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May 19, 2019
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How a Romani family in the Czech Republic lost their housing through no fault of their own

6.4.2019 18:12

The Janov housing estate in the Czech town of Litvínov is one of the localities in the country where the relationship between Romani people and the rest of society is repeatedly tested. Extremists, some neighbors of the Roma, the owners of apartment units there and representatives of the town consider repression the best way to solve the problems that do, without a doubt, exist there.

Neo-Nazis attempted a pogrom there more than a decade ago now, but the police prevented it. Ahead of that attempt the neighbors of the Roma hid various instruments around the housing estate for the neo-Nazis to eventually use, such as baseball bats.

Several years ago the town issued an ordinance on the basis of which local police fined Romani residents for sitting on the staircases leading up to and into the apartment buildings there. In May 2018 the town announced the housing estate is now a housing benefit-free zone.

That move was a reaction to the booming real estate activities of speculators in those properties. The ownership structure at the housing estate is now very complicated and management companies are unable to do their jobs there as a consequence.

The Krušnohor Apartment Building Cooperative (SBD Krušnohor), chaired by František Ryba, a man infamous for his anti-Romani remarks, withdrew from its contracts with the Apartment Owners' Associations (Společenstvím vlastníků jednotek - SVJ) in the autumn of 2017 for properties on two streets at Janov, allegedly because of growing debts owed for their administrative services. A report by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion called "The Current Housing Crisis at the Janov Housing Estate in Litvínov", issued at the beginning of 2019, states that Krušnohor itself was also, in some of those SVJs, the sole member of their statutory body.

One consequence of the lack of a functional administration and growing debts owed to the suppliers of heat and water has been the disconnection of hundreds of households there from hot water, or even from all water, and the shutting off of their heating. For quite some time the attempt to get as many of the Romani residents of Litvínov as possible to move into the Janov housing estate has been gaining in strength.

Currently it seems that the "system" is doing its best to push them out of the town altogether. The way in which the family of Michal Tancoš lost their two rental apartments there is, to a certain extent, evidence of such efforts.

Move to the next building

Mr Tancoš has the kind of stories to tell about his family's housing that are rarely ever heard, but the same or similar experiences have been related to us by other families living at Janov. Many have recently been moving away not just from the housing estate, but out of Litvínov altogether.

The owner of the apartment at issue denies most of Mr Tancoš's allegations. On Třebušická Street - and not just there - the units are owned by multiple landlords, all associated in the SVJ.

The Tancoš family were leased an apartment there by Dušan Zázvůrek and Zdenka Zázvůrková. Last year the family - Mr Tancoš, his wife and their four children - were living in the same apartment bloc as they currently are, but in the building next door.

The family moved into a unit that was in poor condition. Mr Tancoš set about reconstructing the unit, which cost him thousands of crowns.

After some time, their water was shut off. To this day the website of the SVJ still shows the order issued to the owners of the apartments: "From 1 - 9 December 2018 the unoccupied apartment units and storage units at entrances 264, 260 and 259 will be cleared out."

The groundless, sudden stopping of water to the Tancoš family may have been evidence of the fact that it was not just unoccupied units that were being cleared, but also those still occupied. According to Mr Tancoš, at the close of last year the chair of the SVJ board, Jiří Velebný, came to visit and told the family that they had to move one building over.

They left the apartment they had reconstructed, therefore, and were welcomed by a new one that was in even worse condition than the one they had just invested in. "There were bedbugs everywhere here, just as there were all over the building, unbelievable dirt everywhere, and human feces were on the ground that we had to clean up," Mr Tancoš told new server Romea.cz.

"We're gradually putting this apartment together," he said. "I've painted it and repaired the floors, I bought two new doors."

"I've invested about CZK 10 000 [EUR 390] of my own money into it so far," Mr Tancoš told us. We could see for ourselves that the doors were evidently new, the walls painted, and the unit was bedbug-free.

CZK 13 000 [EUR 500] a month to live in an impoverished neighborhood

For an apartment with a six-month contract the family were meant to pay CZK 4 740 [EUR 185] per month. Their understanding was that the landlord would not charge them for heating or hot water, since neither were working.

The family used space heaters and warmed water up on the stove. The use of electricity in that way cost them a great deal of money, which they calculated as almost CZK 8 000 [EUR 312] per month, so to live in a kitchen and two rooms they were supposed to pay almost CZK 13 000 [EUR 500] per month total.

They allege that Velebný promised they would not have to pay rent for the first three months of occupancy because the reconstruction of the unit cost a lot of money. In February, however, Velebný came by and announced they had to move out by the end of the month.

That corresponded to the fact that at the time of our visit, the water had been cut off for three days. "Where are we supposed to bathe - they must not believe we're human beings," Hermína Tancošová commented to us.

The landlady, Zdenka Zázvůrková, told news server Romea.cz she knew nothing about a rent reduction in exchange for reconstructing the apartment, nor about the subsequent order for the family to move out, telling us on the phone: "The Tancoš family owes three rents. I didn't want to throw them out of the apartment, though."

When we asked whether Mr Velebný has a power of attorney from her to act on her behalf with the tenants of her units, she said he does not. He deals with tenants as chair of the board of the SVJ.

"So the chair can throw out your tenants without you even knowing about it?" we asked. The landlady had no answer for that.

