Czech Platform for Social Housing chair: Roma in residential hotels need a chance at a dignified life
"If you get hit by a car, the emergency medical technicians don't ask you if you looked both ways before you crossed the street. Losing housing is a similar catastrophe. It is in everyone's interest for homelessness not to become an intractable fate, but the briefest possible episode in someone's life," says Štěpán Ripka, chair of the Platform for Social Housing in the Czech Republic; news server Romea.cz interviewed him about the progress on a social housing law.
Q: In a recent press release you praise the Government for the steps it has taken toward a new social housing system, but it seems to me that your press release is a bit too positive and one-sided, that it ignores the very different opinions held of social housing, for example, by the Union of Towns and Municipalities of the Czech Republic (Svaz měst a obcí - SMO).
A: We assessed the degree to which the Government has managed to keep its election promises and whether the [Social Housing] Concept it has submitted meets the criteria of a good social housing system. The Government is keeping its election promises with the Concept - it is drafting a law on social housing and enhancing the liability of local authorities, a,nd according to the Concept, there will be separate budget for social housing that is currently counting on building social apartments only, not residential hotels. As far as the quality of the bill that has been submitted goes, compared to the document drafted by the preceding administration, there has been enormous progress. Our press release is about the Concept, not about the opinions held by various interest groups.
Q: That doesn't mean those groups don't have a different opinion, though.
A: We met with the current director fo the SMO, Mr Jiránek, two months ago and agreed with him on a whole range of social housing parameters, for example, on the idea that the target group for social housing should be households in need of housing as defined by the European typology on homelessness (ETHOS), and he did not mention wanting to institute any other restrictions as far as the target group for social housing goes. On the other hand, we did have different persepctives, for example, on how to set up the system so that it would motivate private property owners to participate, or on whether municipalities should be liable for arranging housing through delegated powers or independently. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), whom the director represents, really does not want any social housing at this moment. The currently-governing party, however, promised it during the elections in the form that is now in the Concept, and for the time being everything indicates that they will keep their promise.
Q: The press release names groups that the Concept targets - senior citizens, mothers with children, and people living with disabilities... In my opinion, this avoids a conflict with what the SMO is saying - that it is against the provision of social housing to all people in crisis situations, against the principle of "housing first", and that research should be undertaken into whether a person has gotten into a crisis situation because of his or her own actions or not.
A: We are consistent in our advocacy of a social housing system that will prevent homelessness and end it, for everyone who needs it. It is very important that we have moved from an exhaustive definition of target groups to a general definition of housing shortage and disproportionate housing costs. That's also part of our press release - not "all senior citizens", but precisely those senior citizens who need housing or who are paying a disproportionate amount of their income for housing will be entitled to social housing. This is great progress. As far as who is at fault, our opinion on that issue is clear and we share it with the Government. The public interest is best served by ending homelessness as rapidly as possible. If you get hit by a car, the emergency medical technicians don't ask you if you looked both ways before you crossed the street. Losing housing is a similar catastrophe. It is in everyone's interest for homelessness not to become an intractable fate, but the briefest possible episode in someone's life.
Q: So again: Are the differences between your opinions and those of the SMO a problem for the Concept? Those differences are not "just" the position of the SMO leadership, but of many mayors who are sometimes influential members of the governing coalition parties.
A: One year ago, together with the then-director of the SMO, Jana Vildumetzová, we issued a joint press release in which we agreed that there is a need for a social housing system and that municipalities would be able to be an active element in that system provided the state financed them to do so. If you are talking about the most recent statements by director Jiránek, those do not strike me as fortunate. I would be surprised if the rest of the leadership of the SMO shared his perspective and I hope they do not. The honorary chair of the SMO, the Mayor of Prague, Adriana Krnáčová, has begun to implement some steps in Prague that the Concept also counts on: Prague, for example, has created a fund into which all of the profits from the privatization of its apartment stock will be deposited to finance social housing construction. However, there are naturally other important cities here involved in such moves, such as Chomutov and Hradec Králové, where the SMO vice-chairs are from - they will be very actively addressing social housing. Brno is well on the way to becoming a leader in addressing this issue in the Czech Republic.
Q: Why do you believe the rest of the SMO does not share Mr Jiránek's opinions?
