Jim Gladstone, an American who has lived in Slovakia since 1994, found out the hard way how little protection tenants really enjoy in Slovakia.
Gladstone lives in a block of flats on Klemencová Street in Bratislava. When the owner of the building began construction of an extra floor on top of the building, Gladstone protested, feeling that his rights and those of his neighbours were being violated.
Gladstone said he was worried about the damage the builders might cause to existing flats. "When they add another level, they're going to have to pull the roof off at some point and eventually it's going to rain," he said. "Similar construction took place on [nearby] Grösslingova Street, and from what I understand, the flats on the top floors are basically ruined."
In November, 1998, Gladstone and his neighbours formed "an ad-hoc tenants' association," hired a lawyer and, after obtaining copies of the construction contract, began contesting points of the deal, specifically the section that called for the company to get the approval of the building's tenants before construction could begin. Gladstone said the firm never did this, something his tenants' group pointed it out to Old Town Vice-Mayor Bohdana Machajová.
According to Gladstone, Machajová acknowledged the procedure violation but said that the city had decided to issue the building permit without the tenant's approval, meaning that the decision stood. When contacted by The Slovak Spectator, Machajová declined to answer any questions concerning the construction or the contract.
So just what rights do tenants have in Slovakia? Gabriel Jurín, a private lawyer, said that tenant rights are protected in Slovakia, but that few people know what they are. The most important rights, he said, guaranteed tenants decent housing at reasonable prices with some measure of security against eviction.
"The owner has to provide a decent standard of housing, by securing acceptable, hygienic conditions on the premises," Jurín said. "Secondly, they must apply discounts on the rent in cases when the owner does not provide for a repair or does not remove a defect that diminishes the quality of the flat."
"Furthermore, when an 'indefinite treaty lease' is signed, the lease of the flat cannot be terminated by the owner unless dictated by civil code and settled by the courts," he added. Juíin also said that tenants renting from government-owned flats enjoyed the same rights as those renting from private owners.
While tenants do have rights, Gladstone's case shows that those rights can be overlooked or ignored by the authorities. "What the law says is one thing," Gladstone said. "What actually gets done is pretty different."
Oddly enough, given Slovakia's shaky tenant protection, few tenant's associations exist to educate the public and to push for greater awareness. A straw poll of local real estate agencies conducted by The Slovak Spectator from June 24 to July 1 found that none had even heard of a Slovak tenants' associations.
Gladstone's experience showed, however, that a pro-active role was an effective one. After initial official complaints failed, Gladstone demanded the construction firm's address (they didn't have one) and began taking photographs of the workers and the work site, which resulted in threats from the labourers that they would beat him up. While the case has not yet been settled, construction ceased a month and a half ago.
Gladstone said that the whole experience had been "sickening," but that he would like to believe that forming a tenants' group had helped. "I'd like to believe that [construction stopped] because of what we're doing, but we have no proof that that's the case."
-Additional reporting by Martinba Pisárová