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Local authorities all over Czech Republic alleging they face a "tsunami" of "socially undesirable phenomena"

21.11.2017 17:19
The 11 April 2017 session in the Czech Chamber of Deputies that began the first reading of the social housing bill.
The 11 April 2017 session in the Czech Chamber of Deputies that began the first reading of the social housing bill.

The Czech, Moravian and Silesian municipalities located in landlocked mountain areas are unavoidably facing a wave of difficulties that it is no exaggeration to compare to a tsunami. These difficulties began with the chain announcement of areas with "increased incidences of socially undesirably phenomena" in response to the entering into force of the amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress.

The municipalities are hoping that by defining zones where housing benefits are no longer to be disbursed they will halt impoverished families from moving into exactly those areas. The warning systems have failed and the wave is now in motion.

Providing a better, different solution to this issue is now the task facing the newly-elected lower house. Alena Zieglerová of the Institute for Social Inclusion has analyzed the situation.

It seemed like a good idea

Four years ago, the now-outgoing Government was tasked with finally solving the problem of the undignified conditions prevailing at residential hotels and the dubious rental arrangements in which tens of thousands of impoverished families live without the chance of an opportunity to live in a normal apartment with a normal lease. Apartment owners, including municipalities, do not want to allow these people in their rental housing, for many different reasons.

The market in a different type of accommodation, including the exploitation of various basement units, derelict properties and garages, bloomed and is partially still blooming thanks to the welfare system's housing benefit, the use of which is a bit reminiscent of the state asking forgiveness of the taxpayers for its lack of any other solution. This approach is costly and is being discussed everywhere.

Why should the state spend, for example, an amount in excess of CZK 10 000 [EUR 392] monthly in Varnsdorf for accommodation when a couple of streets over the rent for a similar amount of space is CZK 3 000? Everybody is angry about this.

The inhabitants of the worse-off quarters are angry because they are not allowed to deal with the amount of money at issue because it is sent straight to the bank accounts of their landlords, and their neighbors, who must work for their rent, are angry as well. Those people are angry that nobody is "putting welfare in their pockets", as they imagine the alleged life of ease on welfare involves.

When seeking the culprits for this situation, those who become the targets are the victims of this trafficking in poverty as well as the Czech Labor Office, which during the time of Czech Labor Minister Drábek took over the agenda of welfare disbursal involving aid to those in material distress, and as a result the municipalities have lost their power to decide who receives state welfare on their territories. Whether the trafficking in poverty has bloomed more since 2012 than it did before is up to the citizens of, for example, towns like Varnsdorf to assess for themselves.

In terms of the current tsunami, it is essential to understand that it was around 2012 that things went haywire. The problem of reduced self-confidence and a sense of powerlessness among local officials has led to the current wave of decisions to ban the disbursal of housing benefits in locations where the city council declares them banned - police and social welfare departments are backing these bans up with numbers, and local authorities are announcing the required Measures of a General Nature (or OOPs) defining these zones.

The Czech Labor Office - the state - must abide by the decisions of the local authorites and not disburse benefits for housing in the buildings and streets identified. From the local to the national level, the opinion prevails that this is exactly as it should be, that muncipalities should have the right to determine who they want living on their territories and who not.

OOPs, I did it again

It is unbelievable, but this entire story of municipalities desiring to intervene with the state powers in the area of citizens' rights to social protection in our country has played itself out twice in close succession during the outgoing administration. The game always begins with a bill amending the law on aid to those in material distress making its way into legislators' hands.

The first such bill had the primary aim of reducing housing benefits even further for those living in residential hotels. It was as if the efforts to deprive poor of regular housing were already not flagrant enough.

It cannot be ignored that in the case of the law on aid to those in material distress, each amendment, irrespective of how it has arisen, has reduced the legitimacy of that law still being able to call itself legisation "on aid". This is most probably determined by the insatiable desire of some MPs to make their bills tightening the criteria for  welfare as visible as possible in their own electoral precincts, in their party secretariats, and in the media.

