Roudnice nad Labem: Roma forced out under pressure, corruption suspected
Roudnice nad Labem is not especially different from the other small towns nearby – except in its efforts to move some of its residents beyond the town limits. During the second half of March of this year, the town cut off the water to five families in “Masaryčka”, as locals call the three Roma-occupied buildings on Masaryková street. Only a very few of these families will end up in decent apartments elsewhere in town; most have been moved into the surrounding ghettos of other towns and villages such as Ústí nad Labem or Bílina. Those tenants who have been evicted by court order end up on Na cukrovaru street, where the town owns a building with “skeleton” apartments. Up to eight people are now living in one or two rooms there, all because the town has sold the Masaryčka buildings and the land beneath them to a private firm called Bialbi for an unusually low price.
Pay your bill, get your water shut off
The town claims the water has been shut off in one building because of a mechanical problem and in another because some of the tenants have not paid their bills. Those who have paid their bills are simply out of luck. Speaking at a meeting between the town and NGOs requested by the Czech Helsinki Committee, Vice-Mayor Luboš Matek said, “The problem is that the water company has no choice but to stop service for everyone.” A visit to the building shows the opposite is the case: Separate water meters and shut-off valves are in place.
The town never informed tenants who they should next pay their rent to until several months after the sale. “The Bialbi company literally turned us into rent defaulters,” one tenant says. “I would gladly pay, but we don’t know to whom, to what account to send it, they say they will tell us soon,” says another tenant from a different building who has been waiting several months.
Hana Lukešová, former CEO of Bialbi Apartments, claims the tenants were all informed of the bank account number. She also claims it was posted at the town hall.
However, another former tenant from Masaryk street, Eugen Mati, makes a persuasive argument for the claim that Bialbi is not communicating with the tenants. He sent the company a request to set up a payment schedule, followed by a complaint, but never received a response to either communication. In his complaint, Eugen Mati writes: “On 1.2. 2010 I sent a request to the Bialbi company to set up a payment schedule for paying the back rent. However, I have yet to receive a response. I want to resolve this situation and meet my obligation to your company, but if you are not communicating with me by telephone and not responding to my written requests, I have no opportunity to resolve this. I refuse to accept any legal consequences resulting from the fact that the Bialbi company is not responding to my request, because I am doing my best to settle my debts.”
Suspicions of corruption
When the Bialbi company became the buyer of the Roma-occupied buildings, it was listed in the Register of Companies as providing comprehensive hospital and outpatient care in the field of psychiatry. The company did not start managing real estate until it decided to purchase the buildings under the name of Bialbi bytové domy s.r.o. (“Bialbi Apartments, Inc.”). At the time, Jiří Pišvejc and Jan Drahozal, both friends of Vice-Mayor Luboš Matek, were among Bialbi’s executive officers.
The town sold Bialbi the three residential buildings with a total of 43 apartments and non-residential spaces, the land beneath them, and another three (already developed) plots for CZK 1.5 million (EUR 60 000). “At that price, the price per apartment would have been CZK 35 000, so why didn’t they offer that to us, the tenants?” asks Eugen Mati, who has already been moved from “Masaryčka” to the town of Litoměřice.
Opposition town council member Pavel Šrytr, who did not agree with the sale or the price, filed criminal charges of suspicion of corruption, in which he wrote: “I am hereby filing criminal charges against the management of the town of Roudnice nad Labem and the following former council members who were wholly responsible, Messrs Bakeš, Matek and Urban, for setting the price of CZK 1.5 million crowns for the three residential buildings nos. 1470, 1492 and 1502 (43 apartments) including plots of 1 923 m2, an extreme undervalue. An independent, authorized real estate expert for the court has informed me the actual estimated value of this real estate totals CZK 9.5 million. Today, 2 April 2009, at a public meeting of the Roudnice nad Labem Town Council, I asked why this difference, at the town’s expense, is so enormous, but none of the elected officials answered me. A motion for the independent Comptroller and Finance Committee of the Roudnice nad Labem town hall to investigate this matter was voted down.”
Two months later, police sent Pavel Šrytr the following reply: “We hereby inform you that the criminal charges filed by you against the Roudnice nad Labem Council were shelved … after an investigation determined no crime had been committed.” “The police did not investigate correctly - I did not file thee charges against the town council, but against specific individuals,” Pavel Šrytr says.
