Czech Republic: Romani tenants stand up to landlord's pressure tactics, rape alleged, police are investigating
The building at Markéty Kuncové 2 in Brno, Czech Republic has long been a symbol of housing exclusion and poverty in Brno. For roughly 10 years it has been occupied more or less only by Romani families with children who have nowhere else to go.
Originally the building was managed as a residential hotel, but approximately three years ago it became regular rental housing. It is owned by a man named Robert Hrdina, who has been convicted of subsidy and tax fraud, and who is currently out on parole.
News server Romea.cz reported on the conditions in this "house of horrors", as the former residential hotel in the Židenice quarter of Brno is called, as long ago as in 2007. In March of this year, news server iDNES.cz also reported on the escalation of the situation being created for the building's tenants and on the fact that activists from the "We Want To Live Indoors!" initiative (Chceme bydlet) have begun standing up for them in an effort to get the public to understand their tense situation.
Jan Milota is a member of that initiative who has been monitoring these events over time and visiting the building on a daily basis. News server Romea.cz first interviewed him in March.
Q: What preceded the current state of affairs in the building and what are the tenants facing now?
A: The de facto owner of the building has behaved very badly toward the tenants and in our opinion his behavior has crossed the line legally. This matter has never been properly addressed, or rather, it has just been addressed in individual cases, because the people living there have long succumbed to the owner's pressure. Essentially this is about the fact that the tenants are being blackmailed and placed in totally disadvantageous positions, and Mr Hrdina, in our opinion, is constantly abusing their hopeless situations.
Q: You said "the de facto owner" - does that mean he is not the building owner legally?
A: The ownership structure there is rather complex, essentially there are two firms, R.Hero Property, which according to the registered title is the owner of the building, and then the firm R.Hero Reality. Mr Robert Hrdina owns 50 % of R.Hero Property and 50 % is owned by Ms Monika Hrdinová, his wife, who is also CEO of the firm. R.Hero Property has leased the building to R.Hero Reality, which is owned by an ex-wife of Mr Hrdina, by his mother, and by a Mr Bohumil Jelínek, who is meant to perform maintenance work in the building, as well as to stoke its furnace, and who is also listed as the CEO of R.Hero Reality, which is the entity that leases apartment units to the tenants.
Q: Mr Jelínek is, according to our information, a very elderly man who is ill and fighting alcoholism.
A: Exactly. It's a question whether he has alcoholism, but the fact is that he is elderly and ill, and in this case he can be considered just a patsy himself - we believe he just signs whatever Mr Hrdina tells him to. Mr Hrdina allegedly intimidates and threatens him, and some of the tenants are of the opinion that Mr Hrdina has some other sort of hold over Mr Jelínek.
Q: Mr Hrdina has a criminal past?
A: A year and eight months ago he was convicted of subsidy and tax fraud, and the total lengh of his sentence was roughly three years in prison. He was released after 18 months and will be on parole for four and a half years. He is also supposed to pay compensation of CZK 27 million [EUR 1 million]. He is additionally banned from serving as an executive, but we are convinced that he is de facto performing that role, to a certain extent.
Q: When did the situation in the building begin to escalate?
A: Mr Hrdina was released from prison in about December 2016, and ever since then the problems in the building have begun to escalate. In our opinion, this has involved classic moves such as turning off the power to the building, forcing the tenants to pay higher rents than usual, and failing to supply heat and hot water. The building is swarming with bedbugs and cockroaches - no maintenance is being performed there at all. During the winter, families with children were living in spaces where the temperature was 10 degrees Celsius at the most. During December 2016 and January 2017 we believe that Mr Hrdina escalated his pressure by beginning to conduct daily readings of the electricity meters and demanding that each tenant pay him additional money for the electricity. The amounts were on the order of CZK 500 [EUR 18] per day. We believe the facts of the matter are that Mr Hrdina is reselling the tenants electricity for 8.2 CZK (EUR 0.30) per kilowatt hour, which is illegal, according to the Energy Act.
Q: How did this entire matter come to your attention and what are you doing to protect these tenants?
A: About 12 women living in the building contacted our initiative who could no longer stand the de facto owner's behavior. They wanted our advice and, together with them, we subsequently began to come up with a strategy for solving the situation. On Monday, one of the tenants invited members of the broader public, i.e., people who were interested in their circumstances, to visit the building, and when Mr Hrdina once again turned off the power, which was at about 9 AM, we called the police, who came to investigate. Those police officers said the matter should be addressed by suing in court and left. The electricity remained disconnected in seven of the units. At 11 AM we called the police again. The next officers to arrive investigated what is going on, and when we referred to the fact that this behavior was probably felony obstruction of the use of an apartment, or felony exerting of pressure, the police recommended the tenants go to the station to report the suspected crimes.
Q: Did the tenants do that? How do the police treat them?
A: Yes, we accompanied the tenants to the police station. The police asked them to describe the situation. One suspected crime was investigated roughly a month ago and was found not to constitute a felony but a misdemeanor.
Q: How did that incident with the power turn out? Is the power still off?
A: About 7 in the evening the situation had escalated to such an extent that the tenants were instructed by a member of the police that they were legally allowed, according to Civil Code paragraph 14, to aid themselves and to turn the power back on, and they attempted to do so. A conflict arose, and when Mr Hrdina called the police, about 12 officers responded. They began to investigate the situation and at around 9 in the evening the commander of the intervention began to negotiate with Mr Hrdina to turn the power back on. Mr Hrdina kept alleging that he has absolutely nothing to do with the building, that he is not an executive of either company, and that he doesn't even have the key to the fuse box. He also asserted that there was a short in the system, claimed to have pointed it out to those in charge, and promised it would be fixed.
