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Struggle over Czech social housing law begins

20.3.2015 20:13, (ROMEA)
Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksová Tominová at a press conference 17 January 2014.
Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksová Tominová at a press conference 17 January 2014.

Will the law on social housing currently being drafted strike a harsh blow against ghettos, residential hotels, and "trafficking in poverty"? Will even "inadaptables" have access to social housing?

Or will this project "only" target those who get into difficult situations through no fault of their own? Who evaluates where that "fault" begins and ends?

Can the opinions of those drafting the concept of the law be reconciled with the opinions of municipal leaders? These and other questions will accompany the final phase of the discussion on drafting the law, which the Czech Government will be reviewing soon.

Union of Towns and Municipalities says social housing concept is unacceptable

The concept was presented by the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry (MPSV) at the end of January along with the news that currently roughly half a million people in the 

Czech Republic are at risk of losing their housing. The concept counts on three levels of transitional housing for those in need.  

The first level, crisis housing, would be offered as a social service to people without shelter whose health or lives are at risk. The second kind of such housing would be a social apartment, a simpler kind of housing mainly intended for homeless families or individuals.

The third type of this housing would be affordable apartments - ordinary housing intended mainly for domestic violence victims, families with children, people living with disabilities, senior citizens, and youth aging out of children's homes. According to the concept, municipalities would set up their own housing funds for the purposes of social housing, to be partially subsidized by the state; according to the estimates of the authors of the concept, this would represent increased investment into the construction and reconstruction of apartments on the order of roughly CZK 14.6 billion annually.

Shortly after the document was presented a joint declaration on it was issued by the Union of Towns and Municipalities and the Civic Association of the Owners of Houses, Apartments and Other Real Estate in the Czech Republic saying that they consider the concept "unacceptable". They believe its delineation of target groups is too broad and that the Czech Republic does not have the option of fulfilling the concept in the near term, that the financing of the project is unclear, and that its relationship to other areas such as social work is also unclear - the concept counts on such elements, but does not elaborate them.  

Municipalities are not united

Martin Šimáček, director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, is of the opinion that municipalities' positions are actually far from unanimous on this issue, despite the Union's statement. "I can't estimate the proportion, but we certainly do not have only municipalities here that reject social housing. There are also many that have positive expectations of this concept as something that can help address problems that have long been postponed," he told news server

Similarly, Šimáček says we can anticipate the measures linked to the draft law on social housing to have diverse impacts - these will include an amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress, which is supposed to put greater pressure on the owners of residential hotels currently cashing in on the state subsidies for outrageous rents charged for undignified accommodation, and which is also supposed to give municipalities more powers in this regard. "In some places there is a risk that municipalities will pressure the closing of residential hotels and the eviction of their tenants beyond city lines. I really have great concerns that this could lead to a massive growth in homelessness," Šimáček explains, "but in other places, municipalities might actually use the amendment as a tool to force the residential hotel owners to improve conditions for their tenants."  

Housing first?

The basic outline of the dispute between the authors of the concept, the landlords' association, the municipalities, and other groups of critics is encapsulated in the clash over the principle of "housing first". This approach is based on the idea that people in a crisis situation must be immediately helped and provided with housing.  

Under this approach, there are no conditions to meet in order to access social housing - people will not have to demonstrate that they are prepared for it, they will not have to prove that they deserve housing or are able to maintain it. According to experience with "housing first" in other countries, 80 % of the clients in a "housing first" program are able to permanently maintain their housing.  

That is a significantly higher success rate than for programs of transitional housing, where clients must gradually prove their competence and merit. The municipalities, however, have a problem with the "housing first" approach.  

"Given the complicated situation in the Czech Republic (in particular at some residential hotels), the Union considers the target groups outlined in the concept to be very broad, and this could be counterproductive. In particular, the concept does not draw a distinction between clients who are responsible for losing their housing and those who are not," Štěpánka Filipová, spokesperson for the Union of Towns and Municipalities, told news server  

"Such an approach could result in the deterioration of many places where the social situation is already tense now. The Union of Towns and Municipalities disagrees with the housing first principle, in which merit is not a condition for access to housing. As far as social housing is concerned, municipalities should aid those people in particular who are in a difficult life situation through no fault of their own," she said.

"It is not realistic for municipalities to be able, on the basis of being tasked by the state, to satisfy the housing needs of citizens who are socially vulnerable. Each municipality (there are more than 6 200) has a different housing fund, different kinds of people living there, different needs, different priorities, etc. What should be approved and implemented are specific measures for these various target groups (people suffering from addiction have very different needs than pensioners do, for example)," the Union spokesperson said.

The position of the Union of Towns and Municipalities, therefore, can be summarized as follows:  Social housing? Why not, but such a project must count on municipalities having many other priorities.

The Union believes it must be clear who will pay for the entire endeavor. Last but not least, it believes the principle of "various types of housing for various types of people in need" should apply.

It is not acceptable to the Union to aid everyone irrespective of how they got into their crisis situation. This position leaves open the option for municipalities to refuse to support social housing for "inadaptables", whether they be "people suffering from addiction" or Roma.

Over the next few days, decisions will start to be made at the highest political level about the degree to which these positions can be aligned so that the concept can take on a realistic form. The law on social housing is supposed to take effect as of 2017. 

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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