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Czech Government approves proposals for solving housing problems in excluded localities, critics not satisfied

6.11.2015 4:48
Members of the Platform for Social Housing protested on 29 September 2015 outside the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry against a draft amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that is supposed to reduce housing benefits for the impoverished. (PHOTO:  Jan Čonka, Romea.cz)
Members of the Platform for Social Housing protested on 29 September 2015 outside the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry against a draft amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that is supposed to reduce housing benefits for the impoverished. (PHOTO: Jan Čonka, Romea.cz)

On 19 October the Czech Government approved a report on the state of socially excluded localities in the Ústecký Region submitted by Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier that includes proposals for how to solve the problems of ghettos in the Czech Republic in general. The report reviews the situation in municipalities with socially excluded localities that have collaborated with the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and includes motions, recommendations and brief proposals for addressing the problem areas of education, employment, housing, indebtedness, social services and social work.

Inter-generational transfer of exclusion   

Overall anywhere between 95 000 and 115 000 people are estimated to be living in socially excluded localities in the Czech Republic, between 36 00 and 38 500 of them in the Ústecký Region (more than one third of all those living in socially excluded localities in the entire country). In concrete terms, this means the introduction of large (and long-lasting) concentrations of persons who are without employment, who have low qualifications, and who are frequently very indebted, all in a single place.

In such environments, many socio-pathological phenomena arise. How people adapt to life in such conditions is something that is now being transferred inter-generationally in these places.

The high numbers of persons occupying these excluded localities is creating enormous tensions among the majority population in general. These tensions primarily concern those who live immediately adjacent to the problematic locations that are socially excluded.

Solutions must be comprehensive 

Solving such problems requires a coordinated appraoach by all partners involved in all of the relevant areas (crime prevention, education, the elimination of indebtedness, employment, financial literacy, health care, housing, security, social services and social work). The report defines the need for the following legislative steps and non-legislative measures to address the problem of social exclusion comprehensively and synergistically: 

- Regulating social housing and providing municipalities with resources for building and maintaining such housing.

- Supporting and legislatively regulating the area of social enterprise and rewarding social entrepreneurs for work in the public interest.

- Regulating an option for citizens to enjoy debt relief even when they do not meet the current criteria for filing personal bankruptcy but are still motivated to pay off their debt in a way that corresponds to their actual income.

- Providing the capacity and operational conditions for compulsory preschool attendance.

- Providing the conditions and resources (financial/operational – a program and rules) for reducing housing capacity in socially excluded localities and thereby reducing the concentration of impoverished people with social handicaps in a single location.

- Arranging legislatively for there to be a correspondence between people's actual domiciles (residences) and the place where they register as permanent residents. 

- Creating the legislative environment for providing free legal aid to citizens unable to arrange for such aid themselves as a result of their social situations.

"Recipe book" unifies the ministries' approaches 

Dienstbier was entrusted by Czech PM Sobotka with initiating the creation of a Working Group at ministerial and deputy ministerial level (i.e., for the ministries of Education, Youth and Sport; Interior; Labor and Social Affairs; and Regional Development) to unify the instruments they now have for addressing social inclusion. That material, called a "recipe book", will provide a comprehensive list of projects, subsidy programs and other options for municipalities to use in managing this problem.

The "recipe book" will be distributed to all municipalities in the Czech Republic. It will also be available on the website of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and will be regularly updated there.

Social housing concept approved 

The Government has also approved the social housing concept proposed by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. The much-anticipated social housing law is to be created on the basis of the concept.

The proposal counts on three levels of accommodation for people in need - crisis accommodation, social apartments, and affordable apartments. The housing stock for this accommodation is to be created at municipal level.

The document does not set forth what percentage of apartment units on a municipality's territory should fall into the social housing scheme. Dienstbier informed the Czech News Agency that the concept was approved last month.

The law on social housing should begin applying in 2018, according to the coalition government's plan. A sketch of it was originally to have been submitted to the cabinet in April and then in June.

The concept did not begin to be negotiated until right before the summer holidays this year, but no consensus was found on it at that time. The coalition then requested an analysis of its impacts.

Czech PM Sobotka has admitted that the original 2017 deadline for the legislation will probably not be met. He believes the Government has time to design the norm and then push for its adoption up to the end of his time in office in the autumn of 2017.

The Platform for Social Housing, a civil society group, is criticizing these delays. They are concerned that during the election campaign there will be no political will to push forward this complex topic.

Of the three kinds of accommodation described in the social housing concept, the crisis accommodation would be a social service for homeless persons or for those whose health and life are at risk. Social apartments would represent a simpler kind of accommodation where tenants are assisted by social workers.

Affordable apartments would be regular accommodation mainly for domestic violence victims, families with children, persons living with disabilities, senior citizens and youth who have been raised in children's homes. Families or individuals would receive financial aid if the cost of adequate housing is more than 40 % of their income.

