Low Standard Apartments as a Tool of Ethnic Segregation in the Czech Republic

07 November 2002

Petr Víšek1

in the Czech Republic, recently the term "holobyt" (plural: "holobyty") has come to be recognised amongst administrative agencies, social workers, construction companies and the media. It literally translates as "bare apartment", and can be used to describe a variety of types of housing such as small apartments, low-standard lodging or new cheap structures made of container units. This housing is usually small, with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, and furnished in such a way that there is little that could be damaged or stolen. Such housing does not allow for dignified living, as it often does not meet hygiene standards, has not been fully renovated, and problems such as only cold water being available result in health risks for residents and the area. "Holobyty" are used mainly by municipalities for citizens moved from their homes due to social or financial difficulties, such as rent defaulters and so-called "socially unadaptable" persons. The overwhelming number of tenants in "holobyty" are Roma.2

Analysis of the issue of "holobyty" in relation to the Romani community has revealed a significant social and political problem that can be characterised as the displacement of the socially deprived section of the Romani minority from apartments into substitute housing, short-term shelter, to the suburbs, to centralised ghettos and enclaves, or displacement with no evident alternative. Consequently, analysis of the issue of the "holobyt" is an analysis of their construction as a tool of territorial ethnic segregation.3

Due to the decisions of municipalities when assigning substitute apartments and other alternate housing, there are concentrations of Roma in certain areas, leading to the creation of Romani enclaves or ghettos. Such concentrations emerge in less valuable parts of municipalities and cities, often due to lower land prices. They are located further away from town centres, in the suburbs, where transportation is bad or non-existent. This leads to a lack of employment, truancy and other social problems. Often, public services are unwilling to work in these areas. Frequently missing from such areas are waste services, police supervision and provision of healthcare.

The Tyranny of the Majority

There is economic pressure to revitalise city centres and to improve the use of housing resources to ensure economic profitability. The difference between the high cost of constructing new apartments and the relatively less expensive cost of renovating current housing resources in a city is one reason for this. The desire for a "good address" dictates the removal of those with rent debts and other "high-risk" residents. City centres are also currently in the process of being "gentrified", a procedure which involves evaluating apartments and buildings in the city centres and carefully monitoring and manipulating the resident structure. Social considerations will only be taken into account by municipalities and the owners of apartment buildings if they are forced to do so through regulations and legislation.

Pressure is applied as a result of the short-term interests of local government. The municipalities answer to their electorate, therefore the scope and content of their activities are frequently directed by the desire to succeed in future elections. The municipalities generally do what satisfies the interests of the majority of the electorate, and they will not do what would alienate this majority, even if required in the interests of social justice. Most residents do not want to live with Roma and the municipalities react to this by allowing ghettos and enclaves to emerge. Public opinion has improved only slightly towards the Roma over time. Research has shown that 62% of residents would be extremely uncomfortable or find it unacceptable to have Romani neighbours and 29% would think it unpleasant.4 It is obvious that this attitude is not caused by personal experience in most cases, but by prejudice reinforced by negative media images. Analysis of this phenomenon goes beyond the scope of this study. The municipalities are too close to the citizens to ignore their point of view, however incorrect this view may be. Nevertheless, municipalities in the Czech Republic generally do not wish to appear prejudiced in cases of displacement, especially as evictions are sometimes monitored by the media. Consequently, municipalities have often tolerated the non-payment of rent. Nevertheless, the number of legal proceedings to remove such tenants is now increasing.

Evicting Roma

The events that begin the process of displacement are supported by reasons for termination of a lease under, inter alia, Section 711 of the Civil Code of the Czech Republic (hereafter "Civil Code"). According to court statistics, the most commonly used reason for termination of a lease is gross breach of obligations by the tenant (Section 711 (1) (d) of the Civil Code5). This is primarily related to the non-payment of at least three months worth of rent or charges. Proceedings under Section 711 (1) (c),6 gross violation of proper morality in the building, are the second most common, but nevertheless only account for 2% of cases. It is fair to assume that debts are generally larger than three months worth of rent by the time the court order is given, as on average a court decision takes more than one year to be processed.

