Czech Public Defender of Rights calls for social housing law, says media should stop blaming Roma
At the beginning of this month the annual report on the activity of the Office of the Public Defender of Rights, Anna Šabatová, was discussed in the Czech lower house. The report included motions for Government review that Šabatová last managed to bring forward in 2014.
The motions are about improving both personal and social rights. The Czech Republic, according to the Public Defender of Rights, needs a social housing law.
Šabatová points to the situation of people now living in residential hotels throughout the country. "It's not a luxury to have access to basic housing. That is an absolutely irrational approach to the issue and it has been confirmed that if people acquire housing, it improves their lives in other respects as well," she says in an interview for news server Aktuálně.cz.
The annual report was criticized in the lower house by Czech MP Václav Klaus, Jr, who called the Public Defender of Rights a "left-wing extremist". Czech MP Tomio Okamura then declared that she defends just the rights of minorities.
"You do not have time for defending the rights of normal, working, heterosexual white men," Okamura said on the floor of the lower house. Šabatová said she found his remark "amusing".
"On each page of this report you will see that we dedicate our work to all groups," she says in her interview with Aktuálně.cz. At the same time, she claims that Okamura makes the same remarks about the report on an annual basis.
The Public Defender of Rights also says that this year she was pleasantly surprised to see several MPs from more than one kind of party responding critically to Okamura's antics, which she considers a positive development. She also points to the situation of people who are ending up on the streets or living in absolutely undignified conditions in the residential hotels.
Cities throughout the country have begun to announce local zones where state-administered housing benefits cannot be disbursed. Former Czech Labor Minister Němcová has also proposed reducing housing benefits and further restricting who is entitled to them.
Such measures allegedly are meant to aid with ending "trafficking in poverty", i.e., the fact that landlords overcharge tenants entitled to benefits. Šabatová, on the other hand, says such instruments are not effective and are instead tools for waging war on impoverished people.
"Municipalities, by doing this, want to somehow abstractly arrange for there to be public order, but in my opinion such interventions into the fundamental right to aid in material distress, which is guaranteed by the [Czech] Charter [on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms] do not pass the test of proportionality. An avalanche effect could be triggered whereby more and more municipalities adopt such measures. It will destroy one instrument of aid to people in material distress, the housing benefit. I have joined a case about this before the Constitutional Court which was brought by about 20 senators," the Public Defender of Rights tells the news server.
Reduction of the housing benefit, in her view, is an absolute dead end in a situation where no law on social housing exists. "Municipalities should have a certain supply of apartment units they own so they can influence the situation when they have people on their territories who suddenly will not have anywhere to live," she proposes.
"In the media the impression is created that Romani people are to blame for this situation. They cannot do anything about this, though, the ones living in these situations. The tenants are not the ones creating the situation, the landlords are. Municipalities should, in my opinion, buy back properties on their territories. This is terrible, because the municipalities were the ones who sold that real estate before and who ate up all the money raised that way, and it has deprived them of the opportunity to further influence local conditions. According to the law, municipalities are responsible for arranging for the housing needs of their residents to be met. One city that owns quite a big amount of public housing stock, for example, is Vienna, and that is one of the best places to live in the entire world," Šabatová believes.
Some municipalities are making no secret of the fact that they do not want Romani people living on their territories. They allege that Romani tenants destroy public housing and bother other residents.
Šabatová says the creation of the ghettos is the municipalities' doing. "If nobody accommodates those people elsewhere, then the residential hotels become overcrowded. The operators of those properties do not take care of them, they do not invest into them. They just cash in the money [from tenant benefits]. It does no good for so many people to live together in such close quarters who already have social problems," she explains.
There is no law about social housing in the Czech Republic. Instead, what is discussed is assessing the difference between those who lack housing through no fault of their own and those who are allegedly to blame for their loss of housing.
The Public Defender of Rights believes that the needs of homeless people should be assessed, not whether they are or are not to blame for their housing lack. "Housing is not some kind of extra gift. It is a basic need. If you do not have a roof over your head, you cannot function well on the labor market and you will not take good care of your children. It is no luxury to have access to basic housing. That is an absolutely irrational approach to the issue and it has been confirmed that if people acquire housing, it improves their lives in other respects as well," she says.
When asked why many people are apparently not aware that a bigger proportion of their fellow citizens have nowhere to live and that this impacts all of society because the people in the residential hotels cannot be expected to disappear - as shown by the recent example of the two closed residential hotels in Ústí nad Labem - the Public Defender of Rights says she does not comprehend the lack of awareness. In her view, some municipalities are doing their best to force certain people to move away from their territories.
Such people become expellees who wander from place to place and never stay anywhere for long. They then have no relationship developed with anyplace, including not relationships with neighbors, which must be built over a longer time.
"For example, in Ústí nad Labem there are unoccupied apartment units that are not even that expensive - as long as you are not Romani. If you are Romani, then the only apartment units made available to you are bad-quality, expensive ones. The situation is complicated and discrimination plays a significant role in deteriorating it," she says.
The subject of intolerance toward Romani people is beginning to expand again here. According to the Public Defender of Rights, however, that subject has always been a part of Czech society and paradoxically, some highly-placed politicians contribute to it.
By means of hateful commentaries, opinions and speeches, politicians just make the entire situation worse because they are transmitting their own hatred to all of society. Combating this is not easy and it is necessary for each person to be personally engaged in it, the Public Defender of Rights said.
Bravery is necessary primarily in the political sphere, and politics is the area that can be most influenced. "Animosity and discrimination have always been rather high here. They are higher than in some other countries. I do not exactly know why that is," the Public Defender of Rights said.
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