#Watchdogs: The Right to Information Allowed Us to Show that Tenant Debt Is a Social Problem

Kinga KulikAn interview with Kinga Kulik, member of the Citizens’ Network Watchdog Poland and a tenant activist.

Martyna Bójko: I know that for you and other activists in the Lublin Tenant Action (Lubelska Akcja Lokatorska), the right to information is primarily a tool to fight for tenants’ rights. How did it start?

Kinga Kulik: I see myself as a guardian of the right to information, although for the past two years I have been observing rather than acting. I have been interested in the right to information for almost 10 years. I did some local human rights monitoring for the Homo Faber Association, including the transparency of the Lublin City Council. I became quite heavily involved in tenant activities. In August 2015, we read in the newspaper that there would be evictions in Lublin carried out by a private company from Wrocław. A bailiff from Świebodzin was also involved and they were supposed to do 14 evictions in a week. Thanks to a local journalist, we were able to identify several addresses where the bailiff was supposed to appear. We managed to stop one eviction.

That’s where it all started. We started checking out the city office. We sent out a great many requests for information without really knowing anything. Neither how the law works in this area nor what the responsibilities of the office are – we learned everything as we went along.

The first thing we asked about was the contract that the office had signed with the company responsible for evictions.

Did you ask the government office or this company?

The office. We asked not only about the contract, but also if they knew anything about the company they had hired, whose methods of operation were very objectionable. The prosecution had been interested in it as well. I remember that the business owner was surprised when we quoted him the provisions of the contract. He asked where we had got it. We said we got it from the government office because it was obliged to make it available. He got angry.

Once the company completed evictions in Lublin, I sent them a request for information asking for all the contracts they had signed with local governments. They did not respond to this request for a very long time. They hired a law firm and sent me multi-page letters. Eventually I applied for them to be fined and that’s what happened.

A fine for what?

For not forwarding my complaint of inaction to the court. After that, I didn’t pursue the issue of these contracts anymore. It took an awful lot of effort. Also, you can’t always expect a “pro-transparency” perspective in court. I decided to drop it. The only positive takeaway from this story is that with this fine, albeit small, they felt that they were not above the law and that even despite hiring a law firm, they could lose a battle against a single citizen. The second success was the mayor’s decision not to carry out any more evictions with the help of a private company.

So you confronted the provisions of the contract you had obtained upon request with the course of these evictions and you realised that they had not been proceeding as they should have been? Had it not been for your intervention, the city probably would not have noticed anything disturbing?

Exactly. For example, we asked this company where the ambulance they were supposed to provide was. In looking at these evictions, we discovered that the city had contracted them to evict a person who had been dead for six years and the company took a few thousand zlotys to vacate an empty apartment. This made us realise that the city had no idea who was occupying these council flats, and had neglected to contact people who needed help for years. In addition, we revealed that contrary to the law and the contract with the government office, the company did not provide temporary housing to the evicted persons. We cooperated with the media all the time, providing them with all the information we had obtained.

Going back to the right to information – did you get involved with tenant issues and only then discovered that a request for information was a good tool for getting the necessary data?

No, it was the other way around. I had been in Watchdog since 2013 and when I got on the topic of eviction, I knew that if I wanted to know something, I could exercise my right to information.

And can you say a few words about how you joined the Watchdog Poland?

Oh, it was so long ago… In 2011 or 2012, on behalf of Homo Faber, I ended up on the “On Guard” course [a blended – internet and stationary course – for watchdog organisations]. About a year after that course, I joined the Watchdog Poland. It wasn’t long before I had my first powerful experience with access to information. Homo Faber, as an organisation, got a request for information to share contracts with public entities for several years back. We didn’t have it in electronic form and I remember scanning it for several days. Then we decided to make a Bulletin of Public Information for the organisation.

As the Lublin Tenant Action, we sent out a lot of requests for information, dealing with tenant issues. We asked about the details of the debt relief program alone 38 times. We also asked about housing programs, finances, etc. These data were the basis for our various analyses.

I remember one time I requested all of the orders of the Director of the Public Housing Board in connection with some case. They invited me to a meeting and showed me a binder storage cabinet. I think the clerk was hoping I would change the application after seeing those binders. He said they didn’t have any electronic documents up to 2011. “If it all burned down, there would be no trace left?” I asked. He confirmed it. I understood his pain about scanning these contracts because I myself had recently scanned the contracts that had been requested of us. But on the other hand, this is a public institution, it should digitize documents to preserve the trace of its decision-making processes and the history of its operation. In short, they should preserve the history of how our money is spent.

And they provided you with the scanned contents of those binders?

Certainly not everything, but they sent me quite a few. It’s a common practice, by the way, to blame the requester for causing so much work. And yet, these days, storing documents electronically should be a standard practice.

And do you feel that something ground-breaking has happened in regard to tenant matters thanks to the right to information? Has any change been accomplished?

