Czech experts warn rising homelessness is underway
It was supposed to be an important measure against "trafficking in poverty". Now it could lead to hundreds becoming homeless.
An amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that has changed the terms of that aid has been in force since May. Thanks to the new terms, municipalities, not the state-administered Labor Offices, are responsible for deciding whether housing benefits should be awarded to individual applicants.
The municipalities can use this power to push through the closure of residential hotels for impoverished people - and their occupants will end up on the street. "Most municipalities behave rationally, they know they cannot create dozens or hundreds of new homeless people. I believe they will make responsible decisions," Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksová said at the end of May when addressing a conference to review the results of an analysis of socially excluded localities commissioned by her ministry.
"The change to the law on aid to those in material distress was intended for municipalities to have regulatory power over the residential hotels. We will evaluate the results within one to three months and negotiate with the Union of Cities and Municipalities," the minister said.
Many experts, however, are warning of the possible consequences of the change. "As of May it actually will be possible for a municipality not to agree with the disbursal of housing benefits to the operator of a specific residential hotel and the applicants will lose the money that they would have used to pay for accommodation there. According to the ombud, this is unconstitutional, because the housing benefit is an entitlement. If I understand the situation correctly, the bill was designed by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Ostrava together with Ms Řápková," Štěpán Ripka, chair of the Czech Platform for Social Housing, told news server Romea.cz previously in an interview.
The housing benefit is one of the welfare entitlements that the state awards to people who have found themselves insolvent and unable to afford housing - even though they might already be receiving a housing subsidy from the state social support system. The amendment was supposed to simplify the procedure for housing benefits and restrict their abuse by preventing them from being disbursed to landlords offering housing that is not up to code.
The amendment was also intended to increase recipients' motivation to resolve their unfavorable housing and social situations. Prior to the amendment, the housing benefit was disbursed to the owners of residential hotel facilities on a per capita basis, which meant it was most profitable for them to lease one room to as many people as possible.
As of May, the housing benefit is being awarded based on square meters rented - per occupant, the minimum is eight square meters, and for every person sharing the rented space with that occupant, the minimum is an additional five square meters. If the property does not meet the standards required by the amendment, including hygienic standards, its owner will not be able to draw on the benefit to house those clients.
A list compiled by the Ministry of Health in mid-April reported 375 long-term residential hotels in the Czech Republic where the hygienic conditions for their occupants need to be assessed. The decision not to award benefits, which municipalities can take during the assessment process, will stop the flow of money to the owners of facilities not up to code.
The owners will then evict their tenants, who will end up on the street because they will be unable to pay rent anywhere without the housing benefit. "We believe the municipalities will make reasonable use of their new powers and that they will only cancel benefits in individual, justified cases with the awareness that it will be necessary to find other housing for those people where the housing benefit can be awarded," Petr Habáň, press spokesperson for the ministry, told TN.cz.
In mid-may, Minister Marksová called on municipalities not to close all the residential hotels on their territories and render socially vulnerable people homeless. She made the remarks in response to initial statements from various municipalities threatening to block housing benefits to everyone in residential hotels.
Those municipalities included the towns of Bohumín and Karviná. Mayor of Bohumín Petr Vícha said the town had not received the necessary information in time as to exactly what form the assessment of housing benefit applications should take in practice, that the town had practically no information about the applicants, and that it could not responsibly decide to whom to award benefits and whose application should be rejected.
"Both negative and positive decisions must be justified, and that requires investigation by social workers. A negative decision can be issued if the applicant has repeatedly committed misdemeanors against public order, civil coexistence, or property," Miroslava Sobková of the Union of Cities and Municipalities of the Czech Republic told news server Deník.cz.
Municipalities are obliged, when assessing an application for housing benefits, to issue operating rules for the housing at issue and deliver them to the relevant Regional Public Health office for approval; they are also obliged to cooperate with the Building Works Authority. Should the operating rules be rejected and the building at issue not be considered fit for habitation, the Labor Office will not award the housing benefit for disbursal to that residential hotel owner.
The Labor Office did receive an overview of long-term residential hotel facilities at the end of March from the Health Ministry indicating which facilities' operating rules have already been rejected. The Labor Office should have immediately informed the relevant municipalities which facilities those are.
Some mayors welcome the opportunity to regulate people in the residential hotels. "This is better than nothing. The state has supported the residential hotels for years. We have one right on the square here and the people there cause a lot of mischief," Mayor of Nýřan Jiří Davídek told Deník.cz.
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