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Vojtěch Lavička: Ghettos in the Czech Republic are determined by poverty, nobody judicious believes they can disappear

12.5.2021 10:48
Vojtěch Lavička in a debate on the 2021 census in the Czech Republic. (PHOTO: ROMEA TV)
Vojtěch Lavička in a debate on the 2021 census in the Czech Republic. (PHOTO: ROMEA TV)

The local zoning of addresses where housing benefits cannot be drawn - the "bad" addresses where any incoming tenants will not be allowed to claim such benefits - have been frequently presented both by the media and by politicians as an effective instrument for combating "trafficking in poverty", but it is difficult to say what basis we might use for agreeing with such claims. The number of socially excluded localities in the country, according to qualified estimates, is decidedly not declining - on the contrary, new socially excluded localities are springing up, or the bigger ones are "crumbling" into several smaller ones.

If we look at the wording of the law that sets forth the conditions for adopting a local ordinance of a "general nature" about such housing benefit-free zones, we will comprehend quite quickly that this is not so much about combating trafficking in poverty as it is about providing local governments with an opportunity to have an across-the-board impact on areas where "socially undesirable phenomena" occur:  

"Section 33d: An area with an increased incidence of socially undesirable phenomena:
(1) A municipality on the territory of which there are locations where, to an increased degree, socially undesirable phenomena arise, is able to request the authority with jurisdiction over such locations to issue a measure of a general nature declaring it to be an area with an increased incidence of socially undesirable phenomena (hereinafter, just 'measures of a general nature'). This request must include:
a) identification of the localtions where socially undesirable phenomena occur to an increased degree and 
b) justification as to what this increased incidence of socially undesirable phenomena consists of; socially undesirable phenomena are especially considered to be disruptions of public order, unfavorable influences impacting minors, persons under the influence of habit-forming substances, etc., and the exercise of freedom of residence cannot be justified by the fact that it de facto intensifies social exclusion and shifts this problem to another place where it can continue to accumulate." 

This means that towns are predicting that the people who newly move into such addresses will inevitably commit such asocial behavior. For that reason they are pre-emptively not approving housing benefits for people who newly take up residence at such addresses, even if the applicants fulfill all the conditions for receiving such benefits and are otherwise entitled to them by law. 

Towns are doing this solely on the basis of newcomers having chosen a "bad" address. What clearly flows from the wording of the regulations is that from the beginning, this is more about hindering "bad" and "problematic" residents than it is about hindering the business cycles of those who speculate in apartment units and temporary accommodations... 

An option like this is certainly very tempting to local politicians, as they can use it to cater to "orderly" residents and easily score political points with them. The growth in socially excluded localities in this country demonstrates just one fact, though:  A local ordinance establishing a housing benefit-free zone in a location where a ghetto exists just relocates the problem elsewhere, whether that be elsewhere in the same town, or whether it causes the migration of desperate inhabitants into another town that has yet to adopt such zones.

Speculators in rental housing can also take actions to cause such migration flows as well. Nobody who is judicious can believe ghettos will disappear from the Czech Republic, they are determined by the existence of poverty, and it is poverty that determines people's behavior, to a certain extent... 

If you sanction impoverished inhabitants, if you hinder their access to the resources that are existentially essential to their lives, or if you even make it impossible for them to access such resources, the problem will not disappear. It will just move elsewhere and be temporarily out of sight. 

Among other matters, this phenomenon also supports impoverished people taking undesirable work "under the table" and the development of criminal activity. Impoverished inhabitants have to raise money to cover their housing costs somehow... 

Another central theme of these benefit-free zones is the discrimination they entail, which assumes that residents will behave in ways that are socially undesirable. I will give you a simple example of the dilemma. 

Imagine you are a five-member Romani family living in Přerov, and you learn that you have to move house. You are impoverished and out of work, and you have therefore been drawing a housing contribution at your current address, in accordance with the law. 

Because you are Romani, it is quite difficult for you to find another place to rent in a locality of Přerov that is considered "problem-free", as none of the owners of rental housing in that kind of locality want to rent to you because of your nationality. Because of that discrimination, your choice of where to move narrows down to somewhere near the train station, but there is more than one housing benefit-free zone in place there, which means you will not be able to draw the housing contribution if you relocate there, and economically you will not be able to cope without the benefit. 

You do not want to move to another town, because you have relatives where you are now, and your three children are attending school where you are now. Ultimately you end up with no choice but to move into a housing benefit-free zone and hope that you will raise the money to live on somehow without that benefit. 

In my lay opinion, this is clear discrimination. The town predicts that if you move into the housing benefit-free zone, you will commit asocial behavior there, which is why they will not approve of your drawing housing benefit there even though you fufill all the conditions and are otherwise legally entitled to it at your current address. 

The town is doing this just on the basis of your having chosen to relocate to a "bad" address. What the representatives of local governments are refusing to comprehend is that you, as an impoverished Romani family, are not able to make a completely free choice, but that when you relocated into the benefit-free zone, it was the only possible solution. 

The alternative would have been living on the street with your children. You, as an impoverished Romani family, have nowhere but the benefit-free zone to live, in this scenario! 

Under no circumstances, therefore, are these zones a solution to "trafficking in poverty". Those who are impoverished and in need end up at the absolute bottom of the barrel in the "food chain" of problems. 

The effect of these zones, therefore, is the opposite of what they claim to be - in practice, they actually increase the numbers of those who are impoverished and in need, those who are being pushed up against the wall not just by life, but by local governments. This is unacceptable. 

I hope the Constitutional Court will ultimately rule that this law violates the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and abolishes it. Developments in recent years are leading me to be sceptical of such an outcome, though. 

Let's see. Maybe we will be pleasantly surprised.

lav, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Housing, Poverty, Roma, Socially excluded localities



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