Gentrification for beginners

Zbyszek Mirek is an unemployed factory worker in his mid-40?s. He has two sunken scars on his chest to remind him of his lung operations and he says he could use a third. His legs are covered in wounds that make walking painful, when he speaks he wheezes, even when sitting down, and when he smiles — which is rarely — he displays a great many missing teeth. About 7 years ago he and his cousin set about painting his kitchen/bathroom/foyer. Zbyszek ?overdid it? — he spent around 20 consecutive hours in an unventilated room filled with cheap paint-fumes, and was hospitalized for three months after. Since then, he has grappled with psychological problems that he has largely managed to keep under control.
Zbyszek?s parents passed away when he was a child, so his grandparents raised him in the downtown Krakow apartment where he still lives today. In his youth he slept on a mattress on the floor and his grandparents slept on the foldout couch beside him. Since his grandparents have passed away, he sleeps on the foldout couch, but still keeps his old mattress propped up against the wall. His bedroom also has a large reproduction of the ?Black Madonna,? a picture you can plug into the wall to make a dozen little multi-colored light bulbs glow.
Zbyszek is the only tenant still left out of everyone who lived in this centrally located building two years ago. His landlord has gradually evicted all the tenants around him, gutting the old apartments, replacing the old wooden windows with plastic euro-windows, painting everything a pastel shade of pink, installing plastic plants and renting the apartments out to wealthy foreigners and — among others — a financial consultancy business. Much of the building will become luxury vacation suites. Zbyszek complains of the constant renovation noise that sometimes even rattles his walls. Most worrisome is his landlord?s newest request for Zbyszek to move to the fourth floor, the attic. His lungs would cave in from climbing all those steps, he says. And finding a new apartment in Krakow has become too expensive for a man on a disability pension.
Zbyszek?s case might seem extreme, but is in fact an accurate microcosm of what is currently happening in Krakow?s old town. This is a recognizable phenomenon for North Americans and Western Europeans. Even to the extent creating a special word in English for such an occurrence                   — gentrification. Take a neighborhood of artists/bohemians, poor people, or simply people with little self-awareness, interest the fashionable nouveau riche into buying this property, and the original residents         — ironically people who made the district so attractive to begin with – can no longer afford to live there, being forced to find places elsewhere to pick up their lives. The community is now gentrified.
The Polish language has no term for gentrification, but a new euphemism is emerging — to ?raise something to European standards.? The so-called ?European-standard? apartments are becoming ubiquitous, thus dramatically raising costs of living and changing the face of the old town. As little as five years ago there was nothing unusual about seeing a poor pensioner stepping out of a ul. Florianska apartment. Now these buildings are much more likely to hold luxury vacation suites or hostels to accommodate wealthy businessmen or serve as summer homes for the well-to-do visiting Westerners.
This is partly possible because, as confirmed by the Krakow Municipality, rent control was eliminated in 2006 for residents living in apartments from before 1989.
The previous rent control law — less convenient for landlords — made possible for low-income tenants to remain in their apartments where they lived during years of communism, even if these were in central, lucrative real-estate locations. This regulation was of particular significance to the elderly and handicapped.
The Krakow Municipality reported that they have no statistics concerning the present number of foreigners living in Krakow, or the amount of property owned by foreigners. According to the Malopolskie Voivodeship, 2,881 decisions legalizing the stay of foreigners in the region were made in 2006.
I asked further questions at ?tniproperties? (?Your Irish Real Estate Agency in Krakow,? the sign promises) on ul. Grodzka 50. Over the drumming and shrieks of the Anniversary Dragon Parade underway outside the window, Rafal Mirek explained to me, in matter-of-fact and measured tones, that over the past two years housing prices have experienced an ?insane explosion,? increasing by around 50-70 percent, so that an apartment going for 200,000 zloty a few years ago would now cost around half a million. This, he says, results from the sudden accessibility of credit, the coming of the EU, the homecoming of Poles who have made large amounts of foreign currency in Western Europe, and some vigorous advertising campaigns in England and Ireland (tniproperties is one such company).
He could also have mentioned the substantial factor of landlord speculation, bolstered by a rash boom of publicity pieces in the Western press about how fashionable Krakow has become — last month?s piece in the New York Times is the most recent example of this. Or, to quote the straight-talking real-estate columnist of a recently-defunct English-language Krakow magazine, Tej Panesar, he might have added how ?After a few visits [to Krakow] and a few enjoyable hangovers, the promise of double-digit growth investments beckon and the decision to buy is made.?
 When asked if this trend is a positive one for Krakow, Mirek shrugged his shoulders, reminding me that Polish people are buying property in Ireland as well.
When asked about what kind of property a Jan Nowak (John Doe), an average wage earner of 1,500 zloty a month, could expect to buy for himself in Krakow, Mirek confessed that Nowak would have to move to another city if he wanted to buy any property. And in fact, Gazeta Wyborcza reports this week that this is a trend — Krakowians are increasingly searching for houses or apartments outside of Krakow, and as far away as Nowy Sacz, in an effort to find something affordable.
Meanwhile, judging by the prices of the ?Student Center? Real Estate Agency on ul. Kapucynska, our Nowak would have to be very lucky to rent anything more than a one-room apartment on the outskirts of the city, even if he were willing to devote his entire salary to his rent.
For a two-room apartment he might be shocked to find the prices soar as high as 3,000 zloty.
How does one account for this seemingly vast discrepancy between the wages of the average Pole and the asking rental prices for an apartment? I took this somewhat naive question to the offices of the aforementioned Student Center, whose reputation and name suggest that they serve clientele on a budget. I was obviously not the first journalist to have visited their office — the collective mood was haggard and reluctant to respond even to minimal inquiries. Eventually a woman rolled her eyes and said: ?What are your questions?? She confirmed that prices have been inflated since the entry to the EU. When asking about Nowak?s fate and how her prices could be so irreconcilable with Nowak?s salary, her face became incredulous.
?That?s the kind of country we live in!? she hollered. ?Let your Nowak go move in with his grandmother or aunt! Families are sharing one-room apartments these days! These are hard times we?re living in, there?s nothing anyone can do about it!?
When finally asked if she thought foreigners were responsible, she looked at me like I was an idiot.
?Of course they are! That?s how this all started. The EU and the foreigners!?
In the opinion of ?tniproperties,? the prices are beginning to level off and should not get much higher (though Lodz and Poznan are just about to take off).
There is no sign, however, that Nowak will be able to move out from his grandmother?s apartment any time in the near future — the real estate bubble appears to be a rather solid one. 

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