Until 2015, tenant issues came up very rarely in the public debate, and usually in the context of vandalised council flats. In 2015, we were able to change that precisely because of the data obtained through access to public information. The media started writing about it and asking questions themselves. This provided a different perspective on rent debt. People saw how much negligence was being committed by the offices. Lublin has a huge rent debt, but before that no one was saying out loud that half of this debt is interest accruing over years, because no one tried to solve the problem by talking to the people in debt, helping them get out of this mess. No realistic program was implemented that would help people by, for example, involving social workers. In Lublin, as in many other cities, there is a shortage of council flats. We know of mothers who, in desperation, having waited many years for an allocation of public housing, occupied vacant buildings, which they tried to somehow renovate and adapt to their needs. The city would kick them out of these buildings, fine them, kick them out of the waiting line for public housing, and refer the case to the prosecutor’s office. Thanks to our activities, such stories have begun to come to light. It turned out, however, that there is this huge bureaucratic machine that lacks the perspective of people who are struggling with many of life’s problems. There were a lot of stereotypes around this issue and we tried to fight them.

Public housing tenants are seen as people with a demanding attitude who have no respect for public property. We have shown that these are often people who are struggling financially, often families, and the debt problem affects as much as half of all public housing. This is a very large group of people who should not be stigmatised and lumped together, because their stories are very different. Since so many council flats are in debt, maybe something is wrong with the system itself and a change is needed. That change was to be a proposal for a debt relief program. We knew that it didn’t work very well in other cities because of misconceptions, but we thought it was worth a try and submitted three proposals to the program as an organisation. However, the city had its own concept which it would not share with us when we requested it. We eventually filed a notice with the prosecutor’s office, stating that the mayor was denying us access to this information. Unfortunately, the prosecution dropped the case and that was the end of it.

And was a complaint filed with the administrative court or directly with the prosecutor’s office?

We did not file a complaint. We had had many cases in court for not releasing information regarding tenant issues. We unfortunately lost most of them. This time, we decided that the case was so important that we would not go to court to wait for months for a decision, and instead we immediately reported a suspected offence committed by the mayor of Lublin to the prosecutor’s office. But that path also failed and we didn’t see the debt relief program until the city council session. It was a faithful copy of the Warsaw program, not taking into account the local context or our comments. We were able to get the bill taken off the table, but it was finally passed without much change. With the information and responses to our request published in the Bulletin of Public Information, we could document the (in)operation of the program. Rent debt unfortunately continues to rise.

Have you filed a notice with the prosecutor’s office under Section 23 of the Access to Information Act?

Yes, we were tired of being sent from pillar to post, because they had found an interesting way to withhold information from us. The mayor referred us to the Public Housing Board and the Department of Community Affairs, and they referred us to the mayor.

What else did you do besides sending out public information requests?

In order to disenchant the topic of public housing, we organised tenant days. We invited groups from other cities – there were art performances, film screenings, discussions and a demonstration. Each time we had a theme, for example, evictions or debt. We always prepared a summary on the city’s housing policy for such an event. And then we also used access to public information because there is virtually no information on the Public Housing Board’s website. The only important documents available online were the multi-year housing programs, adopted every three years, and the rental housing rules. This we could find in the voivodeship official gazette. But all the rest we had to ask for by submitting lots of requests.

Anyway, we read in the multi-year housing program that as part of dealing with the problem of the shortage of municipal housing, housing containers were supposed to be purchased. The mayor of Puławy also wanted to build social containers for the Roma community, and the mayor of Lubartów thought about them as well. That’s why we organised the action, inviting members of the Civic City of Lubartów [Elżbieta Wąs and Anna Gryta], who are also members of the Watchdog Poland. It was a valuable collaboration because they knew all these local connections that we had no idea about. Wanting to learn more about the city officials’ plans for the containers, we began asking about this topic in requests for information. Eventually, we managed to knock the idea of containers out of the city authorities’ heads.

You said you had had bad experiences in the administrative courts. And how was the access to information itself, were there always problems getting information?

At the beginning it wasn’t great, but then, when the Freedom Foundation [also established by Watchdog Poland’s member – Krzysztof Jakubowski] started operating in Lublin, the officials learned in what way they should provide information and who the obliged entity was, and they started to answer our questions quite efficiently. Unfortunately, it was not possible to get more information to appear on the city website. Then we wouldn’t have to ask.

We would not be able to do much if it were not for collaboration with more experienced tenant groups, and if it were not for access to information. Without it, we would have failed to show that tenant debt is a social problem, not just ineffective debt enforcement.

What do you wish the Watchdog Poland for its eighteenth birthday?

I wish the Watchdog Poland to never run out of determination, to grow in supporters, and to never run out of support, including financial support. And for access to information to be the rule, not the exception, and that we don’t have to fight for it.

Thank you for this conversation!

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