Municipalities would provide this housing. According to the proposed concept, the law will require municipalities to set aside a certain percentage of apartment units on their territory for the social housing fund.

What is missing from the document is how to calculate that proportion of housing stock and the deadline for fulfilling this aim, both of which the law should establish. The authors of the concept say those details must still be negotiated.

In a previous version of the concept, a 5 % proportion of local housing stock was indicated as optimal. It is precisely the establishment of the obligatory amounts and a lack of clarity around the financing of the system that have sparked the biggest disputes.

According to the proposal, an annual investment of CZK 14.6 billion over two decades is needed to realize the program. That funding would come from loans or subsidies.

The concept also counts on employing 696 people at Labor Offices to handle the social housing agenda. Their equipment would cost CZK 31.1 million and their salaries would cost CZK 286.2 million at least per year.

Another 45 jobs would be created at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry itself to administer the program. According to the concept, an acceptable time to wait to be awarded an apartment through the system would be six months at the longest.

That is said to be the target state of affairs once the entire social housing program is up and running. Municipalities should include both their own apartment units and those that are privately owned in their social housing funds.

The rent for these units should not exceed the officially-established costs for such accommodation. People would be given leases for two years that could be extended.

Should they not fulfill the conditions, they would have to leave the units. People living with disabilities and senior citizens would received indefinite leases.

Marksová: Housing benefits should be regulated by municipalities

After meeting with the Association of Regional Authorities of the Czech Republic in September to discuss the law on social housing, Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksová announced that municipalities should still be the ones to regulate the disbursal of housing benefits under new regulations. She said the municipalities have no other options otherwise for influencing the disbursal of such benefits, which are frequently being abused.

The new system, in her view, should be established such that municipalities will have the option to decide on the disbursal of housing benefits and access to social apartments. At the same time, social housing should be opened up to more groups of people, primarily families with children and senior citizens.

Mayors have long been calling for a change in the law, primarily because they have direct experience with the abuse of housing benefits in their municipalities. For example, mayors in the Karlovy Vary Region most frequently complain that housing benefits are disbursed to those living in overpriced privately-owned rental apartments or to persons who are drug-addicted and unemployed.

In the spring, the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry announced that it is planning to combine the two sorts of housing benefits currently available into one. Instead of housing benefits and housing subsidies, just one benefit will begin to be disbursed.

The current housing benefit is a state social support benefit. People who spend 30 % or more of their income for adequate housing qualify for it.

Residents of Prague qualify if their housing costs exceed 35 % of their income. The other housing subsidy is part of the system of aid to those in material distress.

Those entitled to a housing benefit who still cannot live on their income even with that support then qualify for a housing subsidy. This additional subsidy makes up the difference in their housing costs so they have money left over to live on.

Activists protest proposals to reduce housing benefit 

Thousands of people were threatened with homelessness on the basis of the amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that took effect in May of this year, and by June politicians were acknowledging that the law was absurd and had to be amended again. The new version of the law that has since prepared makes it seem as if such problems could return.

Activists protested the new amendment in front of the ministry at the end of September. The minister argues that the reduction must be done because of the necessity of combating the "trafficking in poverty" that is underway.

"This is a component of combating the trafficking in poverty that is flourising in the Czech residential hotels. Today any 'entrepreneur' can buy a half-demolished building and move socially vulnerable people from all over the country into it, while the people already living in that municipality just helplessly watch them move in. The owners of these facilities frequently charge excessive sums for accommodation in absolutely substandard conditions, with the full awareness that most of it will be paid for by the state," the minister explained on her Facebook profile.

According to activists and experts with the Platform for Social Housing, however, her concept for combating the operators of residential hotels will not work. "The minister is submitting this proposal without analyzing its impact. She believes that reducing housing benefits is an instrument for combating trafficking in poverty. The Platform for Social Housing believes that to be an incorrect speculation - the residential hotel owners will not lower their prices, so the families will have to pay rent from the 22 % of their income that they actually have left over for food," they explain.

Governing politicians are also not unified in their approaches to the amendment, with Czech Human Rights Minister Dienstbier taking a stand against reducing housing benefits. According to the Platform, it is essential to first adopt the social housing law.

Reforms that are ill-conceived or not thought through and that are instituted prior to arranging for the existence of enough social apartments will just place the most impoverished people living in the residential hotels at further risk. In this context the activists are also asking whether the Social Democratic proposal isn't similar to the "anti-social" reforms proposed by the previous Labor and Social Affairs Minister, Jaromír Drábek (TOP 09).