There are many reasons why Roma in the Czech Republic may have large debts. For example, one of the most long-standing reasons for continually increasing debts is that one of the members of the household does not have Czech citizenship and therefore the family is not eligible for social support. Another may be that the families manage to pay for rent and services, but that their income does not allow them to create a reserve for one-off additional payments for energy, important due to the increasing prices of this essential utility. These payments begin a cycle of debt that can only increase due to the lack of financial reserves of many Romani families. The minimum welfare payment is based on a short-term view only. A family may survive on welfare and be able to pay for the daily necessities, such as food and clothing, but this leaves no available money for rent and utilities. Such a family finds it impossible to pay for such services, as to choose rent payment over food is difficult for those with children. It is also possible that a family has borrowed from a moneylender at some point, and now all available funds are passed to him with nothing retained for essential payments such as rent.

Being moved into substitute housing can sometimes increase costs, not decrease them. For example, a family that has moved into housing with an electric heater is likely to experience difficulties. Although this is the cheapest method of providing heating by a building owner, it is the most expensive way from the point of view of the user. This method of heating can devastate a family budget. If the lease was agreed upon for a definite period of time only, the family will have nowhere to go once the lease is concluded and the debt incurred.

Alternately, a family may be moved into substitute housing where the rent is higher than the original rent that the family was unable to pay. When moving to a substitute apartment, the rent must be equal to the preceding apartment. However, when moving to private lodgings, the rent may be higher for what is simply a room with a shared bathroom and kitchen, than it was for an apartment. For example, in one town, a building with small apartments and a lodging house were newly built 500 metres from the town. The residents, mostly Roma, have lease contracts for a definite period of time. They owe 2500 Czech crowns (approximately 80 euros) per unit. In their original accommodation, their rent was 1200 Czech crowns (approximately 35 euros), an amount they were unable to pay. Once they lose this housing, they will have nowhere else to go.

It is important to appreciate that families with low-incomes or on welfare have real difficulties meeting payments for rent and facilities, and courts ruling on housing cases do not always take this into account. The fulfilment of housing-related duties is not always demanded from Romani families at the first violation, despite this being the responsibility of the administrator of the housing fund or the owner. There can be serious consequences from this inconsistency. The administrator of the housing fund or the owner may be motivated by an underestimation of the family's ability to meet their payments due to ethnic prejudice, or they may intend to create a situation of real pressure at a later date, and thereby be able to remove the Romani family altogether. A fast reaction to a family defaulting on a rent payment could provide timely help through the involvement of the welfare system at an early stage, thereby preventing an increase in debts. Legal regulations exist to tackle the growth of debt through the use of the welfare and social care support system, and therefore, there is no reason for debt due to housing-related needs to result in eviction. Providing such solutions is, however, labour intensive for the understaffed welfare departments, and they often do not do so.

Debt is not the only reason a person may be forced to move to substitute housing, however, and court proceedings are not the only way to ensure that people move. Other examples of events that begin the process of displacement include:

