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Case study 3: “From the street to housing” in Kőbánya: an unlikely collaboration


The changing local government landscape in Hungary: is there a place for civil society?

Case study 3

“From the street to housing” in Kőbánya: an unlikely collaboration


  • Géza Mustó | the Deputy Mayor of Kőbánya (left-liberal, Democratic Coalition, 2019-) currently responsible for housing
  • Tibor Weeber | the Deputy Mayor of Kőbánya (right-wing, Fidesz, 2010-) previously responsible for housing
  • Vera Kovács | Founder of Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület (“From the street to housing,” ULE)

The social and political context

Kőbánya (the 10th district of Budapest) is an outer district of the city, one of the largest by area, with many brownfield sites and a population of 78,000 inhabitants. There is a significant Roma (Gypsy) presence, generally evenly distributed over the entire district. Recently, a small but visible Chinese community has also emerged. The Kőbánya municipal council was dominated by the Socialist Party between 1990 and 2010, when the right-wing governing party Fidesz took control of the municipality. Since 2019, the opposition coalition has the same number of votes in the municipal council as Fidesz, which necessitates cooperation between the two camps. For this reason, the Fidesz mayor has appointed two deputy mayors, one from Fidesz and one from the opposition.

Social housing-related tasks are delegated to local governments (in Budapest, this is a district-level function). The most important of these tasks are the regulation and management of local public housing, decisions on the provision of housing benefits, and debt management within the framework of the so-called “settlement benefit” (the national normative housing benefit – home maintenance support – was abolished in 2015). It is therefore an important battleground for the housing movement to push local governments toward a more equitable and progressive public policy. But the resources disbursed by local governments for improving affordability and reducing indebtedness have decreased drastically. Housing problems more likely to be experienced by individuals with the lowest socioeconomic status are thus not being addressed by means of adequate policy responses: for example, there is a lack of social housing and policy programs to avoid homelessness. Nevertheless, the provision of social housing and the allocation of housing benefits are the responsibility of local governments, which leads to a highly fragmented system in terms of the eligibility criteria and the quality/level of the actual services provided in different parts of the city. It also makes innovative NGO-municipal cooperation crucial, since without social programs, social housing programs end up in tension. 

For the collaboration presented in this case study, the civil society situation of Kőbánya is less relevant, since Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület (ULE) is not a local grassroots organization, although its activities involve the participation of residents. In terms of context, it is more important to understand the social tensions related to the housing crisis in Budapest, the problem of homelessness, ULE’s connection to the housing movement, and the specific problems that the district of Kőbánya faces in this regard. These social problems are indifferent to the borders of the city districts. So far, the Municipality of Budapest has been unable to solve the collective action problems originating from the fact that the districts have incentives not to invest in social protection and housing but to push the burden onto the shoulders of other districts. In the last few years, homelessness, social housing, but also the drug-related problems of specific neighborhoods have risen to the top of the political agenda. There was a strong public demand for local politicians to “restore public order,” which resonated with both left-wing and right-wing parties. During our interview with the two deputy mayors from different parties, they shared very similar ideas about housing policies. From time to time, the local government has attempted to demolish local government-owned residential buildings inhabited by poor families or to eliminate “irregularities” (dispossess notices, demolishing the shacks of homeless people). This went hand in hand with anti-homeless regulations and rhetoric at the city and national level. But this is only one side of the story. According to the deputy mayors, the municipality of Kőbánya has invested a lot of effort into improving the social infrastructure for the homeless (which is more developed than in other districts), creating housing opportunities and pursuing innovative approaches to housing, for example the Lélek House (a state-funded program), which helps 30 formerly homeless people to reintegrate into society through social work methods. ULE’s “housing first” program is also one of these examples.

