization, the state uses the bodies of poor and marginalized people as scapegoats in order to obscure its own failure.
- Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Associarion in San Francisco on November 15, 2012.