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October 18, 2019
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Impoverished Roma are subjected to blackmail and slave wages, Czech mayor blames their poor negotiation skills

4.4.2019 8:23

In December 2017, the Czech town of Kladno declared its entire territory a housing benefit-free zone. That means that whoever wants to move there or relocate to a different neighborhood within Kladno would no longer be able to draw on housing benefits from the state.

People who apply for such benefits are frequently either unemployed or very poorly paid for the work they do. While the Regional Authority abolished the declaration for the whole of Kladno, nothing stands in the way of the town continuing to declare such partial zones in the enclaves where the poorest of the poor, including Romani people, are now living, above all in the residential hotels.

The measures facilitating the non-disbursal of these benefits were instituted with good intentions, because the money from them has been ending up with the traffickers in poverty who overcharge for housing. The problem is that the neither municipalities nor the state are building affordable social housing, so what the state once paid for the poorest of the poor is a cost they must cover themselves now if they reside in such a zone.

Slave labor

"People cannot access these benefits, but just in towns where housing benefit-free zones apply. We must realize that some people move very frequently. This problem does not affect them. Yes, for some people the situation has deteriorated. For those living around them, however, the opposite is the case, because the concentration of those people will no longer be growing - it will either stagnate or it will even improve. Moreover, there are some matters we don't know how to differentiate. Some people have stopped drawing the benefit not because they have moved to an address that is not covered, but maybe because their salaries have gone up and they are no longer entitled to it for that reason," Mayor of Kladno Dan Jiránek (Civic Democratic Party - ODS) told news server Romea.cz.

We met people in Kladno who either had no jobs or who were working in conditions at the level of slave labor and who would never expect a pay raise in their wildest dreams. For example, Ms Petra Dragounová, who had a contract with the Embajo s.r.o. firm to perform 300 hours of work annually for no more than CZK 10 000 [EUR 390].

Ms Dragounová was working at a garbage dump where she sorts waste, and for more than 20 days per month she has been working there from 6 AM to 5 PM - and being paid CZK 2 800 [EUR 110] a month. Working conditions there were very poor.

According to a colleague of hers, if they did not sort a certain number of tons daily and did not meet the quota, they were paid less. Ms Dragounová told us she was not able to visit a doctor because her employer refused to allow her to go there on a work day.

Ms Dragounová said the firm rarely gave the workers protective gear, and mainly did so when an audit by public health officials was anticipated. Eventually she left that job.

She and her partner, Robert Mundy, moved after the housing benefit-free zones had been declared from the Na Kopečku residential hotel to another one. The owner of Na Kopečku had shut off the water so tenants had no access to it, and eventually closed the facility altogether.

Dragounová and Mundy were left without housing benefits. The loss of her employment was a heavy burden to bear.

Pay up or sleep under the bridge

What happens to those like Dragounová and Mundy, who are just being left to rot? "Some people evidently have moved into shelter housing. However, we offer such housing for mothers and their children, primarily, which means the adult males in the family must live elsewhere. Sincerely speaking, sometimes that's better for everybody. We also have crisis housing for abused women - so sometimes splitting up is an emancipation for the family, and sometimes it's a tragedy," the mayor believes.

The breakup of a family can be advantageous for the individual members if it is what they want - for example, if they are divorcing. However, if it is caused by bureaucrats and politicians "thanks" to their own powers, irrespective of whether a family is functional or not, then that sounds more like absolute disrespect for one's fellow citizens and their lives - and it contributes to harrowing situations.

Shelters for mothers with children usually have a specific daily routine with visiting hours and hours when the women and children are able to leave the shelter, etc. Families are, through no fault of their own, becoming fragmented and unable to be together because of these systems.

Pressure on tenants to serve the interests of the residential hotel landlords or of the town itself can be deployed in different ways. One method was described to us by Petra Hrubá of the People in Need organization (Člověk v tísni), who is dedicated to this issue in Kladno:  "Motions to investigate the behavior of the residential hotel operators can be filed with the Czech Trade Inspection Authority (Česká obchodní inspekce). We have also filed them, we have attempted this, but it did not have a big effect. People were being blackmailed and extorted to pay for utilities that had never been accounted for, or to pay arbitrarily-established fines, such as a mother who was fined CZK 500 [EUR 20] because her child crossed the corridor on his own to go to the bathroom. An atmosphere of fear has been created, of pressure, because these people are in situations where they have nowhere else to go, so the operators tell them: 'Pay me, and if you don't like it, then go live under the bridge'."

