Commentary: Czech Labor Minister and ombud at odds over housing benefit law, mayor says state administration is "collapsing"
The threat of tens of thousands of new homeless people, including families with children, ending up "on the streets" over the next few months has forced Czech Government politicians to re-evaluate the interpretation of an amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress adopted last fall by legislators, but it is not yet clear what the next steps will be. Only one thing is clear: Based on the developments of recent months and weeks, there is no guarantee that legislators will adopt another amendment on this issue in time that will be good enough to not be changed again several months from now.
Amending the amendment is necessary!
What kind of amendment should that be, though? According to the amendment that has been in effect since May, municipalities are supposed to be responsible for deciding on whether state housing benefits may be disbursed to persons living in residential hotels.
Some municipalities are rejecting applications for this benefit across the board or establishing criteria for granting them that most people cannot meet. According to an estimate from the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, there is a risk of as many as 17 000 people ending up "on the street" as a result.
The Platform for Social Housing estimates that as many as 25 000 people might end up homeless. Last week Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka announced that it is essential for the law to be amended (last year he was excused from voting on it).
Several days later he was joined in that opinion by Czech Human Rights Minister Dienstbier, who said the existing law is "ill-conceived, not thought through, and unsystematic" and is causing problems (during the voting last year in the Senate, he spoke out against the amendment, convincing no one of its flaws, and abstained from voting on it in his capacity as Senator). Several days later, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec changed his interpretation of the amendment and stated that these municipal decisions on benefits are not binding, merely recommendations (he was also excused from voting on the amendment last year).
The Labor Office, therefore, according to that interpretation, may disburse housing benefits even when a municipality rejects them. This interpretation was welcomed by Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Marksová (who was not able to vote on the amendment as she is not also a legislator), who continues to insist that the state must agree on the future wording of the next amendment with municipalities.
Marksová even still believes that the paragraph about municipal consent to the disbursal of housing benefits should remain in the law. Czech ombud Anna Šabatová, on the other hand, has called for that paragraph to be removed.
The ombud believes the recent change in the interpretation of the existing amendment "just ameliorates a catastrophe, but does not solve these problems." So let's summarize: Approximately half a year ago, legislators approved an amendment to a law which some of them now consider absurd, basically even invalid, because they are interpreting it differently from its original intent.
They all agree that it is essential to amend this amendment, because the original amendment could result in thousands of people being put out into the street. Evidently, however, they do not agree on how forceful the next amendment should be, because there is a powerful partner involved here, the Union of Cities and Municipalities - or rather, the individual municipalities, some of whose magistrates and mayors are also MPs or Senators.
Union of Cities and Municipalities: The state has caused chaos
According to the Executive Director of the Union of Cities and Municipalities (Svazu měst a obcí - SMO), Dan Jiránek, the state has caused the existing chaos. News server Romea.cz interviewed him as follows:
Q: Do you agree with the new interpretation of the amendment given by the Interior Ministry? Will you be protesting it?
A: Only a court can decide which standpoint is legally correct. Naturally, it is important that this all be clarified as soon as possible and that the cities and municipalities (and ultimately the Labor Offices) not find themselves in a situation where they make a decision in good faith according to one standpoint and later learn that they should not have followed it. It must be emphasized that this chaos in the welfare system, especially the fact that housing benefits may be disbursed directly to the owners of the residential hotels, has been caused by the state. Even when cities and municipalities have done their best to introduce some order into this unpredictable situation, these new interpretations and recommendations from the state administration demonstrate that the efforts made by municipalities to investigate applicants' social situations, perform social work with them, etc., have all been for nothing. What we need are clear rules and clear tools that cities and municipalities can use to efficiently address this situation (social housing) on their territories.
Q: What is your view of the entire situation around this amendment? Half a year after the legislators adopted it, some are now interpreting it as ill-conceived, not thought through, and unsystematic.