The activists organized another "Night Outdoors" event in support of homeless people and spent one day and one night in front of the ministry to confront bureaucrats with the reality of life on the street. "We want to show them the other world at the residential hotels and on the street. We are offering to sell them the kind of soup one can buy for one crown, which will be the only thing some people will be able to eat as a consequence of this amendment," Vít Lesák of the Platform told news server iDNES.cz.

The "happening" included the screening of a documentary film, a musical performance and testimonies from the occupants of residential hotels in Ostrava. Roughly 100 people planned to spend the night there.

Situation in Litvínov should be addressed by social housing law 

Problems in coexistence between the occupants of buildings in some localities of Litvínov and Most could be aided by hiring concierges and by the social housing concept that has been approved by the Government. That was the message given to representatives of the Krušnohor apartment cooperative by Martina Štěpánková, second in charge of managing the Human Rights Section at the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, and the director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, Radek Jiránek.

The meeting was held in response to a petition organized by the Krušnohor cooperative. The wording of the petition was a racist attack on the Romani residents of the Janov housing estate.

"We familiarized the people from the Office of the Government with the situation and next time we will take them on a tour of buildings in Janov and Most," Petr Prokeš, spokesperson for the cooperative, told journalists. "All of our requirements are included in the Janov petition, in the Most petition and in the Most challenge, which is seven years old. Neither the Government nor the Parliament have taken an interest in them."

Signatories to the petition demanded the establishment of the job of concierges for their buildings, to be paid for by the Labor Office, and they also want the occupants of their buildings to be able to decide who else can move into them."That requirement violates democratic principles," Štěpánková said.

"The first part of our meeting focused primarily on how the Labor Offices and legislation might better address the fact that some of the state social housing benefit could be allocated to the maintenance and repair of buildings and would be paid to apartment cooperatives instead of ending up being paid solely to the owners of the apartments who lease them," Jiránek said.

The representatives of the Office of the Government also presented social housing concept elements to the representatives of the apartment cooperative that could be used in their buildings. A portion of the apartments in that cooperative could be set aside for the needs of social housing and could be linked to the necessary support services and work with tenants who are actually in difficult social situations.

"These proposals for guaranteed housing were received positively by representatives of the association. Next month we will be holding another negotiation in Most," Jiránek said.

"We will make these problematic apartments less problematic by moving people into them who are being assigned to them by the municipality. Nonprofit organizations will supply services and the European investment program should provide financing for reconstruction if the previous tenants trashed the apartment," Jiránek explained.

Litvínov will soon approve a strategic plan to open up its options for drawing money for social services from EU subsidies. The city of Most, too, would like to collaborate with the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion.

"What is advantageous is a three-sided collaboration between the municipality, the nonprofit organziations, and the private owners of the apartment units. We want to bring our colleagues from the Ostrava area, where they already have experience with this, to Most," Jiránek said.

Representatives of the Krušnohor apartment cooperative will become members of the Local Partnership that the Agency always sets up in the municipalities with which it collaborates. The cooperative will then be able to become a partner organization in some of the prepared projects drawing on EU funds.

"What's important in this area is mainly not to create more ghettos, but to attempt to desegregate these problematic tenants," Štěpánková said. Cooperative spokesperson Prokeš said that in Most what has aided in calming the coexistence situation between residents was a recently-approved decree about municipal order there.

Agency director: Social housing is the key to success 

Speaking on Czech Television, Jiránek said the law on social housing will be a key measure in combating social exclusion. "The Government is on the right path, on 12 October the social housing concept was approved and that seems to us to be a basic matter precisely for stabilization and for aiding socially excluded people, whether Romani people excluded because of their ethnicity or, on the other hand, senior citizens who are socially excluded primarily for financial reasons, and single mothers and others," he said.

The director still believes the originally planned deadlines will be met and the law will take effect as of January 2017. He also said the social housing concept will make sure that social apartments don't just replicate the features of ghettos and that the socially excluded will not remain separated from "normal" society, even in more dignified apartment units.

"I am of the opinion that the concept precisely addresses, in several places... for example, the building of apartment complexes with a maximum of four to six apartment units in non-segregated territories of the municipality," he noted. "The aim is precisely to provide social housing for the socially excluded... so that it is distributed throughout a municipality in some balanced way so that more ghettos are not created."

Platform for Social Housing:  Czech Government should combat poverty, not the poor

The protest event against the reduction of housing benefits was held on 29 September by representatives of the Platform for Social Housing and other NGOS. The Government pledged both in its coalition agreement and in its program declaration to prepare and push through a law on social housing.

"No Government besides this one has pledged to address this situation since the 1990s. Two years of their term are over. Now it's time for us to remind the cabinet of this," said Vít Lesák of the Platform for Social Housing.

Lesák said the Platform is planning to increase its pressure on the politicians. "We don't have a clear political signal that anyone is actually working on the social housing law. The work seems rather to be postponed for now," Štěpán Ripka, head of the Platform, told the Czech News Agency.