  • The existence of high debt can be, and often is, the tool of applying pressure to force people to move, even without a court order. There have been a surprising number of cases of people voluntarily moving into substitute housing. In such cases, impunity and non-enforcement of the debt may be offered in return for leaving the apartment.
  • Signing new lease contracts with new owners of a building can be risky, as the new owner often changes the conditions of the contract. Verbal promises such as "if you behave we will extend it" are often made, and the lease may be agreed for a shorter period of time. The new owner may abuse the lack of legal knowledge of the Romani individual concerned, as well as a lack of fluency in the Czech language. There are numerous reports of Roma signing lease contracts for newly assigned apartments, substitute apartments and substitute housing for a definite period of time only, with no written guarantee that the contract will be extended at the end of the lease period if the contractual conditions are met.
  • The sale of a municipal building with Romani residents with outstanding debts to a private owner is a frequent occurrence. Private owners then carry out the work of removing the Romani residents. Research by the non-governmental organisation Counselling Centre for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights uncovered cases whereby agreements between municipalities and private owners allow the private owner to return the property to the municipality if he is unsuccessful in removing the original residents within a certain time period. In some of these cases the private owner was returned the full purchase price.
  • In the Czech Republic, court proceedings are not stopped automatically if the outstanding debt is paid. Such a legal measure in connection with the provision of public help in eliminating debt should be prioritised. In many European countries, it is recognised that preventing the removal of families owing rent represents a significant saving of public resources. Measures for the provision of financial aid combined with social assistance measures instead of eviction, can cost up to ten times less than providing housing and support for forcibly evicted persons who then in any case generally rely on the state for their welfare. Research indicates that similar savings could be made in the Czech Republic also. Although proceedings are, at times, closed on payment of the outstanding rent, the law does not stipulate this.
  • It is sometimes necessary for a family to leave an apartment due to the private owner or municipality neglecting the obligatory maintenance of a building. Generally, Romani families are blamed for destroying or damaging the apartments and this is, in many cases, the truth. Nevertheless, there is also neglect by the owner of the building and facilities, leading to the eventual damage of the apartments. For example, in some cases, the residential building may not have a laundry room and consequently the residents wash and dry their laundry in their apartments. This causes the apartments to be damp, and the building is damaged and possibly dangerous from a health and safety point of view. Another example of unintentional damage is when the facilities provided are insufficient or too expensive to use. If the apartments are fitted with expensive electric heaters, then their use will be limited, as the cost of running them is prohibitive. Walls then become damp and mould can grow. Lack of intervention on the part of the housing department or administrator of a housing fund in cases of the deterioration of an apartment or building contributes to the eventual displacement of the tenants.

A displacement cycle is set in motion when a Romani family leaves a protected lease agreement (lease for an indefinite period of time) for an unprotected lease agreement (lease for definite time period), and ultimately becomes homeless. The core of the act of displacement is a court order for the removal of a tenant from his or her home. Removal may also take place following a voluntary agreement between the landlord and tenant and an offer of substitute housing. Sometimes eviction also takes place without the offer of any substitute housing, for example when the tenant has no official lease agreement (in some cases the municipality has nevertheless been accepting rent).

Illegal practices forcing families from their homes also occur. This is especially the case when moneylenders are involved, and Roma leave their homes as a result of threats. In some cases the moneylender acts in agreement with the owner of the building. Such cases rarely come to court.

Alternate Housing

When a court issues notice to a tenant under Section 711 (1) (d) of the Civil Code (gross breach of obligations, in practice defaulting on rent payments) or under Section 711 (1) (c) (breach of proper morality), it can decide that the tenant is entitled to substitute housing. This is often a flat in cases of families with children. Where there are no children to be considered, the Civil Code states that rudimentary shelter is sufficient as a temporary solution until a tenant is able to find regular housing.7 This option is often so costly, however, that the tenant sometimes remains for only a matter of days. Substitute housing arrangements are not necessarily time-limited, although they are usually offered with unprotected lease agreements. A real threat of having to leave such accommodation is therefore created, with no intensive social work provided to find solutions to the longer-term problems of not being able to afford rent. The lease will then likely expire with no further accommodation being provided. Conditions for further extension of the lease are generally not written into the contract. The law does not address the issue of the ending of an unprotected lease agreement.

