Commentary: Pets, yes, children and foreigners, no
Last week news server Romea.cz published a report about the fact that the North Bohemian Water Supply and Sewerage (Severočeské vodovody a kanalizace - SČVK) company had disconnected a residential hotel in Ústí nad Labem because the owner had not paid the bills, and several people commented online. One contributor posted that she didn't understand why anyone was still living in the facility since it had experienced those problems for such a long time and there are enough apartments for rent elsewhere.
The conditions in the residential hotel nicknamed the "Pig Farm" (Prasečák) are truly horrible - and not only there. Many similar residential hotels and places where no one wants to live (but which are fully occupied nonetheless) exist throughout the Czech Republic.
Bedbugs climb the walls in these facilities, nothing works in them, their landlords collect high rents and invest nothing into the buildings. The situation at the Pig Farm has also changed since that article was published - now the street door to the building is completely missing and there is a chance the electricity will be disconnected as well.
People are slowly moving away from the facility, but it is difficult for them to find other housing. The question of why they didn't leave earlier, since there are enough apartments available for rent elsewhere, gets to the very heart of the problem.
During the past decade my husband and I have looked for new housing more than once, first when we had one child, then when we had two, and then when we had three. We couldn't help but notice that many advertisements for rental housing warned us in advance that families with children were not welcome to apply.
Even in places for which nothing of the sort was in print, the unwritten rules applied. The conditions for acceptance were sometimes genuinely surprising, and one that stayed with me was this phrase in an ad for an apartment I happened to like that wasn't outrageously expensive: "Pets, yes, children and foreigners, no." - and no Romani person in the Czech Republic who read that ad would have any doubt that "foreigners" in that ad means their kind too.
I am not the only person I know who has had to move house in recent years - many of my Romani friends have also had to leave one apartment and look for another. One day I went to visit a friend at around noon and she told me, with tears in her eyes, that she had gone to look at several possible rentals, but the moment she and her husband arrived to view a place, they were told it was no longer available.
My friend had decided just to tell people straight out on the telephone that her family is Romani in order to save herself time when answering ads. The landlords and real estate agents responded to that information by apologizing and telling her that they wouldn't be discussing their properties with her further - some of them even just hung up immediately.
She didn't have the strength to phone around anymore, so I offered to take her place. I made calls until the evening, always with the same result.
I helped her make calls for one more day, and then my patience ran out. The owners of these apartments or houses aren't necessarily racists themselves, but they want their units occupied and they don't want problems with the other tenants, who are often capable of becoming "civically engaged" to an unusual degree after Romani people move into their building.
These problems don't just apply to rentals. Sometimes it happens that a Romani family wants to buy an apartment and runs into this problem, as their presence would allegedly reduce the property value of the other units.
Mixed marriages cannot avoid this obstacle either, as allegedly "other Roma will be attracted" to the one Romani member of a household. Where does this all lead?
Romani families desperately seeking housing naturally often fall victim to broad range of speculators and swindlers. I can't even count how many times during the past 20 years I have been called by desperate acquaintances or friends who paid their two months' rent in advance, as well as their security deposit, only to be told the landlord wouldn't give them the key.
I have seen with my own eyes apartments that were beautifully reconstructed from which the landlords have evicted Romani families once the reconstruction was complete. Reportedly "Gypsies" use hardwood floors for fuel.
The accommodation in the residential hotels is so expensive because their occupants have no choice in the matter. If they don't want to lose their children to a state institution, they have to live somewhere.
I don't see the world through rose-colored glasses, as most of the readers of my column believe I do. Naturally I am very well aware that there are many Romani families who are difficult neighbors.
The longer people live in the residential hotels, or in weird sublets in "houses of horror", and the more often they must constantly move, the less hope there is that they will integrate and learn how to pay their own rent at all. Their children, understandably, do not do well at school and socialize with dubious gangs, and their parents have already lost what was left of their motivation.
Alcohol, drugs, gambling addiction, prostitution and shoplifting are widespread in these places. It is much easier to fall into any of those traps than it is to defend yourself against them when you live in such conditions.
I have very often spent many days and nights in places where I wouldn't want to live, not even for free, and I definitely would not want my children to grow up in such an environment. The problem is that the Romani people in those places don't want to live there either, and there is little will in Czech society to discern that - as a result, the number of socially excluded Roma is rising, as is the number of places where it's no good to grow up.
They have only themselves to blame
In the conversations about discrimination on the housing market that I have with those whose opinions differ from mine, my interlocutors often claim there is no discrimination in the Czech Republic. When, on the basis of my numerous personal experiences, I argue that my opponents are mistaken, their next response is "They have only themselves to blame."
How, exactly, is this their fault? Granted, families with children are actually a bit noisier than childless tenants, or those who live completely alone.
In the building where I currently live, we are the only people with children. Because I like company and can't often go to the pub in the evening, many of my friends come over to visit.
Altogether, our household definitely produces the most noise in the whole building. The children stomp around, even though I tell them to walk on eggshells, they are loud, even though I am teaching them to whisper in the hallways, and we frequently go to the street door to let our visitors in.
It stands to reason, therefore, that our neighbors who drink their brains out in the pub and then stagger home at dawn are actually much better tenants than we are. As for Romani families, they often have more members than the average, so the apprehension that they will not be completely invisible and silent is correct.
However, even an elderly Romani couple whose children are grown up and who only pose the risk of a visit by their grandchildren from time to time will have a problem finding housing. Even singles, even those whose families live far away and pose no risk of visits, have problems finding a rental.
Two problems are compounding one another here. On the hand there is the fact that Czech society is rather unfriendly toward children (especially when there are more than two of them) and larger families, and on the other hand there is the presumption that a Romani person attracts problems - and it is difficult for individuals to prove the opposite, to say nothing of a whole family.
We currently have four children. When I imagine how all those apartment landlords would probably respond to us, I'm glad we're not going to have to move house again.
I am also aware that we have the enormous luck of being so exemplarily white that it makes our life much easier here. If we were Romani, we would have only ourselves to blame.
Published in collaboration with Deník Referendum.
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