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Regional Roma association opposes housing benefit-free zones in yet another Czech city

4.3.2019 16:58
Four units of firefighters responded in the late afternoon of Sunday 8 June 2014 to a blaze at the residential hotel on U Kolory Street in the Czech town of Liberec. (PHOTO:  Liberec Regional Firefighters)
Four units of firefighters responded in the late afternoon of Sunday 8 June 2014 to a blaze at the residential hotel on U Kolory Street in the Czech town of Liberec. (PHOTO: Liberec Regional Firefighters)

The daily Liberecký deník reported on 26 February that the Czech city of Liberec has increased the number of housing benefit-free zones on municipal territory. Since January that designation has applied to the building at Vojanova Street 138, but it has now been expanded to other properties belonging to the same owner on that same street and to a residential hotel in the Vesec quarter.

"By announcing these zones, we aim to eliminate the intensive disputes taking place among neighbors and understandably also to eliminate the trafficking in poverty that the inhabitants of those buildings have long been at the center of," explained Vice-Mayor of Liberec Ivan Langr, who is behind the local ordinance. The Association of Romani Representatives of the Liberec Region disagrees with the city's decision.

"The housing benefit-free zone will not contribute to increased security, nor will it halt the influx of those relocating inside the city - it is a consequence of the escalation of problems that the city has long ignored," said Association president Iveta Bílková. According to her, the measure could also impact residents who have ended up below the poverty line through no fault of their own.

"It may come to pass that we become witnesses to across-the-board declarations [of such zones] that will have a crippling impact on single mothers, senior citizens and people living with disabilities," Bílková fears. The city, however, is defending itself against such accusations.

Local officials assert that they have done their best, in advance, to find solutions for those socially vulnerable people who are not indebted to extricate themselves from the trafficking-in-poverty trap. "We aided some inhabitants with finding housing, others have taken care of their own situations," Langr explained.

"Currently there's just one family living in that building whom we will apparently be accommodating through the Housing First program, which is social housing for those most in need," said the Vice-Mayor, who believes any other housing would be a significant improvement for the tenants on Vojanova Street. Of course, Langr also admits the matter is not an absolutely simple one.

People must meet the condition of having no debts in order to access rental housing in city-owned apartment units, and the capacity of the rooms in shelter housing may also be a problem when it comes to large families. What's more, not all of the inhabitants of these troubled properties are considered "worth helping" by the city.

Combating the poor

Bílková discussed what it would mean if the city were to declare its entire territory a housing benefit-free zone. In practice this would mean that all renters newly taking up residence in Liberec to whom the owners of private properties might want to rent would no longer have any chance of being considered eligible for state housing benefits.

That would also affect people relocating within the city or municipality, as is the case in Kladno, which has introduced such a zone for the entire town. The owners of buildings and residential hotels who are the traffickers in poverty would no longer cash in on tenants' housing benefits, i.e., on money from the state.

Despite such renters being the poorest people in the Czech Republic, they would have to pay all of their rent from their own resources, which means those unable to find jobs would use their welfare benefits - intended for basic necessities such as food - to cover their housing costs, and therefore would not have enough money left to live on. Many of these people would therefore be forced to borrow money from local loan sharks or usurious firms (as nobody else will loan to them).

People who become indebted in this way no longer have any chance of ever exiting the debt trap during their lifetimes. Most such people are pensioners, single-parent families, or tenants in ghettos.

The vast majority of cities and municipalities in the Czech Republic no longer own social apartment units for which such people could pay a controlled rent, nor do they have the money to build such housing. What's more, local authorities do not want to rent any housing to families who are indebted.

The state itself also does not want to take care of arranging social housing for such people. As representatives of the governing ANO party, led by Czech PM Andrej Babiš, have recently communicated, the Government is not interested in adopting a law on social housing.

Jablonec decided against housing benefit-free zones

The town of Jablonec is betting that reaching agreement with the owners of problematic properties is a better way to proceed. The town is monitoring roughly 20 buildings inhabited by people who have accumulated multiple social problems over time.

At one point Jablonec considered declaring four of the properties as housing benefit-free zones. The town council eventually backed away from that intention, however.

In their view such a move would not address the entire issue. "Those measures do not affect the existing tenants, just the newly-arriving ones," argues Vice-Mayor of Jablonec David Mánek.

Mayor Milan Kroupa began negotiations with the owners of properties about which other people in the neighborhood were complaining. "The situation calmed down there quite quickly after that," the mayor said.

Of course, Kroupa makes no secret of the fact that this approach is a temporary solution. In his view, a better solution would be to buy out the problematic properties and to demolish those in the worst state of repair, ones that are far from meeting public health standards but are frequently ignored by public health authorities, to the surprise of the local administration.

The town would then build new apartments and clearly define the conditions for renting them. Jablonec does not have the money for such an effort, however.

National Agency is against such zones

The Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion considers the introduction of housing benefit-free zones to be a dead end, as it means local authorities will no longer be able to respond on a case-by-case basis to the specific situations of families or individuals. "Such steps can, in reality, do harm to the groups who are most in danger, such as the parents of minor children, single mothers, senior citizens, and people living with disabilities. Domestic violence victims are also faced with an additional problem - if they decide to emancipate themselves, then during the first phase of their 'new life' they are usually dependent exactly on these benefits," Agency director David Beňák said previously.

fk, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Housing, Politics, social housing, Socially excluded localities



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