'Faster Building, Less Rights: Solving the Housing Crisis through Citizen Disempowerment?'
Uppdaterat: 6 apr.
A new amendment to the Building Act recently passed by the Czech Chamber of Deputies is a textbook example of how mechanisms in the current mode of capitalism feed on existing crises in order to produce new ones, encasing our society in a highly crisis-contingent political economy and political ecology while taking regressive steps towards curtailing citizens’ rights to do anything about the corporate capture of their home affairs.
In Czechia, a false idea has taken hold in the last decade that lengthy building approval processes have partially caused unaffordable housing prices and the ensuing housing crisis. Blame has been cast on an outdated state bureaucracy and civic associations that allegedly delay new building projects by raising objections against them. The democratic right to participate in building approvals, granted to Czech citizens as part of their post-socialist empowerment, was significantly curtailed already by an amendment in 2017 under the rule of Andrej Babiš and his populist movement party ANO. As Luboš Pavlovič writes in A2larm, this undemocratic amendment did not bring any improvements in terms of speeding up building approvals. New hopes were thus put into a completely new Building Act that would make substantial institutional changes towards speedier approvals. The version, whose preparation was questionably commissioned to the Chamber of Commerce and was heavily criticized by environmentalists, brought the public back in the game but also fortified the position of investors. In their statement of purpose, oppositional political parties promised to tackle the act’s shortcomings and strengthen the position of the public.
After its victory against Andrej Babiš in the 2021 elections, the “democratic block” soon shocked environmentalists with a version of the Building Act which curtails citizens’ rights once again. Up to 140 civic associations, mostly allied under umbrella ecological associations and coalitions, such as Zelený kruh (Green Circle) and Klimatická koalice (Climate Coalition), mobilized to change this exclusionary and undemocratic part of the new amendment, organizing demonstrations, petitions and letter-writing campaigns to politicians in an attempt to captivate the media and spur wider public debate.
Figure: Happening and photo shooting with signs representing NGOs and local associations in front of the Ministry of Regional Development on March 6, 2023. Photo: Michaela Pixová
The media, politicians and wider society seem undecided as to what side of the conflict they should side with and remain silent. Twenty years ago, however, the winner would have been a known quantity. Under the rule of Václav Klaus and his neoliberal shock doctrine medicine for a quick transition to capitalism, all ecological efforts were portrayed as a threat to the country’s path towards Western prosperity, modernity and living standards. But this does not seem so clear-cut any more. The current neoliberal government of Petr Fiala, leader of the Civic Democrats (ODS), did not win against the populism of Andrej Babiš’s ANO in 2021 because of his party’s long-unfulfilled promise of economic convergence with the West nor due to the austerity measures passed by the previous ODS government in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis. Instead, the new conflict over citizen participation in building approval processes seems to be about balancing development—a much-hyped solution to the housing crisis—and democracy, which Fiala’s coalition of governing parties promised to restore and protect after the damaging rule of ANO.
Remaining under the surface is something even ecological associations are reluctant to talk about more openly—the crisis-contingent nature of solutions which the amended Building Act proposes and which the government seems ready to pass without offering much space for debate. The housing crisis is by no means the only one we need to worry about. In fact, we should watch for typical “rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul” efforts in which the proposed solutions to the housing crisis are instrumentalized to legitimize ignorance, potentially worsening crises whose solution seems possible to postpone. Building more and faster without the democratic participation of citizens will undermine civic rights in Czechia and the transparency of building processes, an argument ecological associations like to stress the most. Conscious of the potential reactions of a climate-sceptic public and predominantly conservative politicians, Czech activists shy away from amplifying the potential effects of deepening and aggravating the multifaceted environmental crisis which humanity now faces on a global scale and which the international scientific community and the United Nations’ intergovernmental panels could not be more loudly warning us against. Seemingly the only legitimate bearers of such frames, which mainstream Czech society still appears to perceive as primarily “emotional” and “irrational”, are young activists from Fridays for Future. These representatives of “the young kids whose future is being destroyed” were thus invited to reveal their vulnerability at a happening on 6 March 2023 in front of the Ministry of Regional Development. Other “adult” speakers held on to their “rational” and more powerful frames—the defence of nature and democracy.
An even more profound taboo, nonetheless, exists in the field of Czech environmentalism. Post-socialist space is simply not very permissive of any mention of the main political, economic drivers behind simplified and faster construction or its inherent socioeconomic and geopolitical implications. Increasingly, it is becoming crystal clear to many ecological organizations and associations, or, more precisely, to many of their individual members, that most construction projects are driven by financialization, serving as mere spatial fixes to sink private capital and thus in no way contribute to lowering housing prices. In fact, with property prices now being sky-high and unaffordable even for higher-income first-time homebuyers, these spatial fixes are bound to not only serve as places to park private investment but also to further capitalize on it by collecting rent from the less fortunate social strata that never made it to their own private home—the most widespread form of homeownership in Czechia and other post-socialist countries. To top it off, it has been confirmed by the Czech Tenant Association that many of the new foreign owners specializing in the relatively novel business of tenement housing in Czechia now also consult with their tenants on how to obtain state housing subsidies to subsidize high rent, inventing new avenues for draining public money into private hands.
The tentacles of corporate capture are thus clearly multiplying and tightening their grip. Not only are they seizing new projects in the built environment, whose speedier and simpler construction Czech authorities are ready to inscribe into an updated national legal framework, but they are also grabbing people’s earnings, earnings that would, under more affordable circumstances, go towards the promise of owning a home after paying off a mortgage—even if mortgages represent another tentacle, at least they offer some light at the end of the tunnel. Third time lucky, they suck on the public budget via housing subsidies, further undermining the state’s ability to tackle the housing crisis in a more sovereign, self-sufficient and democratic way. All in all, financialized business solutions are unlikely to alleviate the housing crisis and, in fact, threaten to deepen Czechia’s already high economic dependency on corporate capital as well as the socioeconomic inequalities between Czech citizens and those of core countries within the existing world order.
The fate of the amended Building Act in Czechia is not final. During the third reading, MPs granted citizens at least a curtailed right to intervene in building approvals concerning tree felling and endangered species. The Senate has yet to approve this version. Environmental NGOs continue to push for citizens’ full-scale empowerment in building approval processes and, in the meantime, plan to join preparations of new land-use planning guidelines in the hope of strengthening citizen participation, at least in this step. The issues which they shy away from, or which are outright taboo in their framing, do nonetheless tell us a lot about the nature of Czech civil society and the discourses that are or are not acceptable within it. They reveal some of the existing ideological and value-based cleavages within the environmental movement that have been forming in the given context under the influence of various long-term historical and economic factors. Due to this, the movement’s different segments sometimes refuse to cooperate, or, conversely, they unite under moderate and less controversial demands and claims. Whether such an approach will bring gains or prove itself blind to deeper processes aggravating democratic backsliding, environmental decline, and, ultimately, undermining societal cohesion remains to be seen and requires more attention from researchers.
Author: Michaela Pixová
Figure: Author of this article with a sign of one of the local associations. Photo: Michaela Pixová