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The future begins in different places

28 of July '23

Interview fromA&B issue05|2023

Sociologist and housing expert Joanna Erbel is interviewed, among other things, about life strategies related to owning and not owning one's own apartment, and the potential of revitalized cooperatives.

Joanna ErbelJoanna Erbel - Sociologist, expert on housing and building urban resilience. Member of the Board of Directors of PLZ Cooperatives. Director of Protopia at CoopTech Hub, the first cooperative technology center in Poland, which aims to create a community based on trust by digitally rebooting cooperatives and building a local cooperative ecosystem. Member of the Council of the Rental Market Foundation. She coordinated the preparation of the housing policy and the "Housing 2030 for the City of Warsaw" program. In 2017-2020 she was responsible for the topic of housing innovation at PFR Real Estate. Co-author of CTH reports - "Co-operative Equal Circles, or the economics of care in action" (2023), "Co-operative Recovery Plan" (2021), "Cooperative Transformation" and "Urban Resilience Package" (2022). She is the author of the books "Beyond Ownership. Toward a Successful Housing Policy" (2020) and "Leaning into the Future. How to change the world for the better" (2022). She is an associate of the A/Type Foundation, which works on neurodiversity.

Ania Diduch: The first question that came to my mind after seeing your profile on Instagram was: do Polish apartments stimulate the creation of family and interpersonal ties, or do they rather reinforce conflicts?

Joanna Erbel:The structure of apartments that are currently planned in construction projects for rent certainly does not encourage fertility. If you look at all sorts of reports, including the ThinkCo report, 90 percent of apartments are either two-room or studio apartments - 50.5 percent are two-room, 38.8 percent are one-room, 9.8 percent are three-room, and only 0.9 percent are larger apartments. This is how one builds apartments for investment. And it is clear to the naked eye that these are not buildings or housing developments where there is space to start a family. This also applies to programs that in theory should be part of the state's housing policy, such as the apartments built by PFR Real Estate, the commercial sector of the government's Housing Plus program. I remember how, with the team still innovating at PFR Real Estate, we wanted to add a surcharge for a so-called room for a child and introduce flexible design, which allows rental housing to be planned in such a way that for a dozen or twenty years, when it is needed, one can live in a three-, four-, five-room apartment, and then this module can be separated by a wall and have two apartments. Anyway, such models of apartments, which are combined apartments, appeared on the private market, only usually it was such a family apartment plus a studio by default for the mother of one of the people, because women are living longer. Experience with the migration of the younger generation to large cities, on the other hand, shows that elderly parents are simply left alone in these their family large houses and apartments. It is better and safer to provide such a person with an apartment close to the family. As we talk about ties, the situation of families with children, whose parents live separately and have alternate care, gets even more complicated - both households should have a room for the child (or children) at home. One of such most illustrative examples of attempts to solve this problem conceptually is the Viennese idea that for people who are raising children together, but (no longer) live together, they should create apartments adjacent to each other, where the link is the child's room, which has a door to both apartments.

„Poza własnością. W stronę udanej polityki mieszkaniowej”

"Beyond Ownership. Toward a successful housing policy" - Wysoki Zamek Publishing House, Krakow, 2020

© Wysoki Zamek Publishing House

Ania: This is a very interesting way of healing family ties through design.

Joanna: Coming back to Polish realities: it's important to remember that we live in very different apartments and these conflicts you mention can run on many levels. Take, for example, acoustic comfort, something that is a drawback of large-panel apartments, which, in turn, have another advantage, namely a central location. Even though you live in an anonymous block of flats, it turns out that your social life can be much richer than if you lived on a larger lot, but in some distance. Another issue is the tension between the inside-the-fence and the outside-the-street. Fortunately, we are already beyond the era of fenced-in estates. New developments aspiring to be the prestigious ones, such as the Warsaw Breweries, are designed so that the newly built fabric is an element of the city, and is even more city-forming than the entire neighborhood. The wave of fencing we experienced in the early 2000s echoed an ongoing conflict of class and prestige building. Another conflict is derived from waves of migration. If you live in a big city, it all depends on when you settled here. It affects your professional situation, your life strategies. If you are first generation, you are at a disadvantage compared to second and third generation residents. If your grandparents were born in the city where you live, you most likely have (or had) in your broader "family stock," one or more apartments that are privatized functional housing.

