BREAKTHROUGH DECISION: Czech Constitutional Court overturns part of law that allowed municipalities to declare "housing benefit-free zones"
The Czech Constitutional Court (Ústavní soud - ÚS) has overturned a controversial part of the law on aid to those in material distress that made it possible for local authorities to designate zones on their territory where housing benefits would not be disbursed, agreeing with the arguments presented by a group of 17 senators four years ago. The "housing benefit-free zones", according to the ÚS, violate the right to adequate housing and do not differentiate between those responsible for the problems ostensibly being addressed by such zones and those who are their "victims".
The finding will take effect once it is published in the Collection of Laws. Municipalities will now have to find another way to combat "socially undesirable phenomena", the previously permitted justification for declaring the zones.
The legislation that regulated the zones has been ruled unconstitutional. "The law does not allow for case-by-case differentiation between the actual originators of socially undesirable phenomena (associated with so-called benefit tourism), the concentration of which the regulation under review was meant to prevent, and other populations associated with the municipality who ended up in the position of being the victims of such phenomena," rapporteur Justice Jiří Zemánek said when announcing the finding.
Dozens of towns all over the Czech Republic have seen the zones as one way to prevent an influx of people who are dependent on welfare and who frequently live in rental housing where the amount of rent paid does not correspond to the quality of the housing; housing benefit monies end up enriching the landlords of such substandard apartment units or residential hotels. Non-governmental organizations have long criticized the practice of declaring such zones, pointing out that they do not solve problems, but just relocate them elsewhere.
The letter of the law termed such zones "areas with an increased incidence of socially undesirable phenomena". Local administrations have been able, according to the law's wording to date, to request that an authorized municipal authority issue "measures of a general nature" to establish such zones.
The law previously established that applicants would not be entitled to housing benefits if their place of residence was located in such a zone. The restrictions that are now ending had just applied to new tenants, not to persons who had previously signed rental contracts before the law took effect.
The group of senators argued that the legislation assaults human dignity, violates the principle of equality, contravenes the principles of freedom of movement and freedom of residency, interferes with freedom of enterprise, and has not fulfilled its declared purpose. Essentially, the law denied housing benefits to some people who otherwise fulfilled the terms of eligibility for them and who needed such assistance.
The ÚS also said in its finding that it comprehends how people feel who "get no support" when it comes to addressing the problems of socially excluded localities. However, the court says it is not possible to approach this issue at the expense of the perspective of social emancipation and social reconciliation within a municipality, according to the decision.
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