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Patrik Banga: How can Romani families influence the sewer on Přednádraží street?

Ostrava, 7.8.2012 23:05, (ROMEA)
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Approximately 180 people are refusing to move out of the ghetto on Přednádraží street in Ostrava-Přívoz. Instead of leaving, they have made minor repairs to the buildings. For the last two years, the owner has not been making any repairs because the sewer lines are not working. The ownership of the sewer lines has been the subject of a dispute.

There has been a "boom" in media reports about the situation in Ostrava. In the media, this seems to be a clear set of circumstances: The Romani people didn't pay their bills and their water was cut off. Because they broke the sewer lines somehow, which apparently aren't owned by anyone, and the buildings are being undermined by sewage, they have to move out now. Romani activists and Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková are on the rampage, while the town of Ostrava is sticking to its guns.

However, everything that has been written about the situation so far is not necessarily the case. The problem has nothing to do with people paying rent or a broken sewer line, but with the dance around the ownership of the sewer itself, the service connections, and the categorization of the real estate in the land registry as "other property" - to say nothing of the technical state of the buildings, which according to the documents condemning them are only still standing through sheer force of will.

The current owner of the buildings wanted to change all that and renovate them. The buildings need new plumbing, primarily a functional system for wastewater removal so it doesn't accumulate in the cellar spaces. The hepatitis epidemic there in 2011 should have been a serious enough reason to address the situation. However, the buildings cannot be repaired without functioning sewer lines, and the sewer lines are not owned by the waterworks, which has been invoicing the owner for wastewater removal all these years. The sewer lines are not owned by the landlord, but the town of Ostrava has passed the buck to the municipal department under which the locality falls. This does not tally with the statements made by Ing. Josef Kaval, head of the town's real estate department, who in March of this year confirmed unequivocally that the town of Ostrava is the owner of the sewer lines.

The dispute is dragging on, the buildings are falling apart, and the current state of affairs is the result. Ostrava is trying to address the situation by offering the tenants the option of moving into an overpriced residential hotel - and threatening to take children away from their families if they don't move.

I am under no illusions that everyone living in the buildings is there legally. From time to time, various items have disappeared from the properties. I also do not believe that the buildings have been maintained in every respect, even though a colleague who works there says you could eat off the floor in the apartments, they are so clean. The "liberal" offer being made by the municipal social welfare department, however, shows how poorly set up our social welfare system is and how unable it is to distinguish unproblematic citizens from troubled ones.

The system is tarring all of the citizens in this situation with the same brush. It is incapable of recognizing that 40 % of the tenants are financially solvent and do not, therefore, fall into the category of "inadaptables". Many of them are long-term residents who have lived in the localities for decades. The system also does not know how to distinguish the fact that some of the rent defaulters were mainly unable to pay their rent because these properties have been classified in the land registry as "other real estate". This means the properties themselves are not the kind of building for which the social welfare system will make housing contributions.

There is no point in spending time on the clear fact that the combination of the tenants' Romani origins and the locality has produced an all but "deadly cocktail." For the 19 409 job seekers in the locality there are only 1 715 jobs available. For those older than 50, there is little hope that the situation will change so they will not have to be dependent on the social welfare system. Now other people are starting to make money on this situation, with the hearty support of the town.

The social welfare department has been convincing the evicted Romani families to move into residential hotels. For a space that is 15 meters square, they will pay CZK 2 500 per person. An eight-person family (a rather common occurrence in the Romani community) will end up paying the owner of such a residential hotel an unbelievable CZK 20 000 monthly for such accommodation.

There are dozens of such residential hotels all over the country. Some are even municipally-owned, which means towns covering their indigent tenants' rents from state housing allowances are essentially paying these overpriced rents to themselves. Some entrepreneurs are making pretty good money off of the state in this way, and no one is stopping them.

How much longer will the state tolerate this super-business, which fails or succeeds depending on whether people find themselves at rock bottom with nowhere else to go? This is a business of our new era, tolerated by the state and, in the case of Ostrava, unfortunately tolerated by the social welfare department, which is directly recommending people enter a usurious situation.

In the case of chronic rent defaulters, it is clear that the town will not partner with them, especially when they live in privately-owned properties, as the municipality has almost no obligations toward them in that case. If the town is not responsible for their difficulties, then it should not have to take care of them. However, in the case of the other (paying) families, it is clear that they do not want to move out of these buildings into overpriced residential hotels. All it would take would be one mistake when welfare is disbursed and they would no longer be normal citizens, but suddenly would find themselves in the "inadaptable" category. The residential hotel owners aren't going to wait for their rent.

A solution is in the offing. The landlord, nonprofit organizations, and the office of the ombudsman agree that four of the buildings are still inhabitable. The landlord is willing to repair them and the Romani tenants want to live in them.

The ball is now in the town's court. Its own decision has confirmed that it owns the sewer lines. The matter could be resolved by the town repairing those lines. If the town insists it is not responsible, then the locals will face truly harsh times.

The Romani tenants of the locality spent the last hours of their permitted residency there at a "happening" around a campfire. After midnight the landlord fulfilled his obligation and called on the families to leave the locality, but everyone knew it was a mere formality. The locals aren't leaving.

Yesterday officials visited Přednádraží street to see whether the people had moved out. Obviously a request for court-ordered evictions will follow. What will happen next? Will we produce more "inadaptables"?

First published in Mf DNES, published with the author's agreement.

Gwendolyn Albert, Patrik Banga, Patrik Banga, translated by Gwendolyn Albertd
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