Bialystok, Poland: Interviews

Wojciech Holownia

AWIM-Bialystok, Former Mayor of Bialystok,

Holownia served as Mayor of Bialystok city in the early 1990’s, inviting CHF International to organize and implement a pilot cooperative housing project in that city. He supported the project from the start and later, after leaving office, worked for CHF International. Together with Ms. Barbara Czarnecka he set up AWIM-Bialystok (Agency to Support Housing Initiatives). He continued his involvement with all AWIM projects and CHF’s educational activities thru 1999. After AWIM-Bialystok completed its last project, he served on several city committees and started a private ecological waste management company. Now retired, he lives in the countryside with his wife Krystyna, and tends to 30 apple trees and two dogs.

What do you think about the AWIM Program, now, many years after its completion?

It was a very good and well thought-out program, and very needed at the time. It allowed for the education of over 30 individuals, most of whom later continued professional activities in the housing sector. It was a very innovative program and we learned tremendously. As AWIM-Bialystok, we facilitated the building of homes for over 70 families.

Holownia assisted Bialystok as well as near-by Hajnowka projects inspecting work progress and advising local AWIM Director (1998).

Society changed considerably. In the 1990’s, everything was new, different, creative, with lots of civic involvement. It the 2000’s there was much less civic involvement, and now even less so – one hears constant complaints and statements like ‘bad administration,’ and ‘the administration is dragging people down!’

Large old housing cooperatives still exist in Bialystok and are doing very well! Mostly they manage existing housing assets, only some build new units. Some are presided over by the ‘old guard’ from the communist times – they are still doing well today! There were attempts in the early 1990's to break up old cooperative structures but these efforts did not succeed. Small cooperatives could not and cannot compete with them. And developers now dominate – the only problem is, now they have no competition! And AWIMs used to provide that kind of competition!

As former Mayor of the city, you have a unique perspective of an elected local government official. Can you speak about the relationship between AWIM and city authorities?

At the beginning, in the early and mid-1990s when cities were supporting AWIMs through tri-partite agreements, it was possible for AWIMs to purchase land, sometimes on slightly preferential terms. However, this changed over time and in later years the city could not, or did not want to provide this type of support because it was called "bad competition." The city was criticized for supporting small cooperatives and for showing "favoritism." So, what often happened was that local elections resulted in changed political conditions. A new team took over and stopped supporting projects such as AWIM. They would say things like: "the old team made some promises to you but this is not our program so we will not continue to support it" and AWIMs would lose the relationships they worked out before, with an earlier team. Unfortunately, AWIMs did not have enough power to compete with developers.

So, in your view, what worked and what did not work?

First, what worked well: we offered a choice to middle-income class of customers who had no place to go. Developers meant very high cost. AWIM charged 2-3% of total investment costs whereas developers charged up to 30%. However, the purchase of land was a big challenge because AWIMs did not have funds to buy when land was offered for sale or when it became available. By the time a cooperative was organized and registered and funds to purchase land were gathered (which sometimes took six months or more), land was already purchased by a developer who had cash or credit… Unfortunately, over time, developers squeezed AWIMs out of the market because AWIMs did not have seed capital, or a revolving fund, or an agreement with a bank. Either would allow AWIM to buy land and repay the loan later, once a cooperative was established and was able to gather and repay funds.

On the bright side: the AWIM program definitely inspired developers by providing examples of good practices. And several AWIMs restructured in later years and today act as developers! They continue to build housing in their cities. This is a positive way of applying the learning gained through the AWIM program.

When looking back, what other initiatives are worth looking at?

Definitely activities of Revitalization Forum (see This organization was formed in 1998 with CHF International’s assistance and is still active and vibrant today. I was involved in it, and so was Dr. Alina Muziol-Weclawowicz, another former CHF International’s employee. The purpose of the Forum is to study issues related to, and assist urban revitalization initiatives across the country. Many cities, including Bialystok, are part of it. Their work resulted in various technical studies and interesting examples of transforming warehouses or post-industrial areas into residential housing. Several related activities were carried out in Bialystok which is now considered one of the most beautiful cities in the country. A lot has changed. See and "The City of Tomorrow" initiative.

Is there room for replication of the AWIM program, do you think?

Sure, perhaps in Ukraine? They are now working on decentralization but, overall, they are much farther behind than Poland was in 1990’s. I tried to replicate this program in Russia, specifically, in Kaliningrad area. There was some interest but political conditions do not yet exist.

Barbara Czarnecka

AWIM Bialystok 

Now retired, Barbara lives in Bialystok with her architect-husband (now also retired) and architect-son, both of whom actively supported her participation in the AWIM program. Barbara has a diploma in art history and worked for a number of years in the Bialystok Museum.