In 2014, Czech MP Stanjura was unable to resist the temptation to submit an amendment to this law that was very similar to the one that is now leading to the tsunami of OOPs. Back then the lower house approved the right to housing benefit just for applicants (heads of households) in whose cases a municipality agreed with the relevant accommodation facility being located on their territories.

The consequences of that bill ranged from the comic to the tragicomic and the tragic. The Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion calculated for the Government Council on Legislation that the most optimistic outcome would involve just one-third of the overall number of households now collecting housing benefit (6 000 to 17 000) being denied it, which would make it necessary to newly accommodate elsewhere at least 100 households every working day, while the pessimistic repercussions would require the rehousing of as many as 300 households, every day.

The amendment took effect as of 1 May 2015 and the application of municipal consent with disbursal of housing benefits was de facto brought to an end after less than two months, on 23 June 2015. The Czech Interior Minister sent a letter to the Labor Minister retracting his original binding legal analysis about the municipalities' opinions as to whom the Labor Office (the state) is allowed to award housing benefits.

The Interior Ministry changed its own originally binding opinion after it was faced with the prospect of tens of thousands of people who would necessarily have no option but to sleep in the street if they would be unable to remain in the residential hotels, calling it instead a non-binding analysis. It would all just have been fun and games if some desperate people hadn't died as a result of their belief in the irreversibility of the plans, and if others who protested against that concept of the law hadn't been convicted and given suspended sentences (however temporarily before they were overturned on appeal).

During that previous "trial" round of banning housing benefits, the premiere league of cities determined to implement a ban was led by the town of Bohumín, which is administered by Czech Senator and Mayor Petr Vícha. Bohumín did not hesitate to apply a ban across the board on housing benefits citywide, which lasted until the moment the Labor Office was allowed not to respect it.

Gradually, in the interim before the issue was settled last time around, the towns of Karviná and Sokolov joined the housing benefit ban and dozens more considered it. If insecurity about the binding nature of the municipalities' opinions vis-a-vis those executing the state administration had lasted longer, the Labor Office would not have been able to "cover" the entire situation by disbursing extraordinary immediate aid benefits as it did, because those are limited and the move would just have worked for less than three months.

In advance of the currently approaching tsunami, it is good to know that whenever social policy in the area of incomes brings the poor into tight situations, the responses of the politicians responsible refer suspiciously frequently to this extraordinary immdiate aid option. Whenever that happens, it is like an indicator of approaching calamity for the poor.

That brings us back to the repetition of this same move twice in one electoral period. "The law is not sustainable in the long run, as it essentially cannot be interpreted as conforming to the Constitution," reads the explanation for the subsequent amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress submitted after the Government had tasked itself by Decree No. 624 of 29 June 2015 with "elaborating and submitting a bill amending the law on aid to those in material distress that includes the abolition of the condition of municipal consent per Section 33 paragraph 6 of that law."

The explanation was a good one, but the entire effort was then repeated anew. Once the amendment made it to the lower house, the idea to ban benefits appeared as a similar amendment, this time from Czech MP poslance Vilímec, and it was the adoption of that amendment that is behind the current paragraph 33d that has introduced the concept of "areas with increased incidences of socially unacceptable phenomena" into Czech legislation.

Housing benefit ban, version June 2017

Nobody has been following this much yet - the wave is approaching without making much noise so far, as is customary on the open sea. The Union of Towns and Municipalities has reported some mayors or municipal departments considering issuing an OOP to ban the disbursal of housing benefits in certain parts of their territories.

In some places these decisions have only just been made, while elsewhere the measures are already posted to the official municipal notice boards. When journalists ask the Regional Authorities for the details, their answers are close to embarrassing. 

All of this is happening unobtrusively during city assembly and city council sessions of all kinds and sizes. The Office of the Public Defender of Rights is taking an interest in the imaginative productions of the local bureaucrats who are justifying desginating areas as ones of increased incidence of socially undesirable phenomena so that benefits will not be disbursed there.

