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January 27, 2022



Jan Husák: Is the current Labor and Social Affairs Minister really worse than the worst-ever holder of that office?

2.7.2019 9:20
Jan Husák
Jan Husák

Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Jana Maláčová has presented her proposal for abolishing the current housing benefits and replacing them with a single benefit called the "housing supplement", and the Institute for Social Inclusion has expressed its view of the idea, and the Alarm website has also reported about it. I have chosen to mention those responses because they both compare Maláčová to former Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Jaromír Drábek, who during his two-year tenure transformed the provision of aid to those in need into a war on poor people.

In terms of political considerations, the ministry has never especially deviated from that well-worn track. We reproached Minister Drábek for engaging irresponsibly in those experiments, but it is impossible to ignore the repeated experiments with the benefits system that his successors also implemented.

The justification has always been the same: Ending trafficking in poverty and simplifying benefit disbursal. One such experiment has been replaced by another - and all of them have been useless.

In short, the state, and indirectly, the ministry, have yet to find a recipe for how to effectively combat those who are actually trafficking in poverty, so they have focused on the weaker of the two sides of the equation, on the people who live in residential hotels. It is not the traffickers in poverty who have always been exposed to risk first and foremost, but their tenants.

Ever since the Drábek era there have been nothing but experiments with the people living in the thrall of those traffickers. In light of all those decisions, of course, Maláčová is certainly not worse than Drábek was, because he and all his other successors have all been similarly toothless when it came to combating traffickers in poverty.

Are the common areas of your apartment complex a garbage dump? No problem! 

The law that is being drafted suffers from many deficiencies, some of which have already been described elsewhere. The approach it takes to the common areas of housing used by all of the tenants in an apartment complex, for example, is illogical.

The bill says that housing costs eligible for coverage by the new benefit will include "lighting, heating, and cleaning the common areas in the building". However, when it comes to assessing whether the housing to be covered is appropriate, the assessment focuses just on the apartment unit at issue, not on the overall building or complex.

In other words, if the corridors or the yard are full of garbage, but the apartment fulfills basic housing standards, then from the perspective of this law, all would be in order and the application would be considered eligible. As an example of the logic of combating abuse in the benefit system, this is curious to say the least.

On the one hand, the ministry is doing its best to preclude the disbursal of benefits to tenants renting housing of poor quality, but on the other hand the ministry seems indifferent to whether some of the costs disbursed might actually consider as "eligible" aspects of that housing that violate public health or technical building norms. The biggest deficiency in the bill, however, without a doubt, is the fact that it does not take into consideration the historical context of the situation in which those living in inappropriate forms of housing currently find themselves.

It is clear that it is impossible to blame everything on the policy of the state, and that addressing housing needs is also a private interest - I do not just mean that of private real estate owners, but also that of the individuals who should personally consider their housing to be their own private interest and should subject their own aims and behavior to that interest. Speaking as a former social worker with field experience, I decidedly do not want to overlook the inappropriate behavior of some people, Romani people included, in their relationship to their own housing.

However, such behavior cannot be and is not a reason to ignore the responsibility of the state to work to mitigate the effects of its own policy. From my rich experience in performing social work, I also know how people arrive at the brink of homelessness: They have frequently had to face discrimination on the housing market, local municipalities did not aid them with that, and subsequently, their families and their own social situations began to function worse than they did before.

Where the state fails, it no longer lends a hand

Here is where we arrive at the most important point:  The bill absolutely lacks any preventive role for the state, or rather, for the local municipalities, when it comes to proving aid with housing. The current law on aid to those in material distress is not perfect in this respect, but it does at least establish the citizen's own personal duty to ask the local authority for assistance if he or she has a problem accessing appropriate housing.

In the legislation that has been presented, there is nothing of the sort, and at the same time, it repeals the original provisions of the law on aid to those in material distress. This is also associated with the paradoxical situation of social work that is meant to be, according to the presented wording of the law, undertaken with the individual after they draw on these benefits, not before they do so.

This is a paradox because these benefits could be denied because, for example, an apartment unit has not yet been permitted for occupancy. It would be possible to understand that requirement if it did not contravene Section 2236 Paragraph 2 of the Civil Code, which states: "The fact that a rented space is not intended to be used as housing cannot be held against the tenant."

In other words, the Civil Code, according to which rental contracts are established, says that if a tenant rents a certain space for use as housing, even if that space does not fulfill the legal requirements for being used as housing, it is still to be considered a dwelling protected by law. In addition to these conflicts between these two laws, we can find contradictions with other ones.

It is the job of those submitting the bill to grapple with these contrary prescriptions. By now it is clear to all that municipalities frequently do not have available all the apartments necessary to meet the demand of all those applying for them from the ranks of the needy.

Local authorities are not managing to offer appropriate housing to roughly 54 000 households on the brink of homelessness in this country. They are not managing because the state is either unable or unwilling to provide municipalities with enough financing to acquire and maintain properties.

It may be too soon to assess whether the bill that has been presented will ameliorate the unfortunate impacts of state policy in the area of housing, but it is apparent by now that the ministry has not done what it established as its ostensible aim, i.e., creating conditions for affordable housing. Instead, it is telling the citizens: "Find your own housing, the state will not help you."

The author is Vice-Chair of the Czech Government Council on Romani Minority Affairs. First published on news server


Jan Husák, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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