A Roof Over One’s Head Becomes Life-or-Death Issue

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Dubravka Sekulić: The most important field of activity for an architect is the battle for different ways of surplus value redistribution

Dubravka Sekulić, an architect researching public scene transformations of contemporary cities, published a book last year, entitled “Glotzt Nicht so Romantisch! On Extralegal Space in Belgrade“, dealing with extra-legal extensions of housing units in Belgrade. She recently presented her book to a Zagreb audience as a guest lecturer at the ‘Micropolitics’,  a series of lectures that are open to presentations of long-term research projects and critical positions that question the (artistic) production models within the broader scope of the social and political context. The lecture of this particular architect, who spends her time between Belgrade, Zürich, Zagreb and Niš, was a good occasion to have a chat with her regarding spatial implications of neoliberal urbanism.
The neoliberal city only knows the pressure of capital as the basic condition for spatial planning; which includes the absence of plans or abandonment of the same, disrespecting legal regulations, ad hoc developments… Space, hence, isn’t comprehended as public good but as a capital resource. How do you see your role as an architect within such circumstances?
I’d say that the capitalist city already considers space as a commodity where a killing in the market can be made if managed properly. Thus the renowned and beloved Manhattan panorama with its skyscrapers is a product of such a mechanism. In the time of existence of a prosperous country on the one hand, and a country with actual existent socialism on the other hand, certain fields of production were partially or completely exempt from capitalist speculations, and that especially refers to housing and public spaces. That which neo-liberalism contributes is commodification of those parts of life that were exempt in the previous stage, especially housing, health care, education… Commodification of daily life takes place, for instance via privatization of the water-supply system, while the city itself, in various ways, becomes a place of surplus-value production. What is the position of the architect in such a city? From a pessimistic point of view, the role of the architect and the urban designer, as far as capitalism is concerned, has been reduced to an acceptable “dressing” of form which has a priori been determined through manipulation and speculations. Speculation is becoming increasingly brutal for the city tissue, thus architecture, under the guise of creative freedom, is becoming overtly spectacular. On the other hand, housing is becoming a field where the effects of neoliberal accumulation are spatially manifested the most as well as reconnecting architects with communities that are fighting for different ways of (re)distribution, especially in regard to housing units and spatial production outside the market, is what seems to be the most important manner and field of activities of an engaged architect.

You analyze the transformation of Yugoslav housing policies using examples of (il)legal urban interventions in Belgrade in your book, thus coining two new terms “extraterritoriality” and “extraillegality”. What is this about exactly?

Even though one of the most rightful ways of redistribution of surplus value is produced by the workings within a society, the Yugoslav right to housing had its own set of systematic problems, especially during the crisis period and the 80s when production of new housing units came to a halt. Likewise, problems arise in regard to those who were included in the housing policy yet didn’t contribute with their work in producing surplus value, for example expatriates, whose spatial manifestations are illegal developments, i.e., construction without building permits that often isn’t planned for either that type of development (mostly residential), or for that matter, any other type. When for the first time, in the late 80s and early 90s, the “right to housing” was given up as a principle, and a valid housing market was created, which didn’t even stand half a chance of taking shape and forming concrete standards due to the outbreak of war, ‘illegal’ construction became, especially in Serbia and Belgrade, the dominant manner of (residential) building production, which doesn’t stop on the outskirts, rather ‘spills over’ onto the entire city, especially via rooftops. That which interested me was to understand that moment when, during the late 90s, these illegally and with no paperwork constructed housing units became increasingly larger, while their production more organized, to ultimately culminate in early 2000 with extensions of so-called Russian Pavilions, where one-storey housing units were expanded with four, five additional storeys, and it wasn’t self-organized by the residents, but by the investors who used this same system to expand other facilities. I did however understand that this wasn’t done against the law, rather by deft sidestepping and through creative interpretation of a combination of various laws (on expansions, legalization). Hence I am trying to introduce this term of extra-legality, because it illegally refers to the fact that the problem is disrespecting the law, while the issue at stake here is the way the law has been regulated from the beginning – to be susceptible to a certain entity (capital). Thus the problem cannot be defined in terms of how the laws are respected or applied, rather how they’re written. Comprehension of this matter can provide us with an interesting and new comprehension between the law, production and privatization of space.

The Yugoslav housing policy was based on the notion of the right to housing. It is about a solidarity principle where every working individual contributed to a collective housing fund. Today society isn’t held collectively responsible for housing issues, housing has thus become a commodity. The battle against such a policy, is just beginning it seems.

Housing has not only become a commodity, but in some cities such as London or New York, housing is money. It is quite often the case that rich people worldwide, using low tax modules (e.g. for those who don’t live in London, but own real estate), buy apartments exclusively to transform their surplus of wealth into a more stable aggregate condition than money in the bank. Entire buildings are thus becoming bank vaults remaining empty and never inhabited, while process on the real estate market are intensively increasing, making it virtually impossible for ‘regular’ people buy any kind of apartment. This phenomenon is tearing cities apart. Not even two hundred years since it has first begun, woven within the fabric of the first stage of capitalism, the battle for the right to housing, the right to work, the right to life is becoming relevant again, accompanied by the right to water, genes, good… i.e. all those fields that neo-liberalism is attempting to commodify.

As you stated, numerous newly developed housing zones gape wide open. Let us also remember the Spanish example where one can count over two million empty housing units. On the other hand, banks evict people from apartments on a daily basis because they cannot keep up with their housings loan payments. As you pointed out in your lecture at the Micropolitics in Zagreb, housing has become a matter of life and death in today’s world. What exactly do you mean by that?

Housing units in your city have become currency by which the wealthy from all over the world insure their wealth, and no matter how hard you work you cannot afford a roof over your head because of that. Subtenants cough up a third or even half of their salary to meet rent. For the most part, the only way most people can afford to permanently settle their housing issue is to take out a loan from the bank, which I hold to be a way of legal extortion, which leaves people living paycheck to paycheck, fearful and struggling to meet their basic needs (food, gas) on a monthly basis. Because of the fact that the price of not meeting the monthly payments is literally loss of everything, it is crystal clear that the issue of having a roof over one’s head is a life-or-death issue. A housing unit per se is not only a safe and comfortable place of dwelling, but an address, an entry into society where one is recognized as a person and a part of said society.

Photo: Srđan Kovačević