Precarious housing in the Czech Republic

kuncovka_brno_czech_republicKuncovka, an apartment complex 10 minutes by tram from the centre of Brno, the 2nd city of the Czech Republic with a prosperous centre. A five year old girl is walking her “dog”, a broken DVD-player, on the field at the front door. The power cord serves as the leash. Inside a group of 15 sits in a 18m2 room, the largest room of the apartment. In between the meeting children play with cardboard boxes, no toy in sight. 4 chairs, 2 small tables and a mattress are all the furniture there is. Coffee and tea is made in the bathroom, there is no kitchen.

Julek is our host. He lives in 1 of the 48 apartments in the complex. He tells us the dilapidated apartments of 30m2, without kitchen, are rented out for 10500 crowns (roughly 400 euro) a month. Last winter the owner refused to turn on the heating. He wanted to make an even higher profit. He often extorts the tenants by switching off the electricity. For 750 crowns (30 euro) he puts the electricity back on for a day.

The tenants lack regular rent contracts. There are monthly contracts which are tacitly renewed by the owner, even though these are illegal according to the Czech law. If you criticize the owner, the extortion, or the atrocious state of the building, your contract won’t be renewed. When the owner has a bad mood he refuses to give a payment receipt for the rent, which causes you to lose your housing benefits.

When your contract isn’t renewed the owner waits for you to leave your apartment, he forces your door open and locks his vicious dog in your apartment. The dog is trained to bite if you try to get back into your apartment. While you suddenly become homeless the dog is inside trashing your stuff. There are no judges involved.

We walk a round through the complex with Julek. All tenants are welcoming and immediately show us an enormous amount of back maintenance. Almost all apartments have large areas of mould, most doors and bathrooms are in an extreme state of disrepair. Throughout the hallways there are open electricity connections and at the staircase the windows under the banisters are gone, so playing children can fall from the first floor onto the pavement outside. We can’t enter the basement, because the owner locks his dog there when he is not evicting.

Why would you stay? You are Roma, and you live in a city with only a handful of social-housing apartments. Because of their prejudice and racism, most private landlords do not rent houses to Roma. This untapped niche is served by people like Robert Hrdina; white collar criminals. The police hardly take action against them; in a conflict between Roma and whites they assume the Roma are to blame. The criminal record of the white collar criminal has no bearing.

Something new is happening in Kuncovka. The tenants and activists of “Chceme bydlet” (We want to be housed) and ASLIDO – Action Homeless Group from Ostrava have united, and are resisting. Since the introduction of an alarm scheme, the amount of intimidating visits by the owner have decreased. Posters in the hallways are used to inform tenants of their rights. The tenant-collective has recently started talks with the city government, hoping the municipality will buy the complex and transform it into social housing.

Two activists with the ‘Bond Precaire Woonvormen’ (Dutch Union of Precarious Tenants) are visiting Aslido this week. Aslido is a network for people with experience of homelessness, that fights for the introduction of a nationwide social-housing scheme, as well as better laws around this theme. The visit is an opportunity to exchange ideas and action-techniques, and to participate in actions. The exchange came about thanks to the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City. The goal of this coalition is to more effectively make a stand against multinationals and European policies that aid gentrification and undermine tenants rights.

Whilst leaving the building, the owner approaches us in a threatening manner. He speaks to us in Czech, but quickly realises that we don’t speak the language. Before he flees to his black SUV, parked three blocks away, he grins and asks: “You want to buy this building?”