A: The last local elections redrew the Czech political map, and the SMO bodies have not responded to that yet almost six months after the elections. The ANO movement, which won in many places at local level, has a clear position on social housing. ANO unequivocally advocates a social houisng law. According to them,municipalities should plan for and guarantee social housing capacity. It is precisely the municipalities who should do this because, in their view, they will be best able to monitor it. If you look at the ANO movement's definition of the social housing target group and the definition in the Social Housing Concept, it's almost identical, but ANO just emphasizes housing for those living with disabilities to a greater extent. The ANO movement has never discussed who is to blame or not to blame when someone loses their housing, on the contrary, in their view social housing should be for people who have found themselves in an adverse life situation primarily as a result of losing their housing and who are unable to help themselves on their own. Guaranteeing social housing means taking responsibility for the existence of sufficient capacity, not necessarily owning the capacity. Generally speaking, mayors have long been recommended by the law on municipalities to take care of their citizens' housing. The Concept will finally give them the money to do that.
Q: Is the Concept really focused on the target groups mentioned, or is that a tactical response of yours to avoid conflict with the landlords and municipalities prior to the Government session on the Concept?
A: The target group of the Concept is people who need housing and people who are paying a disproportionate share of their income for housing. I repeat, we are not in any conflict with municipalities and we have been collaborating with many mayors on this issue. As far as the landlord lobby goes, they have a completely clear interest - profit. They should be consulted on how to set up this system so they can participate in it. However, I would consider it corruption if they were supposed to determine the aims of state policy on this issue - they do not represent the public interest, but their own very particular, private interests.
Q: The SMO and some municipalities evidently have a problem with accepting the provision of social housing to the people whom some mayors call "inadaptables" - people living in "ghettos", excluded localities... i.e., a group that is comprised, to a significant degree, of Romani people. To what degree is this group a "target group" for the Concept?
A: I have never read anything like that in any of the SMO's press releases and I do not think that is their stance. What the municipalities are concerned about is that the state will give them this liability without the money to see it through. It is up to the Government and the responsible ministries to reach agreement with the municipalities on that point.
Q: This may not be in the official stance of the SMO, but it seems to me that there is no point in pretending that this is not a problem for many municipalities. Let me be specific: Does the Concept target Romani people in residential hotels? Does it want to generally address the situation at the residential hotels? At the beginning of the activity of the Platform, when you were calling for a new law, it seemed that the situation at the residential hotels was one of the main themes.
A: Yes, it targets them. All research into this issue conducted abroad demonstrates that providing housing and support services is the only actually functional solution to homelessness. According to the European typology, ETHOS, people who have no choice but to live in residential hotels are homeless. That is why it is in the interest of the public administration to build a social housing system that will end their homelessness. Romani people in the residential hotels are just as homeless as non-Romani people in residential hotels are, and they are all just as homeless as those living on the street. The Concept targets all people who need housing, the Government's program declaration pledged to do so. The Concept says that what is normal is to reside in an apartment, and that the state must help everyone who is not living in one. Residential hotels are no solution, the people in them, families with children first and foremost, must get a chance at a dignified life in dignified housing as soon as possible.
Q: Currently, however, it seems that it's the opposite - some experts are concerned that a recent amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress means the municipalities will have more opportunities to restrict the residential hotels, and that this will lead to their closure in some locations without any substitute housing being in place. People from the residential hotels will then really be "on the streets". Do you agree with that concern? What is the eventual solution to it?
A: Yes, I am concerned about that, quite strongly. As of May it really will be possible for municipalities to disagree with the disbursal of the housing supplement to the owner of a specific residential hotel and the tenants would then lose that money to pay for their accommodation. According to the ombud, that amendment is unconstitutional, because the housing supplement is an entitlement that cannot be denied this way. If my understanding is correct, that amendment was drafted by the Ostrava cell of the ODS together with Ms Řápková. I consider the approval of that amendment an enormous failure of [Labor and Social Affairs] Minister Marksová and I think she needs to correct it as soon as possible. In my opinion this is an unacceptable gamble with the fates of the thousands of children who have no choice but to live in the residential hotels now. The solution would be to amend the amendment, but that won't be done by May. That is why the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry should design clear implementing instructions that will make such proceedings impossible if the outcome would deteriorate the situation of either the adults or the children now in the residential hotels.
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