Anne: And this radically affects the life strategies you take.

Joanna: When you have a loan, you behave a little differently in the job market - you may be more cautious, but you're also susceptible to bullying. When you're paying off obligations, there's more pressure to work more than when you don't have that obligation. Another point is that credit binds more tightly than marriage. This is a whole area that touches the work-life balance zone. You can, because of your housing situation, stay in relationships that are bad for you, for those around you. We still have generational conflict.

The so-called baby boom generation is the generation whose middle class is investing in rental housing - rent is treated as a supplement to retirement. An example is a recent conversation I heard on Polsat, where the program's host said that his ambition is to have a few rental apartments from which he will live on in retirement, in other words, to patch up the ailing pension system. It's a model that won't be repeated by someone who is of our own or of a younger generation. Housing is getting more and more expensive, less and less available. We don't have the apartments we bought for 10 percent of their value, which were public housing. Moreover, there is a certain taboo social acquiescence not to speak openly about unequal housing opportunities.

konflikty wokół tematu mieszkań przybierają różne formy w zależności od typu budynku i lokalizacji

Conflicts around the topic of housing take different forms depending on the type of building and location - "acoustic comfort is a shortcoming of large slab apartments. It is balanced by the central location. Life on an anonymous block of flats can be much more socially rich than when you own a larger apartment, but on the periphery."

© Creative Commons

Ania: Exactly. And that leads to my next question, because in the book "Beyond Ownership. Toward a Successful Housing Policy" from 2020, you write that local governments are thinking about who to build for, how to build, where to get the money for it. Well, and on top of that we have this layer of global environmental issues, with sustainable construction and inclusive design. Could you recapitulate what has or hasn't changed in these three years?

Joanna: A lot has changed. There was a series of laws called the housing package, which complemented the Housing Plus program, actually its commercial pillar implemented by BGK Real Estate and later PFR Real Estate. When I wrote the book, we were at the moment when TBS subsidies were being introduced again (adopted back at the end of the Civic Platform's term in 2015), but they were pushed back. Then there was a political aberration that could be called a miracle, that is, Jadwiga Emilewicz, who deals with housing from the position of Deputy Prime Minister, against her conservative-neoliberal pedigree, introduced solutions that brought us closer to the standards of Viennese social democracy. And behind this was the slogan of free choice, that is, that people have the right to choose what type of housing they will live in. Not just a choice: credit or no credit, where to live and for how much of an installment. Emilewicz coined the slogan, which reflects well the broad approach to housing, that "there is no one key to one Polish apartment." Certainly, this diversification was influenced by political divisions: the PFR Real Estate is a subsidiary of the Polish Development Fund, then subordinate to Prime Minister Morawiecki, and with Emilewicz there were other areas: like TBS (later SIM - Social Housing Initiatives). And practice showed that Emilewicz, instead of fighting to change the operation of the PFRN, tackled the areas she had influence over. She made legislative changes, using the expertise she had accumulated over the years at the ministry and consulting with a group of external experts and female experts from different backgrounds.

Ania: What changes can be highlighted here?