I joined the first group of CHF International’s trainees in 1996. Together with colleague Wojciech Holownia, I established and co-owned the Agency to Support Local Housing Initiatives in the city of Bialystok (Polish acronym AWIM), as part of the program. I knew CHF International as an organization and also knew its staff who had run a pilot program in Bialystok since 1991. That pilot resulted in the construction of a beautiful modern building: it was an in-fill project in the city’s center. It had an interesting design and was organized as a cooperative named Alternatywa. It still functions today.

AWIM-Bialystok completed three cooperative projects. We tried to organize a fourth one but could not obtain land. In all, AWIM-Bialystok built units for 72 families. The majority were row-houses but we also built four duplexes and four single-family homes. All were constructed through three cooperatives which were formed specifically for the purpose of building new housing. When the projects were completed, these cooperatives dissolved and divided into individually-owned units.

AWIM-facilitated homes differed greatly from large block housing developments typically built by local housing cooperatives (1999).

Was there anything particularly innovative about the way we conducted our business or approached the outcomes?

Yes, I think there was. First, lower costs were important. What AWIM offered was about 50% of per-square-meter-cost offered by a large local housing cooperative – this was a huge difference! When we started in the mid-1990’s, there was little private construction in Bialystok. Local housing cooperatives were huge, counting 1000+ members, with no internal governance and members had no impact on what was being built. There were practically no developers and a secondary market did not exist.

Looking back at the 17 years which passed since program’s closure in 2000, I can point out two aspects of that program which I consider the most useful: First – AWIMs were an inspiration for local aspiring developers. In the mid-1990s, there were only two private firms in Bialystok. Today, there may be twenty or more. We had developers joining our projects as cooperative members because – as it turned out – they wanted to see how we do things and learn from us! When they thought they saw and learned enough, they withdrew. Then they turned around and did their own projects – copying ours! In all, I think AWIM had a great impact on how housing construction is done in the city today. In the early 1990’s, lots of local old firms went bankrupt and ceased to exist. AWIM came to the market at that moment and played an important role in shaping the new reality. There is no doubt in my mind that AWIM projects had a positive influence. Today our projects are still offered as great examples. They are still looked at; they still inspire.

And a second point: we played a role in raising professional standards in the industry. How did this happen? AWIM offered high professional standards to our clients, and required such high standards of contractors we worked with. This pushed future developers up because now they also had to offer better services! And another example: AWIM and the Cooperative closely monitored everything that was being done, and each payment to a contractor was made only when the work was done and accepted by us. This was real transparency and accountability! Also, we used escrow accounts to safe-guard funds we received from cooperative members. Such practices were earlier unheard of… Nobody used escrow then, whereas now, all developers are legally required to use such accounts. AWIM also popularized mortgages – even though first projects were using cash, later ones were mostly mortgage-financed.

There were challenges, of course. Since our projects were based on a cooperative model, participation was very important. It was expected that cooperative members actively participate and contribute their time and effort. But this is also a disadvantage because few people have time for this in the present day. Also, each member had to agree to compromise on any number of issues… All of this meant that if a person did not want to participate or wanted to decide everything for themselves, they were probably not interested in a cooperative model.

Consultations with cooperative members were an important part of AWIM’s work. Czarnecka and Holownia met with members to discuss design and technical details, construction quality, and financing (1999).

And another challenge relating to what happens after the project is completed: a housing cooperative was a structure and a mechanism useful in bringing everyone together to build a housing project. After that, people did not see the need to stay together and continue as a cooperative. Culturally, Bialystok was always a city of individually owned old houses so everyone wanted to be on their own! An in-fill project like the Cooperative Alternatywa was different. It stayed together over the years as a cooperative and is still active, although I think it changed into a Homeowner/Condominium Association. They elect their board, and engage a manager who takes care of the whole building on a daily basis and manages the whole property.

But from the point of view of cooperative members, this was ‘the best project ever’ – especially for those who could not afford luxurious prices. I often meet people in the street – and I do not even remember who they are… but they remember me and remind me that they used to be a part of AWIM’s cooperative project. They often comment on the past and thank me – always very positive and great feedback. They say, for example: “Due to high prices, I would not be able to afford even a small apartment today. But thanks to your project, I now own a small individual house with a bit of front yard… this has changed my life completely!

In my view, so far nobody has come up with a better plan than AWIM, or a small housing cooperative serving as a vehicle to provide homes for middle income families. Generally speaking, there may be less space today for small cooperative housing projects – but there is still a group of middle income people who need housing, and their needs must be addressed! In economic transformation and transition periods – from no market, to market – you have to have structures and mechanisms that satisfy different needs of residents who represent different income levels. You cannot have extremes only: social housing provided by the city to the needy on one end, and luxury housing offered by developers on the other end. There is need in the middle which AWIM was able to fill. Too bad there were no more projects like this.