A housing crisis has developed over the last two decades in the Czech Republic with the stock of local council accommodation for the least well off shrinking as flats and houses were sold off while the numbers of those needing an affordable roof over their heads increased. The government is now working on putting together an all-embracing policy to address the problems but there are no illusions this will be an easy task.
Last week the government dealt with one aspect of an accelerating housing crisis in the country: the explosion of low cost hostels often exploiting the most vulnerable in society by charging high prices for sub-standard and often insanitary accommodation.
The number of hostels is reckoned to have risen to around 4,000 from around 750 in 2011 with almost every medium sized town now having at least one. These hostels have been a Klondike for some unscrupulous owners who charged those living on government support there astronomical amounts knowing that the government would step in and pick up the tab for most of the amount.
That abuse should soon disappear with the government moving to make sure rents are related to local market rates and demanding minimum living conditions in such hostels. But both the government and organisations dealing with the needy and disadvantaged agree that abusive hostels are just one of the main symptoms of the housing problem for those at the bottom of the social ladder.
Linda Sokačová is the spokeswoman for the Platform for Social Housing, one of groups at the centre of the debate about what a new national social housing policy should look like. She says that the problem has reached such proportions that it now has to be addressed by politicians. “In the Czech Republic, according to statistics, we have 18,000 people living on the streets or in hostels; and then we have another 17,000 people living in inappropriate housing. Then we have other people who need social allowances for housing and then we have people who have really high costs for housing and they do not have money for food or medicines and so on. So if we speak about the wider definition of social housing then we can speak about one million people in the Czech Republic.”
I asked Linda Sokačová if this meant that there were well established ghettos as a result: “There are already ghettos in the Czech Republic. It is a problem of the whole country but we have some regions like the Ústí region and North Moravia where there are more ghettos than in other parts of the Czech Republic and then the housing is quite a big problem in big cities where you have to pay quite a lot of money for housing, so Prague, Brno. But in many cities you can find socially excluded areas, such as hostels. And I think that almost all Czech cities have a problem with that and that is why politicians now start to speak about this problem and about social housing.”
Michaela Marksová is the Social Democrat minister tasked with creating a new social housing strategy after most of the dossier was transferred from the Ministry for Regional Development. She says the new framework is trying to fill a big vacuum that has established over many years and it will take some time to come up with valid answers. “Basically since the 1990’s we are talking about the necessity to write a law on social housing. All those years nothing happened, and so today we still lack legislation on social housing. The issue raises many questions and there are many interested parties involved so we are aiming for a law that would come into force from January 1, 2017. We have to make sure that this law is for all sorts of vulnerable groups such as senior citizens, young families with children, socially excluded people, like the Roma, disabled people, and so on.
“I personally think it should be quite broad and establish what institutions should be involved. In my opinion, it’s not just about municipalities but also about NGOs and cooperatives, how and in what conditions they can offer their property for social housing. We have to establish a whole new system and we also have to force the municipalities to take responsibility for their inhabitants, which not all of them are doing right now. And we have to establish some financial support from the state because we cannot leave it only to the municipalities. So the whole area is really complicated. ”
Ironically, even before the whole framework is in place there is a rush to earmark some types of social housing areas and projects that could quickly benefit from European funds. Minister Marksová again: “European funds are eligible for building new social housing, and, I think, also reconstruction. So this is something we are discussing right now because we need to use the European funds immediately and not to wait for the law. So we are now discussing conditions and areas for which the European funds could be used. Social housing is not just about building new houses, it also has to be about using the old ones because we have many, many empty houses and many empty flats. ”
Platform for Social Housing’s Linda Sokačová warns that European funds might be able to provide only around 5,000 flats for those in need, which is well short of what will be required to deal with the problem.
It can safely be said that many local councils helped create the problem that has resulted in the social housing crisis that is now being addressed. And Sokačová says many of them are even now adding to the crisis by selling off their stock of council-owned flats and houses that could be set aside for those most in need. And she says that for some the main issue appears to be trying to shift the Roma ghettos that they themselves have helped create.
And the minister says that she is getting mixed messages on the ground about a willingness to deal with the problems even where they are at their worst. I asked her how cooperative local councils looked like being “This is very difficult, I must say, and it depends on individual councils. For example, on Thursday we visited a very difficult place called Chánov, which is a suburb of Litvínov. And there was the same complaint that these big modern 1970’s flats were bought by people, some of whom may live in Prague and in some cases they don’t even know who the owners are. And they started to fill them with Roma.
“And of course there are problems because of how the newcomers behave, they don’t go to work and they are noisy at night and so on. But then when you ask the mayor why the flats here are so cheap and can be bought for 10,000 he doesn’t have an answer. So I ask why does the council not buy those flats? And again, no reply. And then later people told me that this mayor who is complaining so much now is the one who organised the huge privatisations.”
Foreign models, and there are many, could help to provide a lead for Czechs on how to deal with the housing problem. Nearby Austria is one neighbour where social housing policy has been regarded as a success. But there are worries whether the specific tax rules and fact that there is a large stock of property already in council ownership makes it appropriate for the much poorer Czech Republic. Linda Sokačová again: “I think there are many models we can use or can be inspired by. We can be inspired by the Austrian model, which is quite different. We can be inspired by Finland, where they use the housing first approach. We can be inspired by Belgium where they use special agencies to house people in appropriate flats. And then we can be inspired by Scotland, because this country launched a programme on social housing and prepared it in cooperation with a lot of experts, NGOs, and also homeless people. This system is based on flats and a housing first approach and they aim to have no one who needs to live on the street. ”
The housing first approach is based on dealing with a person’s housing problems as a priority and then helping with other problems such as training and education and jobs. Without a place to live all the other aspects are almost impossible.