Joanna: She managed to incubate several laws that were an opening for greater subsidies for public housing, for the transformation of TBS, social housing into slightly larger agglomerations, or SIMs, which allowed smaller municipalities to band together to invest together. Social rental agencies emerged. A law on cooperatives, which are basically building groups, also passed. Practice shows that these resilient local governments are by no means piscatorial. Cities such as Wloclawek [cf. p. 124] have very actively begun to use these funds, proving that it is not at all necessary to have a several-million-dollar budget to carry out housing policy. The most notable example is Pleszew [cf. p. 110], which introduced the first housing policy in Poland that has settlement elements - 20 percent of the apartments in some buildings are for new residents of Pleszew. This is a different logic than cities usually adopt, where waiting times are very long and uninviting for people who are newcomers. Pleszew has also introduced a second innovative solution, namely additional points for community involvement. In my opinion, this is a local mental breakthrough, because usually activists, activists are treated with suspicion. And here the city says "you help us, you change the city, you share your often critical opinion with us, thanks to this you get extra points."

Since I wrote "Beyond Ownership...," my intuitions have been confirmed that the rental market will build up, that local governments will play a bigger role. What I was wrong about was the assumption that larger cities would be the leaders, the leaders of change. During this term, the investments I wrote about, such as Wroclaw's New Żerniki or the various activities carried out by the City of Warsaw, by the Bureau of Architecture (Warsaw Estates or the Warsaw Social District), lost their importance. Probably one of the reasons for this was that the city managers and authorities of large cities (in addition to those mentioned also - Gdansk) played the political game on the "central court". And from the point of view of a multi-million dollar city, the construction of a few dozen or a few hundred projects does not make any great impression.

The good news is a new level of awareness. When I started writing the book, the rental housing market was considered non-existent, housing policy was considered non-existent and we had a completely different level of public debate.

„Pandemia wymusiła wsłuchiwanie się we własne ciało. Przecież notoryczne było to, że ludzie chodzili chorzy do pracy, byli nauczeni, żeby ignorować sygnały, wypierać objawy gorączki itd.

"The pandemic forced people to listen to their own bodies. After all, it was notorious for people to go to work sick, they were taught to ignore the signals, suppress the symptoms of a fever, and so on. - And suddenly we were at a point where we had to be vigilant for two years and even a slight runny nose was an excuse not to leave the house. This kind of body training seems totally unrelated to trends, and yet it touches on the future of housing."

© Creative Commons

Ania: This shift from big cities to smaller centers has a political dimension, if I understand correctly.

Joanna: Rather, the dimension of personal decisions.

Ania: Personal ones, that is, the political structure is not so important here.

Joanna: These are individual decisions by mayors to let go of housing because of other political priorities. But there is objectively no reason, other than the individual decision of boards of directors, why big cities should not build this whole ecosystem.

Ania: Is it from this shift in favor of more resilient smaller centers that you think the future of housing is in smaller centers and that cooperatives also make more sense? And what kind of cooperative would that be? Because she has a pretty bad communist reputation, so do you mean a revitalized form of this body?

Joanna: Communist-era cooperatives were cooperatives in name only. As the Law on Cooperatives says, an important element is voluntary. So the point of reference should be the solutions of the interwar period or Western Europe. In such a model for Poland for the next few years, a good solution would be to create cooperatives on urban land in smaller cities, where there is less investment pressure, and thus attract active people to those cities. This scenario has a chance, because apartments in big cities are small, expensive, and low-quality housing estates. There is no access to services or larger green areas. On top of that, there is a lack of family support. If you live in such a housing development, it usually means you're not from here, so it means you don't have grandparents and grandmothers to help you raise your child. When you add such simple elements as hybrid work, changes towards the structure of the labor market, you may find that this move to a big city is not rational at all. Living in a big city is expensive and the standard of living you get for it is a de facto slave standard.

Ania: I'm smiling because you're talking about Polish realities, and at the same time you're describing a bit of my reality of the last year. Admittedly, I don't have children, but the scale of New York makes some of the regularities based on the same mechanism.

