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Vulnerability and Housing Policies. Anthropological Insights across Europe

“To Own or Not to Own”. Post-socialist Housing Policy, Privatism and Regimes of Vulnerability in Prague, Czech Republic

To Own or Not to Own”. Politiche abitative post-socialiste, privatismo e regimi di vulnerabilità a Praga (Repubblica Ceca)
Michal Lehečka


Nel corso del 2016, i prezzi delle case a Praga hanno iniziato a crescere rapidamente, come risultato di una pressione di lungo termine generata dalla stagnazione dell’industria edile, dal costante afflusso di nuovi arrivati, dalle speculazioni, dalle piattaforme di “shared economy”, ecc. Questi processi globali hanno messo in luce una popolazione vulnerabile e quasi dimenticata della città: i non proprietari. L’attuale situazione abitativa di Praga è l’esito della via post-socialista alla liberalizzazione e alla deregolamentazione della proprietà, spesso etichettata come regime di privatismo (Hirt 2012). Dopo quarant’anni di regime proprietario socialista guidato dallo stato, la privatizzazione posta in essere tra gli anni Novanta e Duemila ha trasformato approssimativamente il 90% dello stock abitativo locale in proprietà privata. La proprietà privata è stata dunque riscoperta come componente fondamentale dello status sociale e, allo stesso tempo, sia la città sia lo stato hanno abbandonato qualsiasi politica abitativa proattiva. Basato su un lavoro di campo condotto nelle periferie di Praga, il presente articolo si focalizza su diverse forme di vulnerabilità abitativa presenti a Praga. La situazione dei non proprietari, che devono fronteggiare il pericolo costante dell’allontanamento, verrà confrontata con le strategie e le pratiche dei “nuovi arrivati” – migranti della regione post-Soviet che si trasferiscono in città e comprano appartamenti in complessi residenziali suburbani simili. Attraverso l’analisi delle diverse spazialità e temporalità individuali e del regime ibrido tra in e out e locale e globale, l’articolo discuterà il mercato abitativo post-socialista.

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  • 1 This text was supported by institutional grant SVV 2017-260470.
  • 2 By socialist modernist housing estates I mean prefabricated mass housing projects that emerged as r (...)

1In this article, I will introduce and interpret some of the post-socialist conditions, practices and strategies that come together with housing property ownership and tenancy in Prague’s peripheries. Specifically, my focus lies on housing policies and actor’s struggles regarding dwelling issues in socialist modernist housing estates2 in which I have been conducting multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork (Marcus 1995; Falzon 2009) for more than nine years.

2According to classical author Musil and, more recently according to Ouředníček, geographic space of Czech Republic is facing (and has been facing) the housing crisis and lack of affordable housing for at least 100 years, approximately since the end of the First World War (Musil 1971, 1985; Ouředníček 2019). During this period, housing situation in Czech capital, the city of Prague, went through radical shifts both in the ideology of urbanism and the ownership legislation. Most important and still ongoing changes are connected with transformation of the state after 1989. All across Central and Eastern European Countries (CEE Countries) restitutions and privatizations of nearly everything that was owned (maintained) by collapsing socialist states appeared on an unprecedented scale and with overwhelming civic support (Marcuse 1996; Murie et al. 2005).

3During the 1990’s a vast majority of housing property in Prague was either given back to the original owners who held the property before the socialist nationalization after 1948, or in case of housing stock built by socialist regime, conveniently privatized mostly to its sitting tenants. Among these essential and dynamic processes, “Give Away Privatization” (Lux, Sunega 2014) or “Big Bang Right to Buy Privatization”, as some aptly call it (Murie et al. 2005), held a specific position that is shaping the city’s housing structure as well as public spaces until today. Widespread ethos of privatization was strengthened even further by the fact that Czech property market became globalized. Until 2009 there was no legal way how non-Czech individual could purchase a dwelling property, except if he/she had a permanent residence or if it was purchased on behalf of a company held by him/her. Although Czech Republic became EU member in May 2004 and one of the entering conditions was a free trade and distribution of real estate property, the state had a five year exception due to “foreign currency law” from 1995, which regulated purchasing the real estate property in Czech Republic. All together with other phenomena such as housing property speculation or commodification and financialization of dwelling (Madden, Marcuse 2016) a specific group of vulnerable dwellers emerged – the non-owners.