Velebný was more communicative. About the rent reduction, he said:  "Mr Tancoš had the information in his rental contract that he was meant to put the apartment into habitable condition."

"He was supposed to bring me the receipts, and he would be compensated by not paying rent," the SVJ chair said. "That was written in the text of the contract I brought him at the beginning of the year."

"If he ever received a different contract, it wasn't something I dealt with," Velebný said. He also commented for us on his telling the family that they had to move out by the end of February.

"I did not much communicate with Mr Tancoš," the SVJ chair alleged. "I just arranged things for him with the owner of the apartment at that time, she concluded the contract with him."

"I always communicated to her what Mr Tancoš wanted from her," he asserted. "Then Mr Tancoš called her and began hollering at her."

"The landlady then told me she was closing up shop and wants to sell the units," Velebný said. This kind of disinformation and uncertainty leads many tenants into other stressful, unpleasant situations in which they do not know with whom, basically, they are meant to negotiate and whether the threat of an eviction is real or - at least for the time being - an aberration.

Leaving Janov

Zázvůrková has also alleged that the Tancoš family "destroyed" the first apartment of hers they were in. That has been denied by Ondřej Kocur, a field social worker with the organization Common Life (Společný život), which has long taken care of the people living at Janov, who told us: "That's not true, I have visited the Tancoš family at home more than once and after the reconstruction that apartment was absolutely in order."

The entire story is ending back where it began. The Tancoš family, absolutely disgusted by the constant tug-of-war with the SVJ, have moved away.

From that perspective, it doesn't matter whether Mr Velebný was communicating an order from the landlady that they had to move out by the end of the month. In order to evict the tenants all it took was to escalate their stress and uncertainty.

Velebný, of course, is also alleging that the Tancoš family took their revenge by leaving that second apartment in a devastated state. However, if we were to base our assessment on Kocur's experiences, such an allegation is probably an exaggeration at the very least.

The housing benefit-free zones and moving

Kocur has a unique perspective on Janov. According to him, some landlords do not meet their own obligations even as they are being paid hundreds of thousands of crowns thanks to the high rents they charge.

"There are many owners here who actually take advantage of the [low] education levels of some of the Roma," Kocur said. Jan Šmatar, who was visiting the Tancoš family when we filmed in their home, has confirmed that.

"Some Romani people are illiterate, they will never read a contract, and if they are able to read it, that doesn't mean they will comprehend it, and they will overlook matters that would be otherwise unacceptable to them," Mr Šmatar told Romea.cz. Kocur also told us that "The owners very often take no care of these units, not even for basic repairs that cost more than CZK 1 000 [EUR 40] as the law instructs. However, we must also say, to be fair, that tenants in some cases do destroy units on their own."

The numerous recent relocations of Romani residents away from Janov is attributed by Kocur to the establishment of the housing benefit-free zones that Litvínov introduced for the housing estate. "They lost their housing benefit and could not afford to pay the rent. Most people here are dependent on the social welfare system and simply cannot afford higher rent. Some rents for apartments in the prefabricated buildings are CZK 13 000 - 14 000 [EUR 500 - 550] plus deposits for services and utilities. Moreover, some owners never paid the water bills even though the tenants gave them the money to do so. The debt with the water company is held by the tenants, though, not the landlords. In addition, of course, some tenants have never paid rent. We must view this objectively. However, I tend to believe those mainly to blame are the owners, who have not redistributed the money the way they are meant to," Kocur said.

Velebný also admitted to Romea.cz that the situation is more complex than it appears: "The buildings are constantly being stolen from. Nobody has anything. Frequently the renters have their welfare suspended and have to wait three months... If they don't pay the rent, I have to confirm that zero rent was paid, and in that case the person, naturally, cannot get any money from the welfare office for the next period of time. It's an unreal merry-go-round. In the future, once we reconstruct the bloc on Třebušická Street, we will not want people on welfare as tenants, because it is administratively demanding and it doesn't get us anywhere. In their own way, it's not those people's fault... The system sweeps them into this in such a way that it turns them into a bad lot, as far as we are concerned, plus the landlords run out of financing so they stop paying their SVJ dues."

Krušnohor is harsh

Velebný also confirmed that there have been suspicious approaches taken by property management companies like SBD Krušnohor or the LiRaS firm. "Krušnohor, if an apartment was not occupied, would not pay into the maintenance fund for it, " he told Romea.cz.

"If they handed a building over to us for administration, they would hand it over with a debt of a million crowns incurred against it. We then figured out that the debts should have been paid by Krušnohor," the SVJ chair said.

"Now that debt burdern is all on us. The same thing is happening now in Větrná, where Krušnohor is already announcing, in the same way, that it wants to stop administering the properties," he told Romea.cz.

"That case from last year on Třebušická Street, where the administration was taken up by the LiRaS firm, looks the same. In May or June, suddenly they cut off payments," Velebný said.

"That's what put Třebušická Street into the state it's in," he confirmed. Without doing anything wrong, therefore, several families with young children ended up cut off from their water service.

The families had properly paid their rent and service deposits, and that's why they filed a criminal report at the time against an unidentified perpetrator for breaking public health norms. Those debts to the utiltiy were incurred by the irresponsible landlords of those apartment units and by the untransparent administration of the local buildings.

This article was written with the financial support of the Institute for Independent Journalism.

brf, fk, voj, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Housing, Janov, Litvínov, Romani people



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