State bodies tasked with helping, protecting and maintaing order are also breaking their heads over the law, whether they be local or state police units contacted by municipal officials for information. For example, if they have records of responding many times to a certain place - and therefore preventing the further perpetration of undesirable phenomena - is that basically a good thing, or a bad one?

What about the social welfare authorities, i.e, the child welfare authority (OSPOD)? Their center of interest is the child, irrespective of what part of town that child lives in.

Is it at all in the interest of any child from an impoverished family for OSPOD to contribute information about the number of cases addressed in a certain part of town as part of a request for an area to be designated as falling under an OOP? How does it aid that child for his or her parents to suddenly not have a roof over their heads if they have a short-term lease they are likely to lose as a result of losing their benefits?

As with the police, is the number of visits paid by OSPOD somewhere an indicator of problems, or of solutions? Isn't it rather an indication of the responsible work of these public bodies?

Now let's look at the findings of the Institute for Social Inclusion, which has been following this second wave of housing benefit bans from the moment the amendment took effect with great care, using its network of regional coworkers. Here are the numbers:

The total number of municipalities and towns that are now considering introducing these zones or are in the process of introducing them is not "approximately 10 towns", as the media have reported so far, but at least 46 of them. Municipalities in the Ústecký Region lead (14), followed by Moravia-Silesia (12), Olomouc (seven) and Karlovy Vary (six).

The rest are one-off municipalities in the Central Bohemian Region, Hradec Králové Region, Plzeň Region and Vysočina Region, followed by two municipal departments of the capital city of Prague. The determination of municipaliites to go into battle with the state administration over their right to designate who can reside on their territory is even greater the more they are encouraged to do so by their region.

The Ústecký Region has published a cheerful methodological standpoint answering all of the questions we have raised above with textbook definitions of these dilemmas which, however, do not interfere with the municipalities. The main point for them is that if something were to happen around this issue, the region will back them, and the Regional Authority is, at the end of the day, the appeals venue for objections raised against this or that OOP.

The Karlovy Vary Region would not let itself be surpassed in this regard and has expressed its appreciation publicly for the town of Sokolov, which is probably the first town "on the conveyor belt" where the ban on housing benefits in the OOP zone actually will begin to apply first, sparking panic in the nearby town of Kraslice, which is now also considering implementing an OOP. While we are discussing this competition for which region has the most municipalities banning housing benefits and which of them has done so fastest, we should not forget the municipal departments of Ostrava.

A tsunami of this type is usually begun in the Czech Republic by one of two shocks, one from northwest Bohemia and the other in Silesia. Ostrava City Hall is thinking of its municipal departments and in April, before the amendment took effect, augmented its statutes in connection with Section 33d of the law to empower the municipalities in this matter.

Thus it has come to pass that the matadors reppressing poverty, such as Liana Janáčková in Mariánské Hory and Hulvaky, or the Ostrava-Jih municipal department, wasted no time and already on the first day the amendment took effect, 1 June 2017, their councils decided to ask for OOPs to be issued. For the time being this has succeeded just in Ostrava-Jih with the publication of four OOPs zones by the local council, one of which the local authority decided not to designate it as a zone where benefits are banned.

The number of municipalities, towns, municipal departments and districts whose assemblies or councils have already decided that the relevant authority should ask to issue an OOP for all or part of its territory is 22, of which eight are in Ústecký Region, six in the Moravian-Silesian Region and three each in the Karlovy Vary and Olomouc Regions. There is just one town in the Hradec Králové Region and the isolated town of Kladno in Central Bohemia, but that is absolutely enough.

Kladno has evidently been inspired by Bohumín and did not hesitate to label all of its territory as an area with an increased incidence of socially undesirable phenomena. The impact of this on the citizens of Kladno and its main representatives can be most easily predicted.

The authorities will take full advantage of the time they now have to cause people to move, just like Bohumín did before them. The Plzeň Region, the Vysočina Region and the capital, in the light of these numbers, look like false alarms because no municipalities there have requested the issuing of an OOP by official channels yet.