Banned from the corridor

We verified Hrubá's claims in the town of Libušína, which is not far from Kladno. The prefabricated apartment building housing the local residential hotel there has many floors and is situated in fenced-off grounds on the outskirts of the town.

František Topinka runs the facility. We spoke with people there who pay CZK 8 000 [EUR 310] in rent, plus utilities deposits of CZK 4 500 [EUR 175] monthly for apartments infested with bedbugs and mold - one room with a small kitchen for a family with several members, 41.8 square meters.

The family whom we visited in the building had also lived at Na Kopečku, but moved to Libušína before the housing benefit-free zone was declared. For that reason, at the time we filmed our interview with them, they still had the opportunity to receive housing benefits - but at the same time, what it means for them is that if they ever relocate from this unit to an address inside such a zone, then they will lose the benefits.

These people have fallen into a trap. They described Topinka's behavior toward them as arrogant and crude.

They alleged that at the time we visited them he was demanding an extra charge on their rent of CZK 7 000 [EUR 270], otherwise he would evict them. "We can't reach an agreement with the owner. Even though I asked him for the contract, he gave it to me with a big delay. That means I owe him money now, because since I didn't have the contract to submit to the Labor Office, they did not disburse my housing benefit. When I went to see him about it, he just told me to shut up. If he evicts us, we have nowhere to go," a mother of several young children told us, who did not want to be identified.

According to others with whom we spoke there, Topinka's original profession was that of a prison guard, so he sometimes walks around the grounds with a gas pistol in his belt and is vulgar. He has established rules for the building that violate not just the Civil Code, but maybe even the Criminal Code, and he limits the tenants' personal freedom there to a significant degree: After 8 PM the tenants are not allowed to enter the common corridor that the apartments share, the children are not allowed to play in the corridor at any time, and if a public health inspection is announced, the tenants are all forbidden to leave their apartment units, even during the day.

Topinka has also forbidden the tenants to exterminate the bedbugs in their units - unless the extermination service is ordered through him. We attempted to contact him for comment, but he was not available.

Kladno's plan: The state should deal with it

Does Kladno have a plan for aiding the people who have neither housing benefits nor jobs and who must pay these excessive sums to live in the residential hotels? Mayor Jiránek says some matters must be dealt with by the state:  "The state should say that above-standard prices cannot be chareged for housing of a standard level. The town cannot handle that. Unfortunately, the feeling of the state on that issue is leading to the situation not changing, or even to it deteriorating. Also, it's not always the case that these people are in material distress - some of them just don't know how to negotiate. They read an ad saying the rent is so high and they believe it can't be lower. It can be, such things can be negotiated, but these people don't know how."

Bargaining rents, therefore, according to the mayor, has to be done by Romani tenants themselves - in other words, by those whom almost nobody wants to rent to in the first place. In Kladno some residential hotels are now closing, which means there are fewer accommodation options for the impoverished there now, and there will be even fewer in the future.

Let's recall that life in a residential hotel is just one step away from homelessness, and in Kladno that is doubly true - the facilities offer just a few showers and toilets for many people, there is just one common kitchen per floor, there is an absolute lack of privacy, and daily life there is interlaced with absurd rules, such as the requirement to announce visitors to the staff at all times, or fines for extending visits beyond certain hours, as is the case in the residential hotel on Americká Street, where the operator charges a fine of CZK 500 [EUR 20] if a visitor stays just one minute after 5 PM. Those living in residential hotels do so because the street is their only other option.

Closing of the residential hotels

The former Masokombinát [Meat Factory] residential hotel complex was once one of Kladno's excluded localities that was an absolute wreck. The town developed a project that would have entitled the locality to an investment of CZK 250 million [EUR 9.7 million].