As long as the housing belongs to the municipality, the housing solutions offered upon a court order specifying removal to substitute housing continue to be a public matter. In cases of voluntary displacement or displacement due to court orders from apartments belonging to private landlords, there is no further monitoring of the families involved. The practice of selling municipal apartments to private landlords when Romani families with rent debts are living in them raises the importance of monitoring. The municipality has little information on the process of territorial segregation that then occurs, but will be required to resolve the long-term issues that such segregation creates. It is necessary to conclude that this area lacks systematic, active, efficient and, in particular, preventative social and legal protection, as well as targeted education measures within the Romani community.

Territorial segregation through housing in ghettos and enclaves leads to isolation, mutual hostility and social distance. Such concentrations become havens for those that have fallen through the cracks in the social networks. Residents become poorer and inadequate housing situations arise. These can develop into slums, with poor services and health and safety problems. There are now former farms and former service apartments of now-defunct factories in the suburbs of Czech cities where groups of Roma live, often illegally. These can be identified as slums.

Positive Obligations

The position of many municipal authorities is that the municipality has an economic interest in the gentrification and improvement of towns and cities, the displacement and removal of socially difficult tenants to the suburbs, and the resolution of residents' rent debts. Many municipalities welcome the opportunity to sell buildings to private owners, and to let private landlords solve the long-term problems, allowing municipalities to gentrify, while avoiding any public relations issues concerning their handling of those owing rent.

On the other hand, the municipality is duty bound to provide for the social development and housing needs of all citizens. According to conventions and agreements protecting human rights (generally international documents), the state must guarantee the right to adequate housing (see, for example, the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights8) and cannot allow segregation (as set down in the United Nations International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination9). 

Romani neighbourhood in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Photo: ERRC

The Czech Republic will also soon be responsible for meeting the requirements of Council Directive 2000/43/EC of June 29, 2000, implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin.10 Articles 1(i) and 2(i) of the Directive state that the principle of equal treatment shall mean that there shall be no direct or indirect discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin. It is understood that indirect discrimination shall be acknowledged and subject to sanction in cases where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons of a racial or ethnic origin at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons, unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.

Moreover, Article 8 of Directive 2000/43/EC requires that in a number of instances, the burden of proof in legal proceedings relating to racial discrimination fall to the side of the respondent. The respondent will have to prove that there has been no breach of the principle of equal treatment. In cases of ghettos, the respondent might have to explain why there is such a large number of Romani tenants in lodging houses for those owing rent, when the housing problems of the non-Romani population are solved in other ways.

Article 13 of the Revised European Social Charter binds signatories to providing social assistance for those in need.11 Non-governmental organisations may be in a position to provide this assistance in an impartial and timely manner. To enable this to happen, however, it would be necessary for the non-governmental sector to be financed by the state regularly. Once the Czech Republic joins the European Union (EU), it will no longer be acceptable for these activities to rely on grants, such as from the Phare programme,12 the EU and the Open Society Institute, as is presently the case.

It will be necessary to amend Czech law to reflect the obligations of the state. Tools to enforce international law will need to be adopted, and a state supervisory body active in the areas of housing equality and segregation should be created.

The starting point for drafting remedy and protection measures has to be an open analysis of economic and political interests, as well as the needs and obligations of the individual entities with a stake in the above mentioned processes. Only examining and evaluating them fully will enable the development of realistic solutions. The entities that should be involved are municipalities, private landlords, the Romani community and various non-governmental organisations with specialist knowledge in this area.13

Individuals need to be returned to housing in non-ghettoised areas. Social problems must be identified and resolved as quickly as possible, to avoid further difficulties in the longer term.