Joanna: Indeed, this city on capitalist steroids heightens the impression of being in a money-grinding machine. If in Poland we have adopted the American model of development infected by the models proposed by the World Bank, then we are getting closer and closer to the ideal model. And we have less and less power to follow its guidelines. The topic of housing returns at elections, then drops, a kind of constant fluctuation. It seems to me that each successive generation entering adulthood, which is not able to provide a meaningful livelihood, really based on housing security, makes this consensus we have around housing, that is, those who have money buy and the rest rent, untenable. Grown-ups live in what is a "student" standard, meaning they can't afford to live on their own - they have to have roommates and roommates. You can have a great job in a big city and earn money that would be considered reasonable by your parents or your own aspirations often, yet the cost of housing and related other expenses make it impossible for you to leapfrog to a higher level. Add to that the emancipation of women, divorces, patchwork families - you find that maintaining a family standard is increasingly difficult, because if you have a child who doesn't live with you all week, that means two families have to earn a separate room for the child.

„Lekcja różnorodności mówi o celebrowaniu także bioróżnorodności w przyrodzie, bo każdy element przyrody ma inne różne funkcje.

"The lesson of diversity talks about celebrating biodiversity in nature as well, because every element of nature has other different functions. - And often the people we find most annoying can turn out to be the missing piece in the puzzle, because they have exactly the opposite competencies than we do."

© Creative Commons

Investing in apartments is based on very conservative reflexes, and this tension between the national average and the group owning more than one apartment is going to get worse. And this is something that smaller cities can benefit from, saying "hey, come to us, we'll give you bigger apartments." Again, an example is Pleszew with its slogan of compact city. Pleszew is systematically making public space available for so-called protected traffic users, cyclists and bicyclists, encouraging people to move here. "Leave your taxes here, together we will co-create this city. We appreciate your activism, we give you a social city." Probably a few years ago, everyone would have laughed at me if I had suggested that the prescription for the problems of living in a big city was to move out to a smaller one, but today we are in the wake of changes in the labor market, after two years of being confined to our apartments. The geography of the labor market and our attachment to geographic location has changed a lot.

Ania: When you talk about these smaller cities, the question that comes to my mind is the emotional, mental cost of moving. Because maybe these smaller centers for a person who is moving from a big city can just seem provincial. How do you work through these aspects of life?

Joanna: The trend I'm talking about is a group of people returning to their original centers or moving to a city that is similar to the one they came from. If you were born in a particular place, you most likely have some sort of housing base. Or you have a family support network to mitigate some of the costs of poorly designed housing and lack of social infrastructure. I'm talking about all those people who move to a big city and don't have the social network, don't have the local infrastructure, the loan installment goes up by leaps and bounds, plus the cost of energy, gasoline, because you have to have two cars to handle your job and your family's commute. So I think that small cities that will have some idea of themselves, and probably until recently I would say model cities hooked up to the railroad, have a chance to become enclaves for a better life. PKP Pleszew is located outside of Pleszew, which gives great potential for the development of, for example, a cab cooperative, which will be a local business run by male and female employees.

Ania: The demand for neurodiversity is recurring more and more in design. What are its geographical or mental sources?

Joanna: They come from different directions. A bit of Scandinavia and to a greater extent the United States, Silicon Valley. America seems a paradoxical example, but I refer you to the article "The Geek Syndrome" by Steve Silberman. A few years ago, it was found that there was an accumulation of people on the autism spectrum in Silicon Valley. It was thought that autism spectrum was something that was caused by external factors, so it was thought that maybe something specific was going on in Silicon Valley in terms of geography. The answer turned out to be some specific gene mutation. Prominent programmers with outstanding programmers started having children, which increased the likelihood of the spectrum manifesting itself. But another feature of this situation is the increased level of empathy.

małe miasta mają szansę stać się enklawami dla lepszej jakości życia: sieci społeczne, łatwy dojazd do pracy, niższe koszty życia, dostęp do zieleni

Small cities have the potential to become enclaves for a better quality of life: social networks, easy commute, lower cost of living, access to green space - these are just some of the emotional cost paid by people migrating to larger metropolitan areas

© Creative Commons

Ania: Mental health topics are very close to my heart. I am an art historian by training, and I suffer from an autoimmune disease. For me, the pandemic, lockdown time was an opening to a whole new perspective on the relationship between body and mind, because suddenly all external stimulation stopped.

