FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions
What does Communa mean?
The name refers to the movement of Comuna okupas and urban kibbutz, to the concept of commons and more globally to the notion of community. They all have something in common: to rely on the mutualization of resources and the collective management to propose other ways of organizing and living together.
And how do you pronounce it?
Basically it was pronounced [kɔmuna], but you can also say [kɔmyna]. It's up to you!
Who are the occupants of the Communa sites?
There is grouped-housing, integration through housing initiatives, social, artistic, cultural, and social economy projects.
In short, a lot of very different people and projects! Often complementary and willing to work for the collective interest!
How are these people and projects selected?
Between the first call for projects launched in 2017 at La Serre and the latest locations, the process of choosing occupants has evolved. The only elements that have remained constant are the participation of the neighborhood and the criterion of collective interest. Convinced that the individual is always the most able to decide for themself, these processes have become more and more horizontal, gradually replacing the call for projects with the call for commons. Thus, today, all people who express an interest in taking over a space, site, or venue are invited to sit together. During these sit-downs, discussions about availability, neighborhood needs, and possible synergies (among other things) happen. They help mitigate the most fitting projects from those who simply don't fit the call for commons.
Bottom-up thus seems to replace top-down
Yes, this process appears at first sight as radically democratic: it is the people themselves who decide who will constitute the community of occupants. In the same way, it is not only the people who can write a project proposal that are invited to participate. However, this approach immediately raises new questions: "Will the law of the most cooperative replace the law of the strongest?" Communa's role then is to be extremely sensitive to potential unintended consequences and to continually reassess the process. To foster truly equitable participation, it is essential to vary the discussion formats and to ensure that they are well facilitated: sometimes the exchanges are done in groups, sometimes in writing, sometimes face-to-face... Once again, nothing is ever perfect: we experiment and try to arrive to the most democratic format.
And who finances all this?
Communa operates on a hybrid business model. By hybrid, we mean a variety of funding sources that avoid over-dependence on any one economic input. The ultimate goal is to ensure Communa's sustainability and make it as independent as possible from political or economic fluctuations or a pandemic.
Thus, our financing is based on both :
- public subsidies (municipal, regional) and donations from public interest foundations to cover part of our activities;
- and our own income, generated by our different activities (contributions from our residents, bar sales, support missions, conferences...)
In all cases, Communa is a non-profit organization that follows a social economy logic: its activities have the sole purpose of financing the project's activities, while keeping in mind that they must be in line with the social needs that Communa intends to meet.
How does this work in practice?
On the one hand, structural grants should cover Communa's structural costs (those not linked to a particular project, such as the transversal salaries, the accountant, communication costs, the van). In practice, we currently do not have enough of these.
On the other hand, there are one-off costs for specific projects within the structure. These costs should be covered directly by those projects' revenues by incorporating them into their economic models. One-off expenses include but are not limited to organising a conference, hosting a STUN camp, or maintaining a space in the ecosystem. Either through subsidies specific to the project, activities organised through the project, or contributions from the occupants.
Finally, these two types of expenses come together via what we call the "support fund." Each project supported by Communa contributes to the structural costs of the ASBL, without which none of them would see the light of day. This contribution calculation depends on different factors: The surface in square meters occupied in a building or a percentage if it's a bar.
So I don't quite understand why you keep talking about a free and conscious contribution? (pay what you can)
The occupants of the places participate financially in the project through free and conscious "pay what you can" contributions, which cover the costs generated by the occupation. The logic of a "pay what you can" price allows the occupants to be part of a system of solidarity, preventing the price from being a barrier to access to a space. The financial burden of a space does not fall upon the individual, but rather on the community of occupants, of which Communa also is a part. Individually, each person contributes according to their means, and together, this covers occupation costs. The shortcomings of one person will be covered by someone else's better budget, by a subsidy found for the space, or by the organization of a collective event that generates income.
What is the legal form of Communa?
It is a non-profit organization. There is no profit, no dividend, no investors. The non-profit organisation's only goal is to impact the city positively through the use of otherwise vacant buildings.
So a non-profit organization that does squatting?
No, Communa does temporary occupations. Unlike squatting, we sign a temporary-occupation agreement. A legal tool that allows us to, temporarily, manage vacant properties. This agreement defines the building occupation period and the notice period duration. In short, it is another strategy to use empty buildings in the name of the right to the city and housing.
But what's in it for the owners?
The vacancy period can represent significant costs: maintenance work following natural deterioration, securing access, insurance, communal taxes, and regional fines on vacancy, not to mention the time spent on management: bill payments, administrative follow-up, and potential disputes with neighbors.
Communa allows public and private owners to reduce their costs and delegate this management work. All the while supporting projects with a positive societal impact whose dynamics can have the potential to be carried over into future uses.
How long does a temporary occupation last?
It varies each time! On average, Communa signs occupancy agreements for two and a half years, but some projects can last up to five years or more.
Doesn't temporary occupancy put its occupants at risk?
Communa, like other associations in the field, imposes a rigorous ethical framework. We campaign for temporary occupations to be truly protective of the occupant's rights and socially purposeful. Here are some elements that guarantee the positive impact of our practices:
- a sufficiently long notice of departure
- the restoration of the premises to EHS standards
- the inclusion of all public
- the non-profit character of our association.
You are a non-profit, but other structures in this sector aim to profit... What is your position on these companies?
In recent years, temporary occupation has become widespread. We have seen the management of an increasing number of empty public square meters handed off to profit-oriented companies. These structures distort transitory urbanism to reduce it to a market. With no other purpose than maximizing their profit, these companies have implemented practices that are often questionable, including the exclusion of the most precarious populations, drastic reduction of occupants' rights, short notice periods, frequent and intrusive inspections in the dwellings. In direct response to this phenomenon and with other associations committed to the right to the city and housing as a right, Communa has launched the 20th municipality, an awareness-raising campaign and political advocacy aiming to counter these abuses.
Doesn't this wave of transitional urbanism contribute to the gentrification of various neighborhoods?
We are aware that dynamics perceived as positive at first can, in certain situations, lead to harmful consequences over a longer time span, notably by accelerating the process of rent increases in working-class neighborhoods. While it is sure that temporary occupations must be approached from a very local point of view, their impact on the gentrification phenomenon must also be put into perspective. Indeed, issues related to rent increases will not be resolved solely by a positive practice of temporary occupation. It is above all up to the public authorities to play their role, particularly in terms of setting up effective control and regulation mechanisms: land control, rent caps, social housing quotas, support for community life and independent businesses, financing of anti-speculation initiatives such as Community Land Trust, etc.
There are Communa projects in several Brussels municipalities, do you want to occupy all the empty buildings in the city or what?
Actually no! The idea of a single actor managing all the temporary occupations in the city is terrible! While it is true that a temporary-use ecosystem can produce great alternatives in meaningful ways. We believe it is not up to a single actor to decide how this happens. There are several reasons why. The practice risks a high bureaucratisation. The structure risks instrumentalisation. Finally, a single actor-managed ecosystem runs risks of fatigue, overwhelming the single operator, and eventually fails.
On the contrary, it is the diversity of initiatives that helps us think critically. Through exchange we can enrich the practice so that transitional urbanism takes its place in building the city. On the condition that it keeps an honest social purpose!