According to a different Government note, the Concept for the Prevention of Homelessness, there are around 30 000 people in the Czech Republic who are homeless and roughly 100 000 persons are at risk of losing their housing. According to statistics, last year 14.8 % of Czechs, or roughly 1.5 million people, were at risk of exclusion and poverty.

"The number of impoverished people is rising despite the fact that various commissions and strategies are being created with great enthusiasm and at great cost. Those aren't enough, though. The political decision has not yet been made to take on board those people who otherwise don't have a chance," believes the director of the Good Will Committee/Olga Havlová Foundation, Milena Černá.

According to representatives of the platform, the cabinet should combat "poverty, not the poor". "The only way forward is a functional system of social housing that will pull people out of their needy situations and help them return to normal life, like a trampoline. They will then not be forced to live in these residential hotels," Ripka said.

According to Ripka, there is no other way out of the residential hotels, and people cannot get out of them on their own because of a lack of money and a lack of housing that is cheap. Social worker Petra Hrubá said that if social apartments were accessible, people would have long ago stopped living in residential hotels.

"I don't know anyone who would want to be there," she said. She has worked with the occupants of such facilities for five years.

Daniel Hůle: National government, not mayors, should address the housing situations of disadvantaged people

Daniel Hůle of the NGO People in Need said in an interview for Czech Radio on 14 October that "There is a group in the population that cannot get an opportunity to access housing under the usual conditions. These people are excluded from the housing market."

Hůle believes this practice is creating an opportunity for the development of the social housing business that is leading to many negative phenomena thanks to the concentrations of disadvantaged people together in separate locations and of poverty, including the creation of excluded localities. He pointed out that there are two groups of people who are at risk on the housing market.

"We have the so-called desirable group, which includes senior citizens, who have a big problem, and single mothers, and children who are aging out of children's homes. Then we have the other group, the homeless and Romani people," he said.

While most people in the Czech Republic generally have compassion for members of that first group and are willing to live next door to them, Hůle believes municipalities are attempting to push members of the second group out of their territories altogether. He also believes that this is rational behavior on the part of mayors, because the consequences of their redistributing the disadvantaged populations from the excluded localities among various apartment buildings in their towns would be reflected in local elections, where they would lose votes.

Hůle also believes it is irresponsible of the Government to transfer responsibility to mayors in this regard and that it should take up resolving the situation itself. He does not believe the law on social housing will solve the problem.

Hůle believes it would instead be easier to reduce landlords' unwillingness to lease housing to impoverished people. The state, in his view, should aid such people with paying deposits for regular housing.

Štěpán Ripka: Less food for impoverished children, more bureaucrats

In his blog on Aktuálně.cz, Ripka has critiqued the ministry's plan to reduce housing benefits across the board. He notes it means that a family with two children whose father makes CZK 15 000 net and whose mother is on maternity leave would, according to the current proposal, lose CZK 1 860 per month should they live in Prague, while in Brno or Ostrava the would lose CZK 1 500 per month.

These people would only lose this money because they live in a residential hotel. If they were to live in an apartment, they would be receiving up to CZK 3 735 more for housing per month.

From research the ministry commissioned last year, it is clear that 90 % of the people in the residential hotels are attempting to move out of them. Of those, 87 % cannot leave for financial reasons.

Ripka notes that those who primarily need motivating are not the occupants of the residential hotels, but those who own apartments and offer them for rent, including municipalities. He says the alternative thesis being pushed by the latest amendment to the legislation believes people are doing well in the residential hotels and that there is a need to make their lives unpleasant so they will move out of them.

Ripka also notes that the Labor Ministry "made money" on the most impoverished when, at the beginning of the year, it reduced the maximum payment for those living in residential hotels to 90 % of the normative housing cost. Thanks to these restrictions (which have already had rather strong impacts on the budgets of these households), the ministry has likely saved several hundreds of millions of crowns compared to 2014.

Despite this, the ministry keeps claiming that its housing benefits expenditures continue to grow. Ripka asks where the savings has gone.

While former Labor Minister Drábek cut welfare four years ago under pressure from Czech Finance Minister Kalousek, who was tasked with reducing expenditures, Ripka notes that no such pressure being placed on the current Labor Minister. PM Sobotka is said to have merely entrusted the minister with designing an amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress that will abolish the necessity for municipalities to agree with the disbursal of housing benefits to those living in residential hotels, which, however, is not what has been developed.

Ripka says the draft amendment she has since come up with was quite a surprise to the Platform. "I propose that if the ministry actually needs more financing for more bureaucrats, Madame Minister should begin negotiating with the Finance Minister, not make absurd cuts to the money that the most impoverished have for buying food," Ripka wrote in his blog on Aktuálně.cz. 

bau, ČTK, mik, press release of the Czech Human Rights Minister, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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