Joanna: Pandemic cut us off from this traditional vision that work is where you are seen. Locked in their homes, people began to return to their bodies, which resisted when you tried to get into the mode of going to the office all the time. We simply began to feel the real discomfort we were previously used to. The same thing happened with feeling poorly designed apartments and housing developments.

Ania: It's interesting that sometimes we find that something bothers us only when it goes away.

Joanna: Yes, sometimes you don't know that something is hurting you. I think the pandemic forced people to listen to their own bodies. After all, it was common for people to go to work sick, they were taught to ignore the signals, suppress the symptoms of fever and so on. And suddenly, for two years we had to be vigilant, and even a slight runny nose was an excuse not to leave the house. Such body training seems completely unrelated to trends, yet it touches on the future of housing. But perhaps you ask yourself, do you want to live in a place where you have a five-minute walk to work and a base cost that is not very high? After all, this easy access to the workplace is also an emotional cost.

Wychylone w przyszłość. Jak zmienić świat na lepsze”

Leaning into the Future. How to change the world for the better" - High Castle Publishing, Krakow, 2022

© High Castle Publishing House,

Ania: I really liked that sentence from Latour that you quoted on Instagram, that he taught you to think about "divided disagreement." That's close to my thinking, but I also know that such an attitude requires a great deal of fortitude and independence. And I wonder where to get the energy to do this? This is the kind of state that is attainable for many people, in fact almost everyone. Well, but where to get the strength to persist in this divided disagreement?

Joanna: Answering with a scientific key: from the rejection of the Habermasian model of consensual democracy. In practice, this consists in the fact that we can be close to people with whom we disagree the moment we share certain social practices. Well, and the neighborhood issue is very close here. There is also a mechanism described by sociologist and psychologist of Polish origin, Hare, which says that people we see regularly seem closer to us. This in turn boils down to the common saying that we like what we know. When you have people with whom you do things in common, you are within the same community, even if they annoy you, you disagree with them in various ways, they are their own. So the goal is to accept that people can co-create something that is important to each of them individually, but the motives or motivations behind it can be very different, and we don't even have to fully share them. And such a divisive disagreement in the case of urban movements was the full consensus around the fact that protecting greenery in the city is the overriding issue. Focusing on the real consequences of the actions we take is something that doesn't require fortitude at all - it just requires a focus on what is the subject of real activity.

The people with whom you can create a cool place to live, your little polis, your neighborhoods, don't have to fully share all your beliefs. You have to let go of your narcissistic thinking that people will love us entirely as we are. And at the same time, what discharges the needs of the ego is shared practice, shared action. One of the things we're developing now in the cooperative, even though we're a digital cooperative technology center, is to engage in urban farms - places where you can just come, hang out with people and do something that's valuable, relax, have contact with the earth, which in itself is restorative, calms our bodies. This whole lesson of diversity talks about celebrating biodiversity in nature as well, because each element of nature has different functions. And often the people we find most annoying can turn out to be the missing piece in the puzzle, because they have exactly the opposite competencies than we do.

Ania: Last question: does the future begin in the present or in the past?

Joanna: The future starts in different places. There are also different parallel variants of the future, which depend on many factors, on our individual decisions and those made in groups. It all depends on where you put your energy, your focus. We tend to put our attention on antagonism, because that's how the press works. It's also how our brains work. The exciting things are the negative ones. Or one-trial learning tends to be associated with negative experiences too, not the positive ones. It's part of the evolution of survival.

So it all comes down to decisions. These apartments in Pleszew intended for new residents are not standing empty, and this is an example of many individual decisions that will affect the community. And now we have a good space there for pioneering activities and a better chance to make a big change either in one's personal life or in the community in general with a relatively small expenditure of energy

Ania: Thank you for the interview.

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