Emptiness, Vacancy, and Waste

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

The empirical cases of urban and rural “emptying” from Hungary in this paper demonstrate a patterning of the waste-vacancy-emptiness nexus that reveals an implicit bifurcation of emptiness that, following Hungarian psychologist and writer Alaine Polcz’s (2007) distinction of formal and functional order, I characterize as formal and functional emptiness. While some spaces—apartments, villages—may be formally (that is physically) empty, such vacancy may be functional to the extent that filling it would jeopardize the correct or safe use of those spaces. We all recognize this duality from our everyday lives, for example, when we leave the space around a door empty of furniture or belongings to allow for the smooth opening and closing of the door. Similarly, liberals see a certain degree of real estate vacancy as necessary “stock” that is generative of market activity and profit and government efforts to fill such voids as wasteful as well as ideologically suspect. Rural settlements’ thinning population in return constitute an unavoidable consequence of economic rationality that would be futile to fight with precious public funds. Right-wing nationalist politicians and experts and most of the residents, in contrast, view formal emptiness in villages as dysfunctional, literally leading to dysfunctionality in the family-based fabric of the nation. However, the government too admits a certain functionality of emptiness when it comes to urban real estate vacancy: instead of incorporating abandoned apartments into the public housing stock, for example, by renting them cheaply to needy families, they prefer keeping them empty to keep out the “undeserving poor,” who are Roma, immigrants, or leading lives that the majority population considers polluting.

As in many cities around the world, both in the global South and in the global North, the problem of vacant homes coinciding with growing homelessness and increasing mortgage debt has intensified in Hungary. In Hungarian cities, there are more than half a million empty flats. In Budapest, the capital, about 10 percent of all flats are vacant (E. F. 2018). About 10 percent of these apartments are exactly the size that is the most in demand, whose reincorporation into the market would reduce prices (E. F. 2018). “Vacancy” is a term used by urban development professionals and scholars to describe leaving livable houses and apartments uninhabited for extended periods of time. Vacancy therefore describes the coexistence of wasted real estate with homelessness and forced cohabitation, a phenomenon that lay people capture with more vernacular terms like emptiness and waste. This situation represents an extreme change from the socialist era known for its shortage of urban housing. Then, shortage was absolute: there simply wasn’t enough housing for citizens. Today, the shortage that homeless people and those extended families coerced into some cohabitation experience is relative: there’s plenty of housing, but it is unaffordable to many. Vacancy has many causes in postsocialist countries, exacerbated by the high preference for owning rather than renting, which leaves people reluctant to sell a home that might be passed on as inheritance (MTI 2017). Renting them is an option and many do prefer renting black, that is without paying taxes on the rent. A shared cause of vacancy however is global, namely, the speculative investment in apartments, especially in new buildings or in expensive or newly gentrified neighborhoods. The owners of these new apartments don’t make money off of renting but rather use them as collateral for loans, so even if they remain uninhabited, they still help turn a profit. Of course, owning such vacant homes is made a rational choice by the financialization of the real estate market (Goldman 2011). This in turn is due to deregulation and municipal governments’ need to fill their deficits by selling or leasing land and real estate previously in public ownership.

While no one denies the coexistence of vacancy and waste (as squandered resource), experts’ and politicians’ interpretation of this nexus is colored by their ideological convictions (Hromadžić, this series; Mukherji, this series; Frederiksen, this series). The liberal opposition sees the problem not in these arguably neoliberal circumstances but in the municipal governments wasting money on maintaining dilapidated public housing (whose proportion is quite low in overall stock compared to Western European countries) (Csurgó 2016) and in the corrupt sale and rent of public flats to cronies. Right-wing politicians especially at the local level fear that these would be settled either by the Roma or migrants should the left or the liberals become the governing party in a municipality. Some politicians suggest taxing unoccupied homes.

In sum, in the liberals’ interpretation, vacancy appears as wasted from the perspective of market balance, and yet another area of corruption in government-friendly circles. From the right-wing perspective, vacancy is a threat to the extent that it invites undesirable tenants (Hromadžić, this series).

In contrast to the city, where vacancy is a delimited problem within an otherwise bustling urban landscape, the countryside is emptying. The right-wing government sees this primarily as threatening since the rurality has historically been the bearer and preserver of traditional national values and ethnic pride (Esbenshade 2014).

A letter from a resident of one of these villages “sentenced to death” also emphasizes the loss of key national values and identity: “Will we have to give up all those irreplaceable values and cultural heritage that only rural life can offer?” (HVG 2009). In the countryside, vacancy transforms into an all-encompassing emptying of people, values, and culture.

While the government aid for which villages of less than five thousand inhabitants can apply targets schools and doctor’s offices, a huge chunk is reserved for strengthening village communities, often by channeling funds to religious activities, church buildings, and educational programs. Liberals however argue that as long as there are no jobs or better public transportation service to access them—and the aid rarely attends to those needs—these grants, which are puny anyway, will not be sufficient to keep people in place (HVG 2017; Szlavkovits 2019). The theme of wasted government funds here is complemented by a suspicion toward the conservative values supported by the aid.

Conservatives and liberals in postsocialist Hungary, in sum, both base their argument on particular interpretations of how waste relates to emptiness and both accept some waste as necessary, thereby preventing social justice to inform housing and rural development policies.


Csurgó Dénes. 2016. “Százmilliók mennek el üres lakásokra” [Hundreds of millions are wasted on empty apartments]. index.hu, October 14, 2016.

E. F. 2018.“Rengeteg az üres lakás Magyarországon” [There are lot of empty apartments in Hungary]. index.hu, April 26, 2018.

Esbenshade, Richard S. 2014. “Symbolic Geographies and the Politics of Hungarian Identity in the ‘Populist-Urbanist Debate,’ 1925–44.” Hungarian Cultural Studies 7.

Goldman, Michael. 2011. “Speculative Urbanism and the Making of the Next World City.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, 3: 555–81.

HVG. 2017. “Csak kalandvágyó bölcsészekkel nem lehet feltámasztani a magyar falvakat” [You cannot revive Hungarian villages with adventurous intellectuals]. May 9, 2017.

HVG. 2009. “Jajkiáltás egy faluból: záróra?” [Cry of pain from a village: Closing time?]. September 11, 2009.

MTI. 2017. “Minden nyolcadik lakás üres Budapesten” [Every eighth apartment is empty in Budapest]. June 11, 2017

Polcz, Alaine. 2007. Rend és rendetlenség [Order and disorder]. Pécs, Hungary: Jelenkor Kiadó.

Szlavkovits, Rita. 2019. “‘Elérhető munkahely nélkül semmit sem ér az egész’: Miért kéne a falusi csok a falusiaknak? [“Without an accessible job the whole thing is worthless”: Why would villagers want CSOK?]. February 25, 2019.