In the jungle that is the Maltese rental market, it is immediately obvious that Malta’s landlords and letting agents are as far away as is possible from being described as professional. Yes, there is a possibility that you may come across good landlords and good letting agents but this is totally a matter of luck.
Malta Tenant Support has been trying to support tenants for more than 3 years now. Our main aim is to change the big picture, to inform a change in policy. Our philosophy is that we do not only want to support tenants who happen to come our way. Absolutely not. We want all tenants to be able to live in their rental properties without enduring the trials and tribulations many currently endure. We contend that being happy in your rental property should not be a matter of luck, and therefore we would like to see a regulated Maltese rental market, with all stakeholders knowing their rights and responsibilities in a regulated system that is fair both to the landlord and the tenant.
Our group has developed organically and includes lawyers, social justice warriors, economists, social workers, journalists, tenants, some landlords and some letting agents, amongst others. We have had considerable success and, together with other entities, have ensured that renting is at the top of the political agenda. The negative experiences endured by many of the tenants who come to the group have come in useful and have served as a basis to inform the current debate on the state of the Maltese housing market.
The day that there will no longer be a need for a group such as Malta Tenant Support will be a magnificent day because this will mean that our work is done.
So, yes, most of our work is looking at the whole picture and providing a safe space for all in trouble to discuss their issues and receive support. However, there are instances where we cannot help but get involved at a deeper level.
A few weeks ago, in the cold days of February, a tenant contacted us to tell us that her landlord had removed the front door off its hinges and also cut off their electricity supply. This was a family of 3 -the child just 2 years old - plus a dog.
Please note that when the tenant went to the police station to report her landlord for removing the door off its hinges and interrupting the electricity supply, the policeman she spoke to told her that the landlord was perfectly within his rights to do this because ‘it was his door’ and his electricity supply.
You see, we have noticed that many in Malta do not understand that when a property is let to a tenant, use of the property has been given to the tenant over the rental contractual period. Over the length of this period, the tenant has certain rights and the landlord has the responsibility to respect those rights.
Clearly it is not only landlords who do not understand the responsibilities and rights of both landlords and tenants. Please note, however, that when Dr Kurt Xerri and I visited the police station we spoke with a very professional police sergeant who was very skilful in his handling of the situation.
Even if a tenant reneges on the rent, the tenant – by law – is still legally entitled to stay in the property. If the landlord wants to evict the tenant then they have to follow the procedures stipulated by law. The landlord simply cannot take the law into his own hands.
Why is it that we can immediately see that a bank cannot take a door off its hinges if the bank’s customers miss a mortgage payment? By law, the same applies to a rental property.
The other big issue that tenants lose many sleepless nights over is the issue of Arms bills. Arms systemically overcharges tenants and, despite the best efforts of our group and many others, this still continues.
Over the last years, I have defended my landlord’s legal action against me – two years in court, final judgement was that our landlord had to share the cost of the arrears; I have petitioned the European Parliament, complained to the European Commission; I have written to the National Audit Office, complained to the Office of the Ombudsman; I have blogged on this issue, commented beneath many posts on social media and comment boards …
Still the abuse continues. Still tenants are regarded as second-class citizens. The absurd argument goes that some tenants abscond without paying the Arms bill so therefore ALL tenants have to overpay by 43% to 104% (we overpaid by 101%) simply because they are tenants.
There are so many variables involved in whether a tenant is on the correct tariff for people living in their primary residence or not. Does the landlord understand this unwieldy billing system? Usually no. Does the tenant understand the billing system? Again, usually no. If a tenant is on the incorrect tariff for people living in their primary residence, does the tenant get a refund? Exceedingly unlikely. Are most tenants on the incorrect tariff? Yes. Does the tenant have access to the Arms account? Again, exceedingly unlikely.
The bottom line is that most tenants still overpay on their utilities. The bottom line is that this is a prime cause for tenant / landlord dispute which causes distress on both sides. The bottom line is that Arms is stealing from tenants.
Two weeks ago, I acted as a go between in a situation where a tenant became aware that his landlord was trying to pass off already paid Arms bills as unpaid. This tenant endured eight months of torture as his landlord’s behaviour towards him deteriorated. All this tenant wanted to do was pay exactly what he owed, not a penny more, not a penny less . In fact the relationship deteriorated so much that the tenants had to move rental property.
A few months ago, a tenant complained that when she had returned from a family holiday abroad, the rental property was in a huge mess; in fact her first thought was that she had been burgled. It turned out that the landlord’s daughter threw a Christmas party in the property, while the tenants were away. What was even more astounding was that her landlord’s first response was anger that his daughter hadn’t tidied up.
Arms is simply not being professional in its treatment of tenants. Landlords are not being professional in their treatment of tenants. Letting agents, also. No one seems to understand their rights and responsibilities as tenant or landlord or letting agent.
There are so many other bones of contention between tenant and landlord – substandard accommodation, mould, ramshackle furniture, unjustifiable deposit retention, landlord trespass…
We desperately need to move away from the law of the jungle when we come to the Maltese rental market. Somehow we need to introduce a level of professionality. Let us hope that the upcoming white paper and new rent legislation will help us move away from the wild west into calmer waters. This situation is completely unsustainable and untenable. For everyone's sake, all of us - tenants, landlords, letting agents - should be doing our utmost to move away from the law of the jungle.