According to a source from the town hall who is familiar with local real estate prices and prefers to remain anonymous, the town could have made up to CZK 30 million had it auctioned off the real estate. After renovations, the minimum market price of the buildings may be as high as CZK 70 million: “The non-residential spaces can be turned into more apartments. The land and the buildings are in the center of Roudnice, and it is possible, for example, to add on a garage or something like that. The apartments will probably be more expensive than is usual in Roudnice, because they are going to be luxury housing. Even if they sell the apartments at the market price, let’s say, at an average of CZK 1.5 million each, they will make about CZK 70 million profit. If they sell them as luxury apartments, for more money, and also sell the plots, then they could make much more than CZK 100 million. Of course, the costs of reconstruction would have to be deducted from that.”
Out on the street, tenants!
The 2 April 2009 meeting of the town council at which the sale of the real estate was decided was not run in a standard way. The sale was not approved during a first round of voting, due to the concerns of some of those present over what would happen to the tenants. The chair called a 20-minute break during which another plan was agreed. A citizen who was not a council member suggested adding a clause to the contract between Roudnice and Bialbi obliging the buyer to find appropriate substitute accommodation for everyone residing in the buildings irrespective of whether they were legally entitled to such an offer. Should the company not meet this condition, it would be fined CZK 200 000 by the town for each instance of failure. Only after the insertion of this clause did the council members approve the sale.
As a source from the town hall confirmed to us, had this clause not been added, many of the Roma living in that locality would soon have ended up on the street. Most of them had short-term leases, usually for three months only, and all the company would have had to do would have been to simply not extend them. “I do not want to damage or harm anyone,” says František Vaněček, the current CEO of Bialbi, “but we are a commercial firm, we want to reconstruct these buildings and sell them, and therefore we also want the tenants to move out as soon as they can.” According to the information published on the online version of the business registry, all of the other executives have left Bialbi František Vaněček - or rather, the firm LUPEKO spol. s r.o., which he owns – is the only person left. It is not possible to determine how many silent investors Bialbi actually has.
Without the clause, the town would have had to solve the problem of homeless people on its territory. It is clear the town leadership lost out on an opportunity to make the town money, and a need to sell the real estate as quickly as possible probably also played a role: The council took a second vote on the matter during the meeting even though to do so violated standard protocol.
Pressure and attempted fraud
Bialbi thus acquired not only the real estate, but the obligation to provide all of the residents of the three buildings with appropriate substitute accommodation, even those who were not registered residents and had no legal right to such an offer. At that moment, the families became the target of various pressure tactics. Our investigations among the Roma in Roudnice show that the vast majority of them, with few exceptions, did not want to move out of the town because they have roots there, it is their home, and they like it. Another reason they wanted to remain in Roudnice was the fear they would be moved into a ghetto. Such neighborhoods are considered the “end of the line” from which there is no escape, and not just by the local Roma. “You can’t get work there and the atmosphere is not good. Too many nervous people with no future suddenly end up there together and that is what it looks like, constant arguing every day,” one tenant at Masaryčka told us, and gave another negative example of moving to the ghetto: “They just moved Josef Baláž to Bílina, he is 82 years old and deaf, and his wife is completely infirm and bedridden. They had him sign a paper that he would not ask either the town or Bialbi for housing. Mr and Mrs Baláž have now been moved away from their family and have no one to take care of them.”
The pressure and subsequent difficulties which the Masaryčka tenants have been subjected to can be seen from the story of Renata Kašparová, her partner Robert Horváth, and their two children. Bialbi sent two men, each named Mr Berky, to talk with the Romani tenants as representatives of the Polabí civic association (with which we have not managed to establish contact). Former Bialbi CEO Hana Lukešová confirms there was no legal relationship between the association and Bialbi, but it handled the leases on Masarykova street and knew the amount each tenant was in arrears, as well as other information.