The ongoing housing crisis in Budapest has contributed to a strong housing movement. Civil society organization (CSOs) that have been active in taking care of the homeless since the 1989 regime change laid the foundations of the socio-political infrastructure in this field. Local experiments with “housing first” projects (such as ULE) started only in the late 2000s. They involve direct action to provide homes for a small number of specific homeless individuals and can also be understood as a political statement to demonstrate that this can be done. This shift brings to the fore the problem of social participation, emphasizing citizen rights over charity / social needs and confronting the symbolic and social exclusion from housing that is considered to be normal. ULE grew out of the local fight of “A Város Mindenkié” (The City is for Everyone, AVM) against the demolition of self-built shacks in 2012. AVM, an NGO founded in 2009, advocates for housing rights and comprises activists from both homeless and middle-class (secure housing) backgrounds. AVM managed to stop the forced evictions and to convince the local authorities to provide vacant, dilapidated public housing units that the group then renovates (through donations and volunteer work) to house some of the shack dwellers. Later, activists involved in these activities formed the ULE association. Besides exporting this model to other localities, the association also implements additional innovative local projects to provide affordable housing to formerly homeless people. ULE is part of a loose network that grew out of the AVM housing movement, with a focus on different areas, such as Utcajogász (Street Lawyers, which provides legal aid) or Közélet Iskolája (the School of Public Life, which provides training for activists). It is thus important to see ULE (which shares the same values as other CSOs) not just as an individual organization that promotes a housing policy program, but also as an actor within the wider housing movement that has opted for a strategy of cooperation with local governments, instead of a strategy based on confrontation and advocacy against anti-homeless measures.

From the Street to Housing

Since 2012, ULE’s mission is to help the largest possible number of rough sleepers to move into affordable rental housing and to push for the provision of affordable housing to become the institutional, local or national policy for tackling homelessness. This mission is not directly related to municipal housing policies, but social housing is the most important tool for achieving it. Apart from overseeing the management of a municipal housing stock, ULE has also set up a rental agency, to integrate privately-owned vacant housing into the provision of affordable housing. It has also installed second-hand mobile homes on lots it has either purchased or for which it has been granted right of use. This enables supporters of such “private sector-oriented” programs to invest in a socially sensitive manner, with a return on investment over time. ULE differentiates itself from the large NGOs (such as the Maltese Charity Service or the Red Cross) maintaining homeless shelters – which do not offer real solutions to the root causes of homelessness – but also from charity organizations that contribute resources but lack a professional approach to social work. ULE organizes intensive social work for its program participants. As the goal is to help clients retain their housing in the long run, the organization also identifies employment opportunities, and in some cases even offers jobs to tenants, so that they can cover their bills on time.

ULE’s program in Kőbánya is based on an innovative idea: to renovate vacant, run-down municipal apartments with the help of volunteers and the participation of the homeless families who are going to inhabit them. For rough sleepers living in self-built shacks, institutional care (mass homeless shelters) often means a step back, as people living in self-built dwellings who are managing their own household would not be able to keep most of their belongings if they moved to a shelter; nor would they be able to maintain their household composition, as couples cannot move into the same room and potentially not even into the same institution. Members of the target group have no chance of ever obtaining long-term, sustainable individual housing because most of the relevant municipal decrees stipulate that homeless persons are ineligible for municipal rental housing or the state-funded Lélek program if they cannot demonstrate that they were residents of the district for the five years before they lost their housing. The local governments own low-quality housing stock with many uninhabitable apartments, which they have trouble utilizing, while ULE’s program provides voluntary resources for renovating and leasing out these apartments to needy people.

The group that became ULE formed during the protests against the evictions from the Terebess forest. With the active participation of stakeholders and the public, the illegal demolition plans were stopped. In the meantime, members of the group and stakeholders (homeless people in need of housing) approached all local government actors – notaries, mayors and senior municipal department staff – by letter and telephone, until negotiations could be initiated to resolve the crisis. During this process, stakeholders and district decision makers entered into talks. In the summer of 2012, the district’s deputy mayor for social affairs promised that – despite the final decision to evacuate the area – no shack would be demolished until its inhabitants managed to find a suitable place to move. AVM held residential rallies in the forest to inform the people living there about their rights and the possibilities for moving out. In the end, with the help of local social workers, most of the shack dwellers received acceptable accommodation outside the forest, but the inhabitants of five of the shacks were still unable to move out. Residents of four of the five shacks wanted to get a rental apartment, and in the spring of 2013, four people (two couples) from two households were finally able to move into municipal rental housing. The consultation with the municipality took a very long time, involving both lawyers and other professionals, but the municipality also had to go through a lot of issues despite eventually being receptive to the idea. The homeless residents, who later became members of ULE, finally agreed with the municipality: the two couples would be able to move into the social rental housing that they would renovate (the activists accompanied the future tenants to the negotiations with the municipality). The detailed terms of the move were set out in a written agreement with the municipality. For the municipality, the most important condition for the move was that the people concerned had an officially verifiable income. As participants in the program, the municipality would have preferred couples and households with more than one person, but this did not materialize in the end. Unlike other programs, local residence (on paper) is not one of the criteria for eligibility. A homeless member of AVM taught the basics of masonry to the middle-class volunteers who were helping with the renovation. This period also saw the formal establishment of ULE, which later became a partner of the municipality and today continues the program by adding two extra apartments every year. ULE – at the beginning working together with other larger NGOs, such as Habitat – brought together the most important players that had already been involved in the process and transformed itself into a legal service provider, which is not the case with AVM.

