Recently, there’s been a flurry of articles on renting in Malta, and also noises from both sides of the political divide, on rent regulation. I catch myself feeling in turn euphoric that things may change and then despondent that this is very probably pre-election posturing. (I know - LOL at the ‘very probably’.)
I’ve seen many conversations and articles on social media over the last year that sadden me. Working single parents ‘living’ in rental accommodation on 800 euro per month, paying 70% of their income on rent; people unable to work for one reason or another, ‘living’ on 420 euro per month in social security payments, in hovels at 300 euro rent per month; young working people, starting out in life, unable to afford to rent, let alone climb the first rung of the property ladder; I’ve seen photos of homeless people, sleeping on the streets; the death of a homeless man sleeping rough under a bridge...
And, then of course, there are the comments which sadden me even more. The complete lack of empathy and humanity. The poor Maths and the lack of imagination. €800 euro per month income minus €500 euro per month rent = not enough to live on, for a single person, let alone a single parent or a family on 1 minimum wage. Then there’s the vast number of Maltese and non Maltese workers on inadequate Maltese salaries, not much more than €300 euro greater than the minimum wage. Their lives are embattled and debilitating in the daily, penny-pinching grind and the unexpected bills.
We then have a political class that fights over an increase of €1.50 per month for the more fortunate tenants in social housing, who pay €203 PER YEAR, and who the Nationalist Party says should be paying €185 PER YEAR. The Labour Party agrees. So, tenants in social housing will now be paying €185 euro PER YEAR. They will also be receiving refunds of this ‘overcharge’ this year. For the record, I have absolutely no problem with tenants in social housing paying €185 euro per year. No problem at all. What upsets me is the fuss, the time, the newsprint... given to this. How much buying power does €1.50 per month have today? Does this kind of political grandstanding even work any more? Do the powers that be think that people are that innumerate?
All over the world, different countries manage the tension between the property rights of a landlord and the human right of everybody for a decent roof of secure tenure over their head. There are so many different measures available. So many. So much so that when I was asked to list them in an interview, I panicked because I was sure that I was going to leave too many out. And yet, in Malta, we are at Ground Zero, when it comes to the private rental market. Since 1995, the rental market has been totally liberalized. The pendulum has swung from decidedly pro tenant to decidedly anti tenant. Tenants have been abandoned by successive administrations to market forces.
The mythology of a totally free rental market is huge in Malta. People (usually landlords and populist politicians) swear by the laws of supply and demand. They want the rental market to be just like any other market. People forget that tenants are a captive market – they have to have a roof over their heads. So, at the end of the day, they will have to accept to pay 60% of their income on rent, if all rents are high. The laws of supply and demand are not enough on their own to manage the sensitive dynamics of a country’s rental market.
Even the UK Tory government, great espousers of free market ideology, believe in rent calming measures and built in tenant protection. In fact, a few days ago they proposed minimum rental contract periods of 3 years and banning tenant letting agency fees in the White Paper on Housing.
Yesterday, I watched the programme Xtra on TVM, one of the themes of which was renting. Paula Mifsud Bonnici and Silvio Schembri were the guests. There was no recognition of the urgency with which Malta – not PN or LP – needs to address this housing crisis we have. No urgency, whatsoever. Silvio Schembri mentioned a few of the many initiatives countries all over the world have implemented. I could see no such solutions in anything Paula Mifsud Bonnici said. There was far too much political point scoring and not enough quiet reflection on how we got here and how can we get out of here. I don’t think that either political party underestands the gravity of our housing situation. But I sense that there is a growing anger and despair amongst many tenants living in Malta. These need a state intervention NOW.