According to Renata Kašparová, the gradually increasing pressure on the tenants to move took place as follows: The Berkys (as the Polabí association) offered the family CZK 30 000 in cash to move from their nice two-bedroom apartment to one room in a hostel in Brozany. “I didn’t see any reason to do that, according to the contract Bialbi was supposed to find us appropriate substitute housing, not a hostel. Moreover, we had no debts, so all that talk of shutting off the water and other possible problems did not apply to me. Then Mr Berky said he had found us another two-bedroom apartment – and asked me to sign a contract saying I was giving up my right to replacement accommodation. I refused to sign it. I said I would only do so after I had received the lease for the new apartment. Mr Berky was never able to produce one. It turned out he never told the owner of that apartment that my husband is Roma, he told them only three of us would be moving there, me and our two children. They were misleading both sides.”
We don’t want Gypsies
Renata Kašparová was pressured by the town hall, which said the Roma should look for new apartments on their own and not leave it all up to the town - which was looking for appropriate apartments even though it was not obliged to - or to Bialbi, which was contractually obliged to do so. “I called 30 people,” Kašparová said, “and when I went to see the place in person they would want to rent the apartment to me, and when I told them my partner is Roma, or if he came with me, they always said NO.” Almost every family from Masaryčka had the same experience – none of them found a sublet in Roudnice. Kašparová said Luboš Matek confirmed this to her: “He told me that he did not have accommodation for us in one municipal building because the tenants drew up a petition against Gypsies living there.”
Many of the tenants’ testimonies, given independently of one another, confirm these and other pressure tactics. For example, one tenant claims he was offered a bribe of CZK 50 000 to sign a statement that he was giving up his right to substitute housing. On the other hand, Hana Lukešová claims Bialbi offered the tenants accommodation and “many apartments were rejected”. However, this begs the question: Nowhere is it stated that the tenants were obliged to accept the first offer made, and many claim the accommodation offered was not appropriate, while others complain that Bialbi offered them apartments only in the ghettos of surrounding towns. Unanimously, all the tenants say they do not want to leave Roudnice.
Another strange apartment sale
Vice-Mayor Luboš Matek says the total back rent owned from all three buildings on Masaryková street comes to CZK 669 000 and CZK 270 000 is owed on water bills. He also said the town did its best to accommodate Roma elsewhere in Roudnice as long as the capacity of apartments held out, and that those who were not in debt were made the first offers. The town hall sought apartments for the tenants even though it didn’t have to since Bialbi had assumed that obligation. “The town is not obliged to look for the accommodation, but that does not mean we will just stand by and do nothing,” Matek said.
However, the municipal apartments were first assigned to tenants who did have debts, even to a tenant whom the court had evicted (Roudnice mercilessly moved the others evicted by the court into the “skeleton” apartments). This is confirmed by Eugen Mati, who wrote to the town hall that he would like to know “what the criteria are for assigning apartments to the tenants…. We were told that socially vulnerable people and those who meet their obligations would be given priority. However, the apartments were assigned to people who do not fall into either category.… My wife is constantly going to the town hall (to see Mr Matek), where she is told again and again to either look for her own sublet or find out whether anyone was living illegally in a municipal apartment and her housing situation would be resolved.”
The town had the opportunity to move some of the Roma from Masaryčka into municipal apartments, of which there were approximately 80. Instead, it sold off half of those apartments. According to opposition council member Pavel Šrytr, that sale is another example of unclear management of the apartment stock in Roudnice. The town sold a total of 44 apartments to the firm of J. P. OBRAT a. s. PRAHA for CZK 14.5 million crowns. “The town could have gotten CZK 30 million if it had auctioned them,” Šrytr said.
CZK 1 000 per vote in the elections
Some of the Roma from Masaryčka and Cukrovar say the community itself is a bit to blame because they voted for Luboš Matek in the last elections, or rather for the US-DEU party, on whose ticket he ran. The party offered each eligible Romani voter CZK 1 000 for his or her vote. A total of 10 parties and groups were competing in Roudnice and every vote counted. “It definitely helped US-DEU a lot because they got at least 400 votes more out of it. Out of 10 candidate lists, five parties were not seated on the council, which is rather unusual in Roudnice. US-DEU was able to get four seats at the expense of everyone else,” says Pavel Šrytr of the opposition ČSSD.
This article will be featured in the “Stop Discrimination” insert to the April 2010 insert of Romano voďi, which will be published at the end of April.
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