  1. Petr Víšek is a member of Socioklub, a Prague-based association "for the support of the dissemination of the theory and practice of social policy." The text is an abridged version of a research report undertaken in the autumn of 2001 at the request of the Interdepartmental Commission for the Issues of the Romany Community of the government of the Czech Republic into the problem of "holobyty" in relation to the Romani community. The full text is available in Czech at http://www.vlada.cz.
  2. A survey conducted by the Prague-based Counselling Centre for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights in 2000 indicated that Roma represented 60 percent of the residents in "holobyty" in Havlickův Brod and Tachov, 70 percent in Chrastava, 75 percent in Prague-Vychod and Karvina, 79 percent in Beroun, 80 percent in Nymburk, 100 percent in Slany, 100 percent in Prachatice, and 100 percent in Rakovnic. (See Ina Zoon, On the Margins. Roma and Public Services in Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia, Open Society Institute, p.181)
  3. A 1997 Czech government's report noted that the result of the tendency to build "holobyty" is "the creation of a sort of neo-ghetto, in which people often live in poor social and hygienic conditions, are distanced from work and education opportunities, and lose contact with the rest of society, which leads to further social decline, an increase in crime, and other problems, which become that much more difficult to solve." According to the same report, "The current construction of bare flats and forced eviction also evokes fears in the entire Romani community, that this is a certain kind of "ethnic cleansing", unofficially supported in the society." See "Report on the Situation of the romani Community in the Czech republic and Government Measures Assisting its Integration in Society", available at: http://www.vlada.cz/1250/eng/vrk/rady/rnr/cinnost/romove/zprava/zprava.eng.htm
  4. Data from the Centre of Empirical Research (STEM), Prague. See http://www.stem.cz.
  5. Section 711 (1) (d) of the Civil Code states: "The lessor may give notice terminating the lease of a flat only with the consent of the (appropriate) court and only in the following circumstances: ...(d) if the lessee grossly breaches his obligations arising from lease of the flat, especially by not paying the rent or charges for services related to use of the flat, for a period longer than three months..."
  6. Section 711 (1) (c) of the Civil Code states that: "The lessor may give notice terminating the lease of a flat only with the consent of the (appropriate) court and only in the following circumstances: ... (c) if the lessee or those who live with him, despite a written warning, grossly breach proper morality in the house..."
  7. Section 712 (5) of the Civil Code states that: "If the lease relationship is terminated by the lessor giving notice under section 711 (1) (c), (d), (g) or (h), it shall be sufficient to provide shelter. However, if a family with minor children is involved and if the lease relationship is terminated by the lessor's notice under section 711 (1) (c) or (d), the court may rule for reasons which merit special consideration, that the lessee shall be entitled to substitute accommodation, or to a substitute flat. Shelter means temporary accommodation, until the lessee obtains proper accommodation"...
  8. Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that "The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing" The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right."
  9. Article 3 of the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination states that "States Parties particularly condemn racial segregation and apartheid and undertake to prevent, prohibit and eradicate all practices of this nature in territories under their jurisdiction."
  10. Council Directive 2000/43/EC.
  11. Article 13 (1) of the Revised European Social Charter states that Contracting Parties undertake "to ensure that any person who is without adequate resources and who is unable to secure such resources either by his own efforts or from other sources, in particular by benefits under a social security scheme, be granted adequate assistance..." and (3) further states that Contracting Parties undertake "to provide that everyone may receive by appropriate public or private services such advice and personal help as may be required to prevent, to remove, or to alleviate personal or family want."
  12. The Phare programme is a pre-accession instrument financed by the European Communities to assist the applicant countries of central Europe in their preparations for joining the European Union. The focus of the Phare programme is 1. To strengthen their public administrations and institutions to function effectively inside the Union; 2. To promote convergence with the European Community's extensive legislation and reduce the need for transition periods; and 3. To promote economic and social cohesion. For further information please see: http://europa.eu.int/comm/enlargement/pas/phare/#what.
  13. The extraordinary interest in the training project, "Integration of Minorities, Foreigners and Refugees" that recently has been organised by the Training Centre for Public Administration (Vzdělávací centrum pro veřejnou správu, o.p.s.), demonstrates that the administrations of municipalities have begun to realise the comprehensiveness of this problem and the need to find a resolution. Representatives of municipalities and employees specialising in the subject took part in the project, which was run on two separate occasions.



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