Soldier-turned-squatter dramatizes Polish housing crisis


WARSAW, Poland -- A Polish soldier's private rebellion has illuminated both the changes in the country's post-Communist army and the deprived conditions under which most Poles, even the "privileged" ones, still live.

Lt. Donat Kruk, 36, a 14-year career officer, became so desperate for housing that he and his two preschool daughters occupied an apartment destined for top army brass to publicize his plight.

Lieutenant Kruk said that his repeated requests for housing over the last six years had received no response and that he had been unable to wrest a commitment from his superiors to allow him even to live in a disused army boiler room.

The lieutenant was not at once clapped in irons, which says something about the new Polish army.

Instead, his immediate superior, Col. Andrzej Malawski of the Warsaw Quartermaster's Supervisory Department, "came to the apartment to talk to me and then drove me home," Lieutenant Kruk said.

Home, at present, is Lieutenant Kruk's sister's house outside Warsaw, where nine people share four rooms, he said.

Disciplinary proceedings may ensue, but Lieutenant Kruk said that his five-hour squat brought results. The army has now promised him the renovated boiler house by the end of August. With about 800 square feet and three rooms, it's a Polish family's dream.

If the Polish army has changed tactics in dealing with rebellious officers, it has also adopted a new attitude toward the Western press.

There are a few officers of the old school left. "Idiocy," trumpeted Warsaw quartermaster, Gen. Kazimierz Bogdanowicz, when asked about the Kruk affair. "Not a word of truth in it."

But Colonel Malawski couldn't have been smoother. Although he termed Lieutenant Kruk's action "unconventional, to say the least," the colonel handed over the rebellious lieutenant's address and acknowledged that "army housing is in a dramatic state." There was a shortage of more than 6,000 apartments, he said, and waiting periods of up to eight years.

Lieutenant Kruk said this was partly because senior officers wangle apartments for their grown offspring while young officers wait.

But it would be closer to the mark to blame Poland's general housing shortage, which induces those who have apartments to hang on to them at all costs.

Polish housing traditionally has come from the state and huge state-controlled building cooperatives. People paid little for years and waited perhaps decades for apartments. Now they wait even longer, for the state is constructing fewer and fewer buildings. Figures show an 11 percent drop in state construction in 1990 from 1989.

Private builders, caught in a spiral of rising prices, completed 4 percent fewer buildings last year than in 1989.

Rents have soared as landlords gouge foreign businesses moving here to take advantage of post-Communist liberalism.

And even state-controlled rents are rising. Poles accustomed to largely symbolic payments are rebelling against rent increases of nearly 100 percent.

A Warsaw daily, Kurier Polski, reported that in December city residents, to whom eviction is unknown, simply failed to pay several hundred thousand dollars in rent.

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