On the heels of loud debate regarding the sale of council-owned rental flats, Fidesz has eventually moved to take one step back from the original proposal. As of now, mandatory sell-off would be restricted to Budapest’s world heritage sites, in addition to some other changes. The bill is, however, still a matter of criticism and unacceptable to many.
As we previously reported, Fidesz MP László Böröcz proposed a bill that would let tenants of council properties buy the apartment they are renting (without needing any approval from the municipalities) for not more than 30% of the market price (something that could easily go further down to even 10-15% with additional discounts). This would have potentially affected more than 100,000 of such properties across the country.
While many on the opposition and several of the professionals and NGOs loudly protested the bill, a number of Fidesz municipal leaders also raised their voices (with one of them even labeling it as “idiocy”) and urged for (at least) meaningful modifications to it.
Fidesz to announce modifications
These were the antecedents of the general debate that eventually kicked-off on Wednesday. The night before, Fidesz published a modification making it clear that it would significantly water down the bill. In the most important modification, the legislation would be restricted to Budapest historical buildings located in the world heritage sites (these are roughly the places where tenants couldn’t buy their flats after the regime change). The modification would also set a time limit (five years of residency, but the exact conditions are yet to be clarified) for the purchase. Elsewhere, it would be up to the municipalities to decide on the sell-off (in case a tenant would want to buy it).
Böröcz pointed to the (municipal electoral) campaign promise of 1st (Castle) district mayor Márta V. Naszályi (of leftist-green Párbeszéd) who had vowed to enable residents to purchase their homes there, which eventually turned out to be untrue while she also moved to tighten regulations and raised rental fees instead, Böröcz explained. As a consequence, he claimed he received several inquiries from the tenants, driving him to start working on the bill.
He also said the proposal would resolve the problem of those who hadn’t the chance to buy their rental housing after the regime change and it was extended for the whole county (which has been taken off the table now), after he had received similar inquiries from other municipalities of Hungary.
Civil organizations still want complete withdrawal
Professional organizations, however, have called for a total withdrawal of the bill. At a joint press conference in front of Parliament on Wednesday, 32 different organizations’ representatives argued that the proposal would harm a basic right enshrined in the constitution and make social housing policy impossible.
Zsolt Szegfalvi, the leader of Habitat for Humanity Hungary, said the proposal would be the final blow to an already struggling flat rental system and social housing policy. Also, it lacked any professional background, he said.
Vera Kovács, co-leader of ‘From Street To Home Association’ (Utcáról Lakásba), an NGO working to provide housing for homeless or low-income citizens, said social mobility would all but disappear if rental housing was eliminated. Young people wanting to find work in the city would be unable to move there unless their family owned property, which would exclude those coming from state care, among others, she said.
Márton Gede, of the City is For All Movement (Város Mindenkié) group, noted that selling council-owned rental apartments would deprive homeless people from the hope of moving to “normal housing” from crowded shelters.
Opposition municipal leaders: “It’s sinful”
The independent (but opposition-backed) mayor of Budapest’s 8th district commented on the amendment proposal that “while that would be a huge political success, the law would remain tantamount to robbery,” calling on the government to withdraw the proposal entirely. It “isn’t simply stupid, it’s sinful,” András Pikó also said, explaining that it would expose vulnerable citizens to fraudsters, as many would need to turn to loan sharks to buy their flats.
The Budapest mayor wasn’t any less low-key in his response either. According to Gergely Karácsony’s interpretation, ruling forces decided to implement mandatory sell-off after opposition municipal leaders moved to put an end to unjust practices of the government aiming to favor their cronies. After realizing that the original bill would eventually help the housing mafia, they discarded it. This latest version, however, still exactly satisfies those privileged Fidesz followers, Karácsony argues, promising further resistance.
According to opposition politicians, the original bill was only a trick to mask the real intentions, and right from the start Fidesz’s aim was to privatize the Buda Castle district estates.
Jobbik, LMP wants extension of municipality-owned rental scheme
Meanwhile, instead of downsizing it, both right-wing Jobbik and green-centrist LMP want further extensions to the municipal rental scheme. Jobbik MP Dániel Z. Kárpát called the original version “treason,” adding that it was unacceptable in its current form too. He argued that an additional HUF 200 billion (EUR 575 million) should be invested in the scheme per year.
While according to LMP, the housing crisis cannot be managed without a rental housing program. Péter Ungár explained that in many parts of the country it was impossible to rent a two or three-room apartment from an average salary. Each country in the region has a rental housing program, with Hungary being the only exception, he added, stressing that an increase in supply would push down prices, helping the tenants.
featured image: gates in the Castle District; illustration via Csaba Jászai/MTVA