Problems of a Czech city: Aging populations, debt, depopulation, ghettos, not enough work, residential hotels
The Czech city of Ostrava has several problems, which means deciding which are the most serious is not easy. Certainly problems with socially excluded localities and the rising number of residential hotels housing the most impoverished people are at the top of the list.
The residential hotels were targeted by right-wing extremist marches last year and only the police prevented them from carrying out pogroms against their Romani residents. However, Ostrava is also seeing its population both grow older and move away.
More and more of its residents have no work even as the state is paying out more and more welfare to them. The Czech News Agency reports these developments based on data from the Czech Statistical Bureau and the Labor Office of the Czech Republic.
Number of socially excluded localities growing
A significant social problem in Ostrava is the rising number of residential hotels and other socially excluded localities. According to analyst and sociologist Lubor Hruška, who performed a study on the issue for the city, last year there were 37 residential hotels in operation there housing more than 5 400 people.
"For Ostrava, hotel buildings housing workers have always been typical. Those facilities were freed up when the mines and several large enterprises closed," Hruška points out.
Running residential hotels has become a lucrative business. The housing benefits paid to their landlords in Ostrava alone grew by CZK 118.6 million last year to CZK 293,226,000 from CZK 174,611,000 in 2012.
Those benefits do not end up in the pockets of tenants, but in the pockets of traffickers in poverty, the owners of apartment buildings and residential hotels in socially excluded localities. However, most of the time the benefit is not enough to cover the rent in these facilities.
Local occupants who are unemployed must make up the difference from the welfare they receive to live on. These families, therefore, still do not have enough money to pay for everything they need: clothing and shoes, food, hygienic necessities, school necessities, transportation, etc.
This often results in families going into debt, from which there is no escape. The gradual closure of the residential hotels could have a positive impact, as the living conditions in them are horrible.
Of course, their occupants would have to have somewhere else to go so they don't end up living under a bridge. In Ostrava (and definitely not only there), however, a tactic is being used to push socially vulnerable people out of the city altogether or out of a particular municipal department within it.
Part of this strategy is that indebted people are not entitled to lease municipally-owned apartments, even though the number of unoccupied apartments in Ostrava is rising as more and more people move away. The municipal department of Moravská Ostrava a Přívoz, for example, ruled out the leasing of its apartments to anyone in debt last year.
"Unfortunately, the people in the residential hotels have enormous debts from their previous rental contracts, whether they were leasing from private landlords or were in our municipal apartments. Our principle is that we do not lease our apartments to anyone in debt," said the municipal department's Vice-Mayor Tomáš Kuřec (Czech Social Democrat - ČSSD).
Racism, loan sharks and the residential hotels
Many socially vulnerable people live in the excluded localities. The one that was followed most by the media during the previous election cycle was the former ghetto on Přednádraží Street in Ostrava.
The problematic situation there beganin the summer of 2012, when the Building Works Authority decided the occupants would have to leave the locality because the buildings they were in, owned by a private landlord, are unsafe. At the time around 200 people were living in them.
Many of the people refused to leave their homes, with the last of them leaving last summer. That included Iveta Horvátová (pictured above), who recently relocated to England.
Horvátová liked living in Ostrava, but said she could "no longer take" the situation there. "I didn't just leave because of racism, but it's interesting that here in England, there isn't any. I was afraid of those anti-Romani demonstrations, understandably, because of my children, but there were just as strong reasons for me to leave from the social side of things. I was greatly indebted to loan sharks and then the lease ended on the apartment we were living in. My children and I had nowhere to go. Under no circumstances would I ever return to the residential hotel," she told news server Romea.cz.
Horvátová had to leave a good housing situation on Přednádraží Street with her eight children, the younger ones of whom she is caring for on her own. Before she finally moved she was a spokesperson for the local residents who tried to stay put.
She and her children first moved into a residential hotel on Cihelní Street, where they all contracted dysentery. She paid CZK 17 000 a month in rent there and often could not afford to feed her children.
After that she leased an apartment from a civic association running a transparent housing project, which, of course, is always a short-term arrangement. Despite all her efforts, she was unable to find any other acceptable housing; her husband was killed in a traffic accident several years ago.
Ghettos growing because of debt
One of the main reasons the ghettos are continuing to grow is debt. Many families must move because of their indebtedness, but they cannot lease apartments anymore and end up in the residential hotels.
They often live in substandard conditions in those facilities and pay disproportionately high rents for them. Another specific example from Ostrava, according to the Life Together (Vzájemné soužití) association, is of two adults with four children first paying more than CZK 17 000 per month for a residential hotel room in 2012, and then paying as much as CZK 24 000 per month for a room in another one, an amount that corresponds to the rent normally paid for a four-bedroom, spacious apartment in Prague; their rent has even increased since then.
At the end of 2010, there were 19 532 people looking for work in Ostrava. By the end of 2013 that number had grown by 4 845 people to 24 377 job-seekers.
Ostrava's share of unemployed in the district as a whole, which includes 10 surrounding small towns and villages, has grown over the last four years from 8.8 to 11.6 %. The high number of unemployed people throughout the Moravian-Silesian Region is linked to the transformation of heavy industry, and so far the automobile industry that has been rolling along since 2008 in the South Korean Hyundai firm's factory in Nošovice (Frýdek-Místek district) has not managed to fully make up for the missing jobs.
Unemployment, understandably, has left its mark on people in these socially excluded localities. "Welfare benefits are much less money than what I used to make in the agricultural cooperative or in the mines," one of the former Romani residents of Přednádraží Street recently told news server Romea.cz.
That man's family hit rock bottom when he lost his job and had to move into a residential hotel. Even though he is a skilled laborer, the family's breadwinner has not found full-time work in more than 10 years.
"The last few years there has been seriously little work. When there is some, it's not for Roma. When I call about a job, they say they have one for me, and when I show up in person, the job is taken. As far as I know, employers treat all Roma that way," the former miner told us.
The lack of jobs is one reason population throughout the region is falling. Ostrava lost almost 8 000 people between 2010 and 2013, or 2.6 %, and the number of people living in the city, which is the regional capital, has fallen to below 300 000.
An aging city
More people are dying in Ostrava than are being born, and the number of those moving away exceeds the number moving in. The only positive aspect is the fact that the difference between the number of those leaving and the number of those moving in is getting smaller every year.
The average age of Ostrava's population has risen from 40.9 to 41.8 years old. The number of children under 14 has been approximately constant over time, but the number of people over 65 is rising.
In the Czech Republic, according to the European Statistical Bureau, 15 % of the population is at risk of poverty and social exclusion. According to the European definition, people who suffer from material deprivation or who work less than 20 % of the usual work year are socially excluded.
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