New plan for Czech ghettos aims to combat dodgy landlords

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek

Up to 115,000 poor people are living in 600 ghettos around the Czech Republic, according to human rights minister Jiří Dienstbier. The cabinet has just backed his plans to help such people – many from the Roma minority – by redirecting part of their housing benefits away from often unscrupulous landlords and toward improving their homes and paying for services. I asked Kumar Vishwanathan, a community worker in North Moravia, who the owners exploiting the poor actually were.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek
“They’re from all over the place. If you see in Litvínov, they’re from several countries even.

“The owners are people who probably don’t even live in the Czech Republic. There are people from parts of Eastern Europe. There are people from the Middle East.

“There are big problems because they collect money from the people – basically housing benefits that are given by the state – but then they don’t meet their commitments as owners to keep the buildings to a particular standard, to pay for services.

“Basically that is what is happening in the far northeast and the far northwest of the country. We have people who are not even very known to the local community who own all these flats and who are very irresponsible.

“We find it extremely difficult to communicate with them on finding solutions and to nudge or push them into being more responsible.”

Minister Dienstbier also speaks about setting hygiene standards and building standards. What kind of conditions are people actually living in in these ghettos?

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“It mostly depends on the will of the owners, and also the participation of the poor people themselves in keeping the place tidy and hygienic and up to a particular standard.

“There is also a problem among the inhabitants, because these people have been coming and going and there is no sense of community.

“It’s just like in a railway station. People just stay in a flat for some time and then move away. There is no sense of home. There is no sense of attachment.

“I think the time has come now to put pressure on owners but also on the other hand to do community work with the inhabitants so that results can be quite a lot better.”

Are you optimistic that initiatives like this can actually make an impact and help the poor living in such ghettos?

Kumar Vishwanathan,  photo: Jana Šustová
“The thing is that we have to do two things simultaneously.

“We have to be very strict with these owners, to push them so that they are responsible and give people a fair deal. For the kind of money they are receiving the services must be adequate and appropriate.

“Number two: We have to work with the people. The people are discouraged, they don’t feel any motivation, they are just atomised.

“Nobody trusts their neighbour. They all point fingers at each other. This state is normal in a ghetto and it has to be broken – and it can be broken.”