Kladno then decided to merge the Kročehlavy housing estate with Masokombinát. Allegedly by doing so the town was fulfilling the grant condition of aiding a Romani community endangered by social exclusion - those at the residential hotel - while at the same time receiving money to repair the prefabricated buildings at the housing estate.

Of the original funds raised, what was left over for the Romani-occupied residential hotel was roughly CZK 3 million [EUR 117 000]. Kladno then demolished Masokombinát.

In the year 2015 the Merkur residential hotel on Vašatova Street was closed. Its 47 tenants were dispersed to other local residential hotels.

The town, led by then-Mayor Milan Volf (ODS, at the time), wanted to buy out the Merkur building for CZK 18 million [EUR 670 000], and the reason for the purchase was said to have been so they could close it down. Of course, because the owners of the facility closed it themselves before the sale, the town backed out of paying such a price.

In mid-2017 the reconstruction of the Merkur was begun, but nothing of any significance had been done with it as of last year, and it was not until October 2018, a couple of days before the local elections and just before the new local assembly was to be appointed, that Volf signed an unbreakable contract to lease the building. Kladno has now leased the structure for 10 years for roughly CZK 7 million [EUR 272 000].

A new CzechPoint and information center are meant to be installed at that location - despite the fact that both services already have offices nearby. Volf believes those current offices are overwhelmed with work and that giving them more (duplicate) office space would be a meaningful solution to that problem.

Local councilors from the coalition of ANO 2011, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) and the Vote for Kladno group (Volba pro Kladno) also agreed at the close of 2016 to buy the former Oko cinema - which was housing a residential hotel, of course. The price was set at CZK 36.5 million [EUR 1.4 million].

The intention, according to the town hall leadership, was to reconstruct that building and create a space there for various cultural and social events. The opposition was sharply against the plan.

Volf was mayor then too, this time for the Vote for Kladno group. The building - which is, moreover, a protected heritage site - remains in a desolate, unreconstructed state to this day.

The former mayor recently defended the buyout by saying the building had been destroyed by "inadaptables" and Romani people:  "The price for the property was set by the appraisal institution back then, and it was agreed to by the local assembly. We bought that building because a residential hotel was there that accommodated inadaptable tenants and Romani people who bothered their neighbors and held their parties there... We wanted to turn the Oko cinema into a small theater, for example, for a cultural center to be there, perhaps a hall that the Sokol organization could use, because they don't have enough room. We wanted balls to be held there, the local assembly to meet there. We planned for that to be the case as of this year."

Volf's policy

The main criterion for housing benefit disbursal, according to Volf, should be "unproblematic behavior at the residential hotel, and the fulfillment of all legal norms. We are also conditioning our agreement to rent to specific individuals on their having permanent residency in Kladno so we can prevent people relocating here from other towns."

This is the same Volf who, as mayor, ended up in custody back in 2004 on suspicion of unlawfully providing financial support to the hockey team in Kladno. He is said to have embezzled CZK 41 million [EUR 1.6 million] from the town for that purpose.

Thanks to his own "unproblematic behavior and fulfillment of all legal norms", he was later re-elected mayor. In 2015 he said it would be impossible to move the inhabitants of the excluded localities into regular rental housing:  "It is very difficult to integrate these people into society."

"If we designate a building for them, then we will be accused of creating a ghetto. Integrate them among decent people?" he asked rhetorically.

"I apologize, but that will only happen over my dead body," the mayor said. "We can't do that to [the 'decent' people]...".

On another occasion Volf told the public that "We will not open our borders so all the inadaptables can come to Kladno". He also promised that "If a decent Kladno resident needs benefits, we will communicate on his behalf with the Labor Office."

Evidently Kladno's political representatives continue to follow such populist slogans today as well. Given the residential hotel shortage, that means the pressure on the impoverished, Romani people included, to move elsewhere has been growing stronger every year and will continue to do so.

Declaring the entire territory of the town a housing benefit-free zone - or declaring such zones in more than one locality at the same time - is part of that pressure. The local Roma, therefore, can only hope they will not have to move away from any of the dirty facilities with the almost prison-like regimes that are called "residential hotels" in the Czech Republic.

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

František Bikár, František Kostlán, Jitka Votavová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Kladno, Obchod s chudobou, ubytovny, výhrůžky



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