  • 3 In brief, privatism means a cultural condition in which the private ownership is considered the bes (...)

4This text focuses on both socially and spatially two interconnected regimes of housing risk in post-socialist modernist city: A) strategies and practices of long-term non-owners whose lives are surrounded by fear of displacement and dreaming of private ownership of their apartment, and B) non-Czech citizens, mostly post-soviet immigrants who are settling in Prague’s modernist housing estates and who strive for the ownership of the housing property, because it is seen as a means to strengthen their unstable social status. I explore those two regimes because by my opinion they have a lot in common especially when the privatisation is taken into account. I will illustrate how post-socialist cultural, social and political conditions determine the dominant ways of (re)production of the constraints and instabilities in heavily privatized city. I argue that the more private ownership there is in the society, the more the non-owners dream of and strive for buying an apartment. In this way, the privatism3 is gaining its hegemony (Hirt 2012).

Multi-sited ethnography and positionality of the researcher

5During the long-term research that was based on participant observation, informal interviews, in-depth interviews and analyses of the material culture I spent a lot of time on a several different socialist modernist developments, mostly in Prague. At the same time, as applied urban anthropology researcher, I got involved in several projects that were aimed on public space and community development in some of those modernist areas. Therefore my fieldwork was not bound to a particular space and my research identity was also rather fluid. For some of the informants my position might have been blurry or confusing because they knew me also as a social worker, coordinator of local community life or the exhibition curator. On the one hand, my encounter with the inhabitants was mutually beneficial because I had something to offer (help, support, acclaim, etc.), but on the other hand, the complexity and changeability of my identity was seen by some informants as a sign of opacity. It took constant explanation of what I was doing there. Some of the inhabitants however still had rather unclear impressions about my research.

6The text draws upon the data created in different times in two separate Prague’s modernist housing estates. The first set of data comes from Černý Most housing estate in eastern suburban area of Prague. From 2014 to 2016 I had worked there as a community-researcher and social worker for a couple of local NGO’s. Thanks to that, I have been in long-term contact with local marginalized people living in danger of displacement. Second set was created during 2018 applied fieldwork for a Goethe Institut exhibition which was realized among the non-Czech inhabitants of Nové Butovice and Lužiny housing estate on the western periphery of Prague.

7Thanks to this multi-level positionality I gained complex spectre of perspectives from “being there” with housing estates inhabitants to negotiating or even advocating their concerns and needs on the multiple levels of housing ownership and city policy-making. That is why I consider the multi-sited ethnography perspective so important and fruitful to depict and explain at least some of the ongoing phenomena.

Prague: a city in transition

  • 4 Spatial organization of the city is a result of work and social production (Lefebrve 1991). The ter (...)

8City of Prague is stuck in an ambivalent situation that illustrates the spatial limits of the urban area and the socio-economic character of (re)production4 of urban spaces (Lefebvre 1991). Some social geographers therefore claim that Prague entered a stage defined by new socio-spatial differentiation (Přidalová, Hasman 2017; Přidalová, Ouředníček 2017). This process of spatial reconfiguration is caused especially by the growing population of Prague metropolitan area, tourism and by settling strategies of the immigrants. On the one hand, since 1989 city government had abandoned pro-active housing policy and had practically given up on active development of city or municipality driven housing property. On the other hand, construction industry and developers are still not obliged to provide both old and new inhabitants with affordable housing. These and many other factors lead, indeed, to an unprecedented increase in rates of housing prices and therefore (re)produce a situation of specific vulnerability regimes. At the same time, there are only limited solutions available within the current legislative framework (see Samec 2018). For example, there are no legal regulations for shared economy platforms such as Airbnb. Their negative effect in Prague lays mainly in contributing to the acceleration of the pressure on rental market by allocating thousands of apartments into the shared economy mode which is seen as more profitable.