Q: Did the police leave?
A: No, they began to push him to demonstrate to them that this was actually about a power failure. At about 9:30 they convinced Mr Hrdina to call an electrician to investigate the alleged flaw. The negotiations were full of emotion - both the electrician and Mr Hrdina refused to open up anything or to turn the power on, but by about 10:15, when the electrician was not able to demonstrate that there were any flaws in five of the seven apartments where the power was not running, Mr Hrdina had to take his keys out and turn the power back on in all of the units. In two apartments they did find flaws - marginal ones, in our view - that should have been fixed before the power was restored. However, what was documented was that Hrdina's allegations of flaws in the system as a whole were incorrect, and it was also proven that he is indeed the person who de facto manages the administration of the building. We are of the opinion that in and of itself this is enough evidence to prove that it was he who turned the power off in order to pressure the tenants, or rather, to prevent them from using their apartments. Both of those actions can be considered felonies under the criminal code.
Q: What happened next?
A: On Tuesday we learned that the original misdemeanor had been reclassified as a crime and that the police were continuing to investigate in a criminal proceedings. The tenants have been giving their testimonies. As for the civil administrative aspect, there what is being addressed is that the tenants have long paid disproportionately high rates for electricity. The tenants will be suing on the grounds of unjustifiable enrichment and will ask for their money back. Moreover, in my opinion this is also a classic case of the serial use of short-term contracts - the contracts in that building are month-to-month and are extended using a so-called rental paper that the owner issues after being paid.
Q: Is that kind of contract legally valid?
A: The contract contains many invalid provisions, but as such is binding. The invalid provisions that do not conform to the current civil code are basically the point. We are of the opinion that the serial use of short-term contracts is a way of avoiding the civil code law on rental relationships. The tenants will also sue over the invalid provisions in their contracts. They will ask the court for a preliminary injunction prior to its decision on whether the apartments are available for use in accordance with the contract. The tenants and the members of the public who are supporting them now are pushing especially for the owner of the building (and this de facto owner) to be required to uphold the tenants' right to heat, hot water, and hygienic conditions that are up to code. If those rights are not upheld, the tenants will take action.
Q: Who is representing the public here?
A: These are activists who are monitoring the situation and aiding the local people with facing up to the enormous pressure they are momentarily experiencing. The activists are supporting them, for example, so that they don't give up at the last moment and leave the apartments. The owner, according to our information, is currently attempting to manipulate them, to deter them from testifying, etc.
Q: I have more information about the owner's previous behavior. He has allegedly physically assaulted some of the tenants and committed rape or sexual assault against some of the female tenants. Allegedly he extorted a tenant to "pay" rent not with money, but with sex. Additionally, he is said to keep a dog in the basement whom he allegedly abuses. Can you confrm that?
A: For the time being those stories are making their way around the building and will also be investigated by police. The people supporting the tenants have actually heard many complaints of countless assaults. Given that the current situation is confused, and that the tenants are being emotionally blackmailed and pushed into positions from which they cannot defend themselves, there has not yet been room to focus on these allegations. I personally witnessed the de facto owner daring tenants to attack him, laughing at them, intentionally provoking them, insulting them, attempting put these ladies into a victim role. This is really playing with fire, because these people have long been under enormous pressure, they have their children here, etc. As for the dog, there is indeed a dog kept in the cellar and by all accounts he hasn't left that cellar in three months. On Tuesday morning police investigated that and came to the conclusion that the animal is not suffering from any signs of direct physical abuse, but that its living environment is undignified. At this moment we await the veterinary administration's visit.
Q: What is the city's stance on this entire situation?
A: It has been documented that the local municipality has already had a report about what is going on in this building for a year now. The mayor has made it clear that this is about the slack response of the competent municipal department office, and that people who are in this kind of distress must naturally be aided, and that the law must be enforced so as to avoid setting a precedent of impunity. The city cannot serve in the role of a substitute landlord, but should be able to aid with the law enforcement the tenants are entitled to.
Q: What else are you doing about this now?
A: At this moment we are doing our best to activate attorneys so that they will consider whether they can support these tenants by offering them their services and representing them in court. One matter is defending their rights, and another matter is the fact that there does not yet exist in the Czech Republic a judgment that would once and for all manage, for example, to call this serial use of short-term contracts illegal. That is of even broader scope, because it is a well-known matter that if Romani people do manage to get a rental contract, they frequently have exactly this kind of rental relationship, and it places them in de facto the same position as if they were living in a residential hotel.
Q: Do you believe the tenants are in danger, at this moment, of being pressured further by Hrdina?
A: I assume that at this moment his probation officer has already been informed about his behavior. What there is most likely a danger of right now is that he will escalate his pressure on the tenants. It is, therefore, important to keep up the public support for the tenants. I would like to send the message here that this is not about squatting - the activists are not hanging out in the building together. They are mostly young people who have noticed the situation and are shocked by the conditions in which the tenants are being forced to raise their children.
Editor's Note: At the request of Robert Hrdina we are publishing the following information, which we received by post. The letter we received from him at the end of April was as follows:
"On 31 March 2017, your company published information about me through its Internet portal romea.cz. Since the information published about my person was false, I am calling on you to publish this response in your article as per Section 10 et seq. of Act No. 46/2000, Coll., as amended. Your server has published the following information: 'He is also supposed to pay compensation of CZK 27 million.' The information that I am to pay compensation of CZK 27 million is untrue. At the time the article was published I had already paid CZK 6 million of that, and I have concluded a proper payment plan for the rest of the amount."
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