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May 21, 2022



Vojtěch Lavička: Czech law on housing benefit-free zones was an attack on human dignity

16.9.2021 6:48
Vojtěch Lavička
Vojtěch Lavička

As readers of certainly all know well, the Czech Constitutional Court has abolished part of the law on aid to those in material distress that facilitated the establishment of local zones where housing benefits would not be disbursed to residents. After long four years of waiting, the court has finally agreed with the motion submitted in this matter by 17 senators.

Housing benefit-free zones, or "bad" addresses where new tenants were unable to draw housing benefits, were frequently presented by both the Czech media and politicians as an effective instrument against "trafficking in poverty". It is absolutely impossible to agree with that claim. 

The number of socially excluded localities, according to qualified estimates, has decidedly not declined as a result of this measure - on the contrary, new ones are being created as the larger localities "crumble" into several smaller ones. The business of exploiting the impoverished has actively flourished and continues to do so. 

The growth in socially excluded localities proves the following fact  – ordinances on establishing benefit-free zones have just moved the problem from one place where a ghetto exists to another, whether within that same town or through the migration of desperate inhabitants to a different town where benefit-free zones have not yet been instituted. Housing speculators can do the same - and they do. 

The zones targeted just new tenants moving into "bad" addresses. Local authorities assumed that such people would behave "asocially", and so it did not make it possible for them to draw benefits to live there. 

On the basis of such absurd predictions, people were denied money to which they were otherwise entitled by state law. That is clear discrimination. 

Just because you have found housing that meets your needs (or is the only housing available) at a specific address should not mean that the town can assume you will be a thief, a drug abuser, a thug, or "merely" a troublemaker. Paradoxically, this law, which has been a favorite among mayors, further promoted local poverty instead of preventing it. 

How does that happen? Here is a simple example.

Imagine you are a family of five living in Přerov, you are Romani, and you need to relocate. You are impoverished, none of the adult family members have jobs, and at your current residence you have been receiving - in accordance with the law - housing benefit from the state. 

For you as a Romani family, it will be quite difficult to find housing in a part of Přerov where everything is "smooth", because no landlord there will want you on account of your ethnicity. You will be able to relocate to a neighborhood near the train station, but the town has declared several benefit-free zones in that area, so of course you will not be able to receive the housing benefit to live there and you will not be able to cope economically. 

You don't want to relocate to another town, because your relatives live in Přerov and your three children are enrolled in school there. Eventually, therefore, you end up moving into a zone where you cannot draw benefits, hoping you will come up with the financing to live there somehow, and that renders you vulnerable to other manipulations. 

I think this example is absolutely clear, and different variations on this theme have played themselves out here more than once in recent years. The municipal representatives frequently do not want to comprehend that impoverished people have not been freely choosing to move into the benefit-free zones, but that this has been a crisis solution for them, the only one they had left.  

The only other alternative would have been to sleep on the street, with their children. It's clear nobody would voluntarily move to a place where they will lose the essential financing that guarantees they can pay their rent. 

Nobody judicious can believe ghettos will ever entirely disappear from the Czech Republic, they are created by the existence of poverty, which predetermines behavior, to a certain extent. If, as a mayor, you sanction impoverished inhabitants this way, then you can make it harder for them to access the resources they need to keep body and soul together, or you can even make it absolutely impossible - but the problem will not disappear. 

These people will just go away so you won't have to see them in your town - for a while, at least. Moreover, anybody who has read the reactions of mayors and other municipal representatives to the abolition of the benefit-free zones will have quite quickly understood that this actually was never about combating rental housing speculators.  

Local officials have an effective weapon to use in the war against speculators who charge exorbitant rents - but most of them never take advantage of it. The law states that the Labor Office will not disburse a benefit if it is clearly not being used for the purpose for which it was intended. 

If, therefore, the quality of housing does not correspond to the benefit's purpose (securing adequate housing), then the Labor Office could have and should have sought and found a solution for these people who have been at the mercy of the traffickers in poverty, on the basis of a motion by the local Labor Office administration, in collaboration with the municipal authorities entrusted with handling such issues (the ones currently establishing these benefit-free zones), and the solution should have been other, appropriate housing first and foremost. The opportunity to prevent the growth of these "socially undesirable phenomena", in other words, was something municipalities always had even before the law allowed them to establish benefit-free zones.

The above argument was stated by the Constitutional Court when it agreed with the senators that the amendment that allowed benefit-free zones was an attack on human dignity, violates the principle of equality, contravenes freedom of movement and residence, interferes with free trade, and failed to fulfill its declared purpose. It will be interesting to follow how the municipalities will now proceed, or what other problematic amendments to the Act on Material Distress will be brought forward by other lawmakers.

I am, of course, sceptical regarding further developments, and not just in the socially excluded localities. It is brilliant that the benefit-free zones have been abolished, but politicians would have to change their perspective on social work and combating poverty in order to achieve essential, positive changes, they would have to stop categorizing people as "decent", "the most decent", "less decent", "indecent", "bad", etc.  

That will not happen in the immediate future. Politicians are just a reflection of the state of our society, they cannot be anything else. 

The demand of this society does not allow politicians to express empathy for certain people - by now it would be anachronistic of them to do so. I hope I'm wrong about that, though.  

Vojtěch Lavička, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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