9Current housing situation emerged from the post-socialist way of ownership liberalization and deregulation. Private ownership was thus rediscovered as a component of social status. This shift radically changed also the social space and status of those who were not able or did not want to own a property. Throughout last thirty years a new groups of owners and non-owners started to establish their positions in the new housing economy (Rowlands et al. 2009; Sendi et al. 2009), Along with politicians, officials, construction companies and real estate developers, these dwellers represent a significant group of actors that have been (re)producing the urbanism of Prague.

10Right after the 1989, Prague started to transform from industrial setting into a neoliberal post-industrial city driven mostly by global financial capital. Main ideology of urban development is therefore based on the principles of free market and economic growth (Harvey 2012). Besides the privatization of state-owned companies, the privatization of housing stock represents a prevailing strategy for both city council and municipal officials.

11As Šmídová observed (Šmídová 1996; see also Kharkhordin 1996), the socialist environment was somehow «prepared» for this sort of transformation. As she explains, the state forms of tenure, especially the so called «socialist right to use the property» (Marcuse 1996; Pelikánová 2009) which practically presented the only legal way how to have a flat, created a clientelistic environment of material and financial relations that could be described as a regime of quasi-ownership (Šmídová 1996). It means that the state system was acting as if there was no space for private ownership, but there were unofficial ways how to acquire or appropriate stuff held by socialist state. The ambition of socialist states to create a total space (Lefebvre 1991: 56) where the private is seen as an integral part of society’s everyday life was therefore eroded by the individuals striving for privacy and individual consumption.

  • 5 For example Hungary had permitted a private ownership before 1989 (Murie et al. 2005).
  • 6 Cooperative and Condominium are two legal ways how to collectively own and maintain housing propert (...)

12Privatization of socialist modernist housing that started in early 1990’s absorbed some of those (un)official claims and desires5. The process started in early 1991 and consisted of several periods and it was not so “big bang” as in some of the other CEE countries as for example in Hungary (Sládek 2013). Firstly, the vast majority of state owned housing stock was converted into city or municipal property. Secondly, right after this conversion, the city started to offer the individual objects primarily to its sitting tenants. And finally (but simultaneously with the second period), the communities of inhabitants had to (and in the limited way they still continue this practice today) create a collective subject – Cooperative or Condominium6. The price for individual flat in this process was not based on market rates (at the beginning it was approximately 10 times lower than free market price). Even though it was so “cheap”, there were still many people who could not afford to buy a flat.

Privatism and global housing market

13Today less than 5% of housing stock in Prague is owned by city or its municipalities but over 20% of Prague inhabitants are renting an apartment. The processes and actual ratios of public and private housing property are very similar in all CEE countries. Heavily privatized regimes of housing reflect the ways of transformation favorized by newly established democratic state policies (see Gorczyca 2016; Hegedus, Tosics 1996; Murie et al. 2005). On the background of those processes, however, new cultural condition started to emerge.

14In order to broaden the description of Prague’s current situation, we should deeply explain Sonia Hirt’s term privatism (Hirt 2012). Privatization is a socioeconomic process, while privatism represents a general cultural condition of mass tendency towards a private ownership. This regime – although it has its origins in Western neoliberal economies – is pervasively strong and specifically rooted in post-Socialist and post-Soviet societies. This means that socialist preconditions (e.g. quasi-ownership, right to use, common property) and the ways of post-socialist financialized urbanism created an environment for “rise of the private” that is more dynamic and stronger than in Western European countries, where the shift towards private was more gradual. As Hirt puts it, East European privatism is like Western privatism on steroids, or better, it is privatism that has erupted with intensity of long-suppressed (Hirt 2012: 27). Such “rise of the private” and its logical opposite “decline of the public” are accompanied by the previously mentioned dynamic structural changes such as weakening of the state powers, reduction of state responsibilities that are transferred to a sub-state levels or citizens (Ibidem: 17). To sum up, the vast majority of Czech society (as well as other CEE societies) inclines towards the private mainly because of pervasive disbelief in viability of public realm that has its origins in negative perspective on socialist heritage and positive attitude of the society towards principles of neoliberal free market (Ibidem: 25). The cultural regime of privatism is therefore more actual than ever because its long-term hegemony started to reveal its consequences and limits.

