I suppose it all comes down to the history of renting in Malta. Somehow, as home ownership increased over the years, tenants were increasingly looked down upon. Home ownership was the holy grail, and woe betide anyone who didn’t pursue this with verve and energy. To this day, you will be looked at with pity and incredulity when you say that you rent – “But it’s such a waste of money; wouldn’t it be better to pay off a home loan instead of paying rent?”
This love affair with home ownership is very likely due to the British influence. Unlike many European countries, Britain is a country of homeowners. We seem to have followed in its footsteps.
However, according to the Resolution Foundation, home ownership across England has decreased from 71% of all households in April 2003, owning their own home, either outright or with a mortgage, to 64%, in February 2016.
Housing policy in Britain is failing and the current generation has been named Generation Rent. Many people in Britain turn to renting as their ability to afford the deposit on a property, let alone the monthly repayments, has fallen. This is due to a mismatch between incomes and property prices. Poverty and homelessness in Britain are increasing at worrying rates.
My feeling is that Malta is following suit. And in a more alarming fashion. Even in Britain, land of the free market, you will find some regulation and rent calming measures. Here there is nothing. Landlords are free to ask for whatever rent they want and to have whatever tenant-unfair clause they want in the rental contract. In Britain you have the Landlord and Tenant Act which would make any tenant-unfair clause invalid.
Britain was famously called a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ by Napoleon. I would say that Malta has become a nation of landlords. You can see the attraction: you earn as much from letting your property as you do from working a job; there are no pesky regulations that you have to obey; you have nobody on your