A third category of municipalities is comprised of those who have not just adopted but also publicized their OOPs. There are 12 municipalities who have published a total of 17 OOP zones among them.

Bohumín probably wanted to keep its reputation up and immediately issued three of OOP zones, while Ostrava-Jih issued its four and the others issued one each. For that reason, when it comes to the number of OOP zones issued, the Moravian-Silesian Region leads with seven, the Ústecký Region has five, the Karlovy Vary Region has two and the Central Bohemian, Hradec Králové and Olomouc Regions have one each.

It is difficult to estimate when each of these zones comes into final effect, though, as the owners of real estate in these areas are able to object such a zone and the local authorities must address their objections, which can be appealed to the Regional Authority. If Sokolov, for example, is actually the first town to declare its OOP in effect, it is possible to ask whether some procedural error may have been made in that case, which means the Czech Interior Ministry would have to audit the process.

Zones against new arrivals to Europe? Yes, but only if they have an alternative available 

With respect to the legal relevance of the justifications for the OOP zones, they will be of interest to the lawyers at the Office of the Public Defender of Rights once the first people fall victim to this unequal access to their constitutionally guaranteed right to aid in times of distress and to the freedom to choose their place of residence. One component of municipalities shutting their gates, or closing off certain buildings or streets to this aid, is the shifting of these problems elsewhere without offering the individuals involved an alternative solution.

"Influxes" or "population increases" are terms usually featured in the OOP zone justifications. What they are referring to must be perceived as stories of specific families in need, victims of a social safety net that has many holes in it, people for whom housing other than substandard housing is not available.

Municipalities in the Czech Republic are not much enamored of examples from abroad, but one has gotten attention because it mentions the right of a municipality to defend itself against the creation of ghettoes. The case is that of a single mother who last year sued the Netherlands before the European Court of Human Rights because the city of Rotterdam did not allow her to reside in the neighborhood of her choice.

She lost, but just because there was nothing to prevent her from settling in another, unregulated part of the city - in other words, she had an acceptable alternative. We should not waste time on the notion that moving people from place to place will solve the problem of unaffordable housing, which is the cause of all this.

The lower house still has somewhere underneath its desks the proposed social housing bill, which would open up opportunities for municipalities to actually engage in managing housing policies on their territories instead of waging a defensive war against poor people. In this country, the decision to award the benefit of aid to those in material distress is always based on the socially recognized, verified situations of each individual household who applies for such aid.

The ideas or local knowledge of local councilors has nothing to do with those assessments or decisions. Five years of municipalities awarding such benefits has now been balanced out by six years of their being distributed by the state.

In that time, Czech expenditure on welfare benefits designed to aid those in material distress has begun to gradually decline, both in terms of volume and in terms of the amounts requested per household, and for years it has not been adjusted, given the frozen level of the minimum living standard from which it is calculated. This is not, therefore, a problem of the amount of welfare being "too high" or "too easily accessed".

For the climate in our towns, what is necessary is to improve the quality of the collaborations between local and state authorities so that those in need can receive, in addition to welfare benefits, the services they require, and so that apartments can be made available to them (and not necessarily municipally-owned ones). The situation here cannot be much worse than in the Netherlands or other comparable European countries, as long as our municipalities, in their legitimate fight against the creation of socially excluded localities, take interest in offering an alternative, a "plan B" for the families who want to live on their territories.

Designating people as "decent" and "not decent", or addressing disorder and noise by punishing those who are neither disruptive or noisy themselves, but who have the bad luck to have disruptive neighbors - all of this goes rather far beyond European practice and human development in this part of the world. If Rotterdam had had no "plan B", or if it had closed its gates absolutely to all new arrivals, then it is absolutely certain that the Netherlands would have lost that case before the European Court of Human Rights.

Alena Zieglerová, Institute for Social Inclusion, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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doplatek na bydlení, Institut pro sociální inkluzi, social exclusion, social housing



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