15In order to make this theoretical assemblage complete, one more significant dimension of post-socialist commodification of housing estates and privatization processes has to be mentioned. After 1989, as Prague opened towards the world, the city became also the place where people searched for new home. New migration policy together with fast-growing economy opened a way to an increased economic migration for new type of non-owners, mostly from post-socialist and post-soviet countries. Following the status of the newly arriving non-Czech citizens, the housing estates represented a rational, comprehensible and affordable mode of living. Despite those tendencies, the social structure of housing estates in Prague remains stable, because most of the original inhabitants who were leaving the estates for the suburban areas (urban sprawl) were slowly replaced by increasing numbers of middle-class newcomers mostly from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Caucasian republics, Balkans and Vietnam (Přídalová 2017; Přidalová, Ouředníček 2017). They gradually became new owners of the apartments. The diversified structure of inhabitants changed so rapidly that according to the census made in 2011, nearly 15% of Prague’s housing estates inhabitants were non-Czech. The area with highest rate, Lužiny, Hůrka and Nové Butovice districts on Jihozápadní město housing estate, has from 20 to 30% of non-Czech inhabitants, nearly half of which are middle class Russians (see Němec, Brabec 2015; Přidalová 2017).

  • 7 In early 1990’s modernist settlements stayed as memorials of the socialist regime and most of the c (...)

16In this way, privatization and globalization of the housing stock market opened a space for newcomers because lots of original settlers who have been able to buy a flat or house in the newly built suburban areas have left the estates. Despite radical changes and post-transformation stigmatizing of the panel housing7, some scholars argue (Gibas 2019; Lehečka 2018; Špaček 2012) that thanks to the privatization, the socio-demographic structure of the majority of the housing estates remained quite stable. In fact, vast majority of the CEE modernist housing estates never transformed into “banlieues” (Špaček 2012; Wacquant 2008) and up to now their population differs only slightly from the social structure of the Czech society as a whole. But it has to be pointed out again that this ownership unbalance lead to a situation where vast majority of 5% of the housing that remained held by city of Prague and its municipalities now represent an unofficial social housing. This is how private ownership hegemony (re)produces and co-establishes various regimes of housing non-ownership vulnerability. These tendencies are connected with both local and global economic transformation issues, as well as deeply rooted in marginality, migration and ethnicity issues. Let us now move to some of the micro-perspective cases.

Lenka and Diana: Two ways of displacing the marginalized

  • 8 Čada defines social exclusion as fluid coincidence of five factors that determine the individual‘s (...)

17Černý Most, a 1980’s housing estate of approximately 23.000 inhabitants (Němec, Brabec 2015), has a reputation among Prague citizens as one of the worst housing estates mainly because of stereotypical perspectives on its population structure and neglected urbanism. In 2015 I got in contact with both Roma and non-Roma families that were in constant danger of displacement (Atkinson 2015; Madden, Marcuse 2016) and social marginalization. As time went on, serious situations in the local neighbourhood of “the U” started to reveal itself. “The U” the nickname comes from the ground-plan shape of one of the local block of flats is one of the few Prague’s neighbourhoods that are officially defined as socially excluded areas (Čada et al. 2015)8. It is also one of the last localities where the Prague city owns the majority of the apartments. In post-socialist Prague it was predominantly the privatization process that displaced lot of ethnically marginalized and low income individuals and families who could not afford to buy a flat into localities like “the U”. That’s how “the U” became the home of the biggest marginalized enclaves in Prague, about to be privatized in the near future. There is no doubt, that privatization of remaining city-owned housing stock would displace most of the non-owner families.