A: The situation is somewhat controversial (unfortunate) given the two different standpoints issued by the Interior Ministry, and unfortunately, this plays into the hands of the "traffickers in poverty" - the operators of the residential hotels. At the same time, the state is unequivocally causing uncertainty for the municipalities. The cities and municipalities themselves are convinced that this new interpretation is not the intention of that amendment and never was. Like the cities and municipalities, the legislators (and by the way, many of them are or have been mayors) feel the need to resolve the unbearable situation around the residential hotels. For the cities and municipalities it is very important to have an instrument making it possible for them to stop the operations of the existing residential hotels and prevent the creation of new ones. The Union will do its best to contribute to correcting the current situation and will continue to strive to see that the cities and municipalities have an appropriate instrument for stopping the operation of these facilities and preventing new ones.
Mayor of Bohumín: This is the total collapse of the state administration
"The Interior Ministry has issued a second legal standpoint interpreting the law on aid to those in material distress with respect to housing benefits for those living in residential hotels. Just like the first interpretation, it is non-binding (what else would you expect?) but of course it is radically different from the first one. This new interpretation considers the consent of a municipality to be non-binding and says the Labor Offices should be able to disburse housing benefits without any restrictions. I am really curious to see whether the Labor Offices take that seriously," Mayor of Bohumín and Czech Senator Petr Vícha (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) wrote on the town's website a few days ago.
"It is clear that the total collapse of the state administration is underway and that it is incapable of dealing with the accommodations business.... It is paradoxical that the last players fighting for greater efficiency on the part of the state, against the wasting of money, against residential hotels being considered standard housing for families with children, are the municipalities. For their efforts they will now be punished, their standpoints will be considered absolutely non-binding, and the state will once again have to attribute the money spent on this administration to its own incompetence," Vícha continued.
Bohumín was the first municipality to reject across the board all applications for housing benefits from people seeking to live in residential hotels. Reportedly the town undertook such a move to provoke more negotiations with the Labor and Social Affairs Minister about the bad amendment; human rights activist Kumar Vishwanathan characterized that move as "taking impoverished people hostage".
Mayor of Moravská Ostrava: Legislators have not stabilized society's potential to explode
The response given to this issue by the Mayor of the Moravská Ostrava a Přívoz Municipal Department, Petra Bernfeldová (Ostravak), is typical. Her Municipal Department refused to either approve or reject housing benefit applications, saying that they do not have enough information with which to evaluate them.
In practice this is the same as rejecting them. The Czech News Agency has reported that she welcomes the state's change in its interpretation of the amendment.
"The Municipal Department has believed from the beginning that its standpoints, according to the applicable legislation, should not be binding. On the other hand, at this phase of a process that has already been running for almost two months, I see this as their turning their backs on us," she said.
The mayor added that the Municipal Department has been doing its best to confront the pressures placed on it by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, the owners of the residential hotels, and the people living in them. "[We have done so] even at the price of some sort of explosion occurring in society, and unfortunately I believe the legislators have not stabilized the situation," she said.
What have legislators stabilized?
What, if anything, the legislators basically have stabilized here is, of course, the big question. They passed this weird amendment, but some of those who are rejecting it today never even cast votes on it and may never have even known much about it.
Through this amendment, they have placed thousands of the most impoverished people in the country in jeopardy and jeopardized future communications between the municipalities and the state. At a minimum they have given the municipalities more work to do and then, several weeks later, told them it was all for nothing.
The lawmakers have demonstrated a total lack of conceptual clarity and of vision. Moreover, they have done so in a situation where the state has said it wants to fulfill its Romani Integration Strategy (most residential hotel tenants are Romani) and combat the expansion of socially excluded localities.
The state intends to draw billions from EU funds to achieve those aims. It also intends to reach an agreement with municipalities about the acute need for a law on social housing in general.
The number of socially excluded localities in this country has doubled in less than 10 years. There are 30 000 more people living in them now than in 2006.
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