Mayor Hřib: ‘Big Brother’ won’t be watching vacant Prague property owners’ electricity meters

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay / CC0

The Prague City Hall coalition is due to meet on Friday to discuss a controversial proposal to collect anonymous data from electricity meters to identify vacant housing units. Mayor Zdeněk Hřib of the Pirate Party, which is behind the move, says despite alarm calls by his coalition partners, the intention was never to try to identify the owners of vacant properties – whether ‘foreign speculators’ or local investors – in order to tax them.

Zdeněk Hřib, photo: Vojtěch Havlík / Prague City Hall, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Jiří Pospíšil of TOP 09 called the Pirates’ idea to track electricity meters a “left-wing experiment” that had ignited “the first crisis in the Prague City Hall coalition”. The leading daily newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes opined on Thursday it was a “Marxist” idea that would lead to higher property taxes and eventually the creation of a “Revolutionary Tribunal”.

Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, who was on an official trip to Taiwan when TOP 09 called a press conference condemning the electricity meter plan, says the Pirate Party never suggested anything of the sort.

“It’s a misunderstanding. And it’s a pity that instead of picking up the phone and asking about our actual intentions someone chose to call a press conference. It also bothers me to hear someone absurdly denigrate the Czech Pirate Party as a bunch of ‘Communists’ or ‘spies’, which of course is not at all true.”

The Pirates do want to collect data about vacant dwellings using electricity meters, he says, with the aim of addressing the chronic shortage of affordable housing. But even if it wanted to, Prague City Hall has no power to impose higher taxes on “investment apartments”.

“I think it’s important that we run the city based on actual data and use real information as the basis for discussion. The objective problem which Prague faces is a housing crisis. In part, this is because of a slowdown in construction. But the problem is much bigger than that. And it’s important to address the housing crisis comprehensively and fairly.”

Mayor Hřib notes opposition to supporting large developers’ projects, for example, as the prevailing opinion is many such flats are being purchased as investments and may long sit vacant. But without actual data, this is perception based more on hearsay than on fact.

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay / CC0
To make good policy decisions, Prague City councillors need a full, accurate picture of the housing market. Taking anonymous readings of electricity meters will not infringe on anyone’s rights. Preliminary enquiries have been made with electricity providers such as the PRE Group. ‘Big Brother’ will not be watching you.

“We’re not looking to determine how any specific flats are being used. It’s about collecting and analysing anonymous data, from which we can see that in ‘District X’ there are many unoccupied flats while in ‘District Y’ the situation is quite different. Ideally, we could compare historic occupancy rates to spot trends. The information would help us identify the nature of the problem – above all, whether something is a real problem in Prague.”

That said, if the data show, for example, high and long-term vacancy rates especially in new developments, councillors could present proposals to parliament. Meanwhile, Mayor Hřib says taking concrete steps to facilitate housing construction in Prague is part of the solution.