Collaboration with the local government: lessons to be learned

While the relationship between Kőbánya and the AVM advocacy group is unique and delicate, ULE has managed to achieve a stable collaboration thanks to the results of the program, the openness of both sides to negotiation, and good working relationship of the people involved. However, this does not automatically translate into good cooperation in other cases in which AVM and the district authorities of Kőbánya are involved – and in general, AVM has had a bad reputation among municipalities (those governed by the right in particular) as a radical advocacy group. According to the two deputy mayors, the municipality acts based on information about the financial situation of tenants that is classified and cannot be revealed to a third party, while protesters often lack knowledge of such factors. This conflict also affected the establishment of the cooperation with ULE, but by now, both sides are working together based on mutual trust and pragmatism about the program. In this case, there is no information asymmetry between the two parties, since ULE represents the tenants. While the policy agendas they pursue are very different, both sides agree that the present system of social service provision and the relevant legislation are inadequate. From a political perspective, the collaboration with ULE contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the housing situation instead of building up a false image of the municipality as an omnipotent actor that should be shamed for incompetence and inaction. ULE strictly limits its advocacy work to its direct field of operation (though it did participate in the protests against the demolition of the social housing bloc mentioned earlier). However, the partnership roles can be separated from such activities. The two deputy mayors mention that they would like to see more NGO-municipal cooperation to lobby for reform of the relevant national legislation.

ULE also entered into collaboration with several other districts of Budapest, but these projects are not of a comparable size to the one in Kőbánya (where 17 of ULE’s 22 apartments are located). After the “symbolic” gesture of initiating the cooperation, and the renovation of the first apartments, these collaborations failed to advance. The collaboration with non-political municipal institutions (the trusts responsible for social housing) was difficult, but the real reason for the stagnation never became clear. In the case of Zugló (the 14th district), the planned project caused political turmoil because ULE’s political ally was not able to convince the majority of the district council members to support the project. In the other districts, the collaboration was not underpinned by the kind of bottom-up social participation that took place in Kőbánya – these projects either started as individual interventions or upon the invitation of politicians. ULE’s housing agency can be seen as a response to these difficulties. Building cooperation with the local government required a lot of energy because of the long time it took the organization to get the decision makers to understand the project and to break down their initial resistance, which originated from political prejudice and a lack of information. CSOs also need to understand the political logic and the power fields in which they operate. Political agreements are often invisible to civil society initiatives, and according to the interviewee form ULE, their only option is to be very determined and move forward. Long-term cooperation, however, cannot be based solely on pressure – both sides have to reach a common understanding. The positive aspect of the right-wing authorities in Kőbánya was their clear and open approach toward making decisions in this area (which often clashed with ULE’s values) instead of playing shady political games.

For ULE, this pilot project continues, but the real goal was not to do it on a large scale, but to elaborate and document it so that local governments could apply it on their own. This successful collaboration played an important role in highlighting the importance of the “housing first” approach over the “law and order” anti-homeless rhetoric, but to achieve systematic change, the foundation of the system needs to be changed. Currently, social housing is not an end in itself for local governments, but (for financial and regulatory reasons) only a small-scale tool for creating a way out of homelessness – paradoxically, however, without large-scale changes in social policy, the people living in social housing are unable to ever leave it. From the perspective of local governments, this is thus a dead-end both in terms of asset management and social policy, since one district cannot solve the problem of housing poverty and homelessness on its own. This unlikely collaboration contributes not only to greater dignity for the people it supports directly, but also to the advocacy work for reforming the system, for which it could serve as a model. Structural problems remain invisible if a local government only follows the beaten track and does not embrace alternative approaches. Only with a focus on long-term goals and values can such unlikely collaboration work. If the local government does not want to dominate the field, and civil society initiatives are given autonomy to create solutions, they will not adopt a confrontational attitude based only on exerting direct influence on political processes while viewing local politics as the enemy. Making such initiatives dependent on progressive political allies is difficult if systemic factors stand in their way, and thus leads to disappointment. Collaborations such as this one are important experiments that can facilitate comparisons between different approaches, identify practical issues that have to be solved and help civil society initiatives to professionalize and to craft realistic solutions – without betraying their original values or being coopted by politics.