18In the summer of 2016, Lenka, nearly 40 year old woman, who lived at “the U” in the cooperative two-room apartment with her partner and her eight and twelve year old sons, addressed me via Facebook Messenger to ask me for help with a precarious situation of local families who were close to her:

Lenka: «Hey! Do you have time for few questions?»

Researcher: «Hi Lenka, of course. Go on».

L: «Problems with the social welfare office again».

R: «What happened?».

L: «It is not about me this time. But they call the police again without any reason».

R: «What do you mean exactly? Interventions into flats? Evicting families? Based on what?».

L: «No. My friend Diane was at the office and as usual: only racking and contempt. And then they simply call the police when people complain. We need someone who is able to come at the office with her tomorrow. I can’t, have to go to work».

R: «Tommorow? I can help only from 12am onwards. Is it possible to postpone it on Friday? I have to be at work too».

L: «They’re closed on Fridays. And Diane is out of money. The rumour says that the office is without a boss right now».

R: «Try to call Baltasar (local social worker)».

L: «Ain’t have a number... ».

R: «Or his colleague, here is a number ***-.--*--*».

L: «Thanks».

R: «Bye, just let me know if they’ll come with Diana». (Chat with Lenka, July 2016)

19Lenka was trying to help Diana because only a few months before, she was in a similar situation. The danger of being evicted was an integral part of local life and its constraints, so local women usually shared their problems and tried to support each other collectively.

  • 9 In “the U” the unmarried couples with multiple children are very common.

20Lenka is seemingly a typical representative of Czech lower middle class, but her status is more complex. She grew up in Černý Most and lived in “the U” for a long time in a cooperative flat that was rented to her by her father and then her mother-in-law respectively. Her partner works as an ambulance driver. They lived as unmarried couple, because of the financial costs of marriage on the one hand and also the financial advantages of being single on the other.9 Despite this rather favourable constellation, her family has been dependent for quite a long time on social welfare benefits, especially because of her spinal disease and medical problems of her younger son. Due to these handicaps Lenka was able to work for a limited time a day in a part-time job and it was really hard for her to get a stable job. During the period when we were seeing each other a lot, she was hanging around with similarly disadvantaged Roma mothers, although she is of non-Roma descent. Her sons became members of the local group of “street corner” children for whom the neglected public spaces in neighbourhood remained the only and beloved playground.

  • 10 It consists mainly of housing allowance, surcharge for flats, and living allowance. The applicant i (...)

21In the autumn of 2015, internal reform in the social aid agenda of Employment department and its system of so called material need benefits10 was underway. This change caused local officers to become very strict when dealing with the applicants. In practice: one mistake in the papers or missing document and the money was not paid for another 30 days. By then, Lenka got into her first emergency situation: although she was unemployed, she did not receive any financial help for more than three months and the whole family was therefore in risk of being cut off from electricity, gas and water. The ultimate risk was a complete financial bankruptcy.

22Despite her unstable position Lenka knew that there were lots of individuals in even more serious situation. Lenka lived in a cooperative flat, so her expenditures for a living were not so high as in the case of Diana, Roma mother of three children, who rented the city owned three room flat across the street for which she was paying monthly up to 14 000 CZK (nearly a 600 EUR). It is no surprise that Diana who grew up in “the U” and her ancestors came from Slovakia had been living under the shadow of displacement for a very long time. She was strongly dependent on the material need benefits. Moreover, she was currently on maternity leave, living with her partner, while the Somalian father of her older children was not present. Despite the maternal duties she held two jobs at a shopping mall to earn enough to support herself and her family. She saw the privatization of the remaining housing stock in “the U” promised by the local political representatives as the only possible and sustainable relief from her situation.

23Things moved on. The first one who left “the U” was Lenka, in spring of 2017. She was not evicted. Her mother-in-law transferred the flat Lenka rented from her to Lenka’s family. So as soon as she became the legal owner, she sold the apartment. She saw it as liberation: every time I talked to her, Lenka defined her living in “the U” as a, «living in a stinky hollow». She dreamed for a long time that the whole family would find a house in a countryside. And that really happened in the end. She bought a house in a small village, 30 km from Prague, in Central Bohemia, and she also found a part-time job in nearby city. As she says, the situation of her sons improved a lot and they are happy with living outside the city.

24In general, both cases represent some of the modalities of relationship to (non)ownership in the cultural condition of privatism. Lenka’s family was fortunate to be able to afford to buy a house outside the “vicious circle” of “the U”. Diana was not so lucky and her vulnerability increased even more. She now has a fourth baby and although she still holds two jobs and has a new partner, she is still fighting her everyday struggle against offices, poverty, and fear of displacement.

Sergei and Anna: Escaping vulnerability at Lužiny, Jihozápadní město

  • 11 Research project Arrival City: Southwest City. City, Migration, Housing estate was aimed on creatin (...)

25Let us now move on the other side of Prague and introduce the stories of Anna and Sergei. Both Anna and Sergei moved to the Czech Republic from Russia in 1990’s but they represent two generations of post-Soviet newcomers. They live close but do not know each other. I was really lucky to meet them during the 2018 research that was aimed on exploring the impact of immigration on public spaces of Jihozápadní město housing estate.11 Local districts Lužiny, Hůrka and Nové Butovice were built at the same time as Černý Most, in late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Throughout the time, the remaining free spaces in the housing estate became built-up by newer and not-prefabricated housing units. Both old and new developments became a destination for a significant number of middle-class newcomers especially of post-Soviet origin. Some neighborhoods in the locality therefore became migrant enclaves and places of choice for economic immigrants. In some of the housing units more than 50% of inhabitants are non-Czech citizens. When travelling to this area of the city by underground, a significant change can be observed – lots of passengers are speaking Russian or other eastern Slavic languages, giving the impression of multiethnic space.

26Anna (29) landed in the Czech Republic with her family twenty years ago (in 1998). Her family came from Izhyevsk, Undmurtia region. After settling in Prague, they started to run a private business in helping post-soviet migrants with the documents, visas etc. The business went well until 2010 when the immigration policy of Czech Republic changed due to financial crisis. During Anna’s childhood and early adulthood her family moved several times, but mostly within Prague peripheries (she lived for a long time both in Černý Most and Jihozápadní město). Anna attended elementary school, then gymnasium (high school) and then studied Humanities at Charles University. During her studies she started to work as a tourist guide in Prague city centre. In 2017 she met Ivan, a 34-year-old Serbo-Croatian who is also a tourist guide. They got married and now they have two-year-old daughter. Almost two years ago they settled in the newly built flat in Lužiny, that her parents bought for her.

27Sergei (50) was born in 1969 and first came to the Czech Republic in 1983 as a son of the Soviet army officer. In 1986 he went back to Novosibirsk, then moved to Minsk and immigrated into the Czech Republic in 1998 as a Belarusian citizen although he defines himself as Russian. In Russian Federation he studied medicine, but never practiced it. Right after his arrival to Prague he started to work as a guide in a tourist company. He got married to a Russian immigrant and has a ten-year-old daughter. Few years ago, he got divorced and had been forced to move from an apartment that he bought in Lužiny to a flat nearby that he originally bought for his mother, who came after him from Minsk several years ago and acquired a permanent residence in the Czech Republic.

28Both Anna and Sergei acquired Czech citizenship some time ago, though it takes quite a long time. In order to get Czech passport, immigrants have to secure their situation by earning relatively big amounts of money to hold their vulnerable social position. Because of this need, they started to work in more dynamic and lucrative tourist industry. They therefore foster from positive financial situation in tourism which is based on open border policy within the European Union, recreational migration, neoliberal city-brand of Prague and a globalization of dwelling (hotel industry, Airbnb etc.).

29The situation is quite paradoxical, because tourism development is playing a significant part in processes of commodification of the city that is undermining the position of everyone who lives in Prague. Living in post-industrial Prague is becoming more and more attractive – the influx of newcomers and tourists caused the prices of flats and rental housing to increase (approx. 15% each year since 2016). The same goes for services. This tendency consequently increases the pressure on the individuals: it gives less operational space for low income non-owner inhabitants. Every renewal of the contract is surrounded by fear of increasing the rent or owner’s speculation. These ambivalent pressures occur even if the apartments are owned by the city many tenants are looking forward to privatizing while simultaneously being afraid of expensive privatization. It is simply because the actual price would probably exceed their financial limitations.

30Anna’s and Sergei’s way to become inhabitants, owners and of course citizens illustrate another multi-sited regime of escaping vulnerability in the context of post-socialist privatism regime. Although their actual situations could be described as financially and socially stable, they experienced a lot of obstacles and struggles in the process of achieving the “safe” situation in their new home.

There is no in’n’out

31Let us now conclude and intertwin the situation of Lenka and Diana from Černý Most and strategies and practices of post-soviet immigrants such as Anna and Sergei. Upon closer look we can see that the common topic in those otherwise distant stories is the relation (and struggle) to (for) ownership while facing the danger of displacement.

32Neoliberal housing market and the desire for the private ownership fixes the status and, in some way, increases the residential stability of the individual and his family. The situation of both marginalized families from Černý Most and the situation of newcomers – non-Czech citizens from Lužiny – was (and still is) for quite a long time rather uncertain. All of them have ample experience with immigration controls and/or social aid office agenda. They have been also challenged by marginalization, stereotypes, xenophobia, etc. It is no surprise that one of the first steps (when it is possible) is to achieve ownership: which means privatize or buy an apartment no matter the debt it gets them into.

33These situations of uncertainty and vulnerability create a variety of interconnected regimes of striving for the dwelling:

34Those who move in, Anna, Sergei and their families got “safe” after some years of uncertainty. Thanks to their middle-class status, good orientation in legislation and ability to earn enough money they were able to buy a flat(s). They applied for citizenship and, after some time, they became citizens. They partly won their battle against spatial displacement.

  • 12 According to Atkinson (2015) symbolic displacement refers to the sense of subordination, discomfort (...)

35Lenka, a (symbolically)12 displaced woman who was forced to and later wanted to leave the city, was fortunate, because the cooperative flat that she paid rent in was finally given to her by a relative. Right afterwards Lenka sold the flat, although not very conveniently (for 2,2 milion CZK for cooperative apartment, approx. 90 000 EUR, medium price for such type of apartment while it is owned privately is around 3,5 million CZK, approx. 145 000 EUR). Thanks to that money she was finally able to buy a house in the village nearby Prague. After that, her family situation stabilized and she conceptualizes her escape from the housing estate as the “vital liberation”.

36Diana, the mother of four, remained in housing estate while simultaneously facing constant danger of displacement. She is still living in the city owned flat and, as she says, she is “waiting for the privatization” – that means for the option to buy a flat and then consider if her family wants to sell it and move out from “the U” or to stay there. But in fact, she probably won’t be able to get a mortgage to buy it because of her unstable financial situation. Her tenancy will therefore probably depend on her owner neighbours from the newly established condominium or cooperative.

37Private ownership and privatism ethos therefore stay as framework for interconnected regimes of the dynamic in/out processes also in Prague housing estates. Some “original” non-owners, are about to leave because of long-term pressure of displacement, at the same time middle-class non-Czech newcomers are facing the danger of being displaced as well. All of them are trying to buy a property, but only some of them will succeed. The housing supply is getting thinner, because of the slow development, high costs and globalization of housing. From a long-term perspective, we are facing the situation of omnipresent housing pressure in which the amount of publicly owned apartments is so limited that the city is becoming a victim of privatism hegemony. This hegemony generates a rather small, vulnerable but still significant group of people – the non-owners who will be hardly able to afford an apartment in the foreseeable future.

38When we change our perspective a little bit, we could say that the depicted stories of post-socialist privatism show the constant movement towards absolute hegemony of private ownership of the housing property. At the same time those tendencies are transforming the modalities of home. We are living in times when free movement across the globe and disappearance of all kinds of boundaries present a precious outcome of freedom of movement, but at the same time we see places where the very same “freedom” displaces (at least symbolically) people who stay(ed) at the place. Everything is working for the private ownership because it is the only relatively safe way how to both stay put and fully enjoy a freedom of movement. If one takes it seriously, he or she suddenly realizes that in a global housing market driven by privatism, there are no old-settlers and newcomers. Rather than on the in/out movement, we have to focus on the individual’s ability of movement “within” the housing market and “towards” or “out of” a property – because its dynamics originate from individual’s access to socio-financial capital. From this perspective it is clear that in post-socialist privatism regimes, for those who are in a precarious and vulnerable position – socially, ethnically, or by gender – the question “to own or not to own” is not making any sense. Because “not to own” means to stay at the bottom.

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1 This text was supported by institutional grant SVV 2017-260470.

2 By socialist modernist housing estates I mean prefabricated mass housing projects that emerged as results of deriving architectural modernism and the principles of Athens Charter (1933) into urbanist ideology of socialist modernism (Zadražilová 2013). Main socialist modernist principles were – panel prefabrication, function, order, zoning and collectivism, social mixity and equality. Starting from 1950’s to early 1990’s more than a million apartments were built all across the Czech Republic.

3 In brief, privatism means a cultural condition in which the private ownership is considered the best way of holding the property – by individuals, collectives, companies. It is seen as a most productive strategy also for the society and state. For more description see chapter 4. Privatism and global housing market.

4 Spatial organization of the city is a result of work and social production (Lefebrve 1991). The term (re)production, by my opinion, aptly describes the spatio-temporal accumulation and co-opting that is inscribed into today’s cities.

5 For example Hungary had permitted a private ownership before 1989 (Murie et al. 2005).

6 Cooperative and Condominium are two legal ways how to collectively own and maintain housing property in Czech Republic. Cooperative consists of shareholders, each of them owning an equal part of the building according total number of shareholders. In fact, shareholders do not own a flat but only the share, which decreases the share’s price on the housing market. Condominium means literally the association of the owners who can sell a flat without permission of the condominium.

7 In early 1990’s modernist settlements stayed as memorials of the socialist regime and most of the critique was aimed on the prediction that such inhuman and anonymous mode of dwelling will not survive the transformation. Part of this negative labelling remained actual especially in middle-class discussions until nowadays (Lehečka, unpublished dissertation).

8 Čada defines social exclusion as fluid coincidence of five factors that determine the individual‘s access to 1) a free job market, 2) public services, 3) contact with “social neighbours”, 4) help with the individual crises and 5) political participation. From this perspective, labelling “the U” as the socially excluded locality is disputable. It is mainly because there is surprisingly lower rate of unemployment than in other socially excluded areas, and the public services are at the level of the average in the Czech Republic as a whole. The fact that socially excluded character of “the U” is put into question does not mean that other regimes of eg. housing vulnerability are not involved.

9 In “the U” the unmarried couples with multiple children are very common.

10 It consists mainly of housing allowance, surcharge for flats, and living allowance. The applicant is obliged to report household income on a quarterly basis. Financial amount of the benefits is therefore extrapolated from the fact how much is the household basic income under the living minimum.

11 Research project Arrival City: Southwest City. City, Migration, Housing estate was aimed on creating a site-specific installation. You can find more on:

12 According to Atkinson (2015) symbolic displacement refers to the sense of subordination, discomfort and unease with trying to stay-put while the visible and sensed changes of the physical and social fabric of the neighbourhood and its symbolic order shifted dramatically as rapid gentrification took place.

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Michal Lehečka, «“To Own or Not to Own”. Post-socialist Housing Policy, Privatism and Regimes of Vulnerability in Prague, Czech Republic»Archivio antropologico mediterraneo [Online], Anno XXII, n. 21 (2) | 2019, online dal 31 décembre 2019, consultato il 01 décembre 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Michal Lehečka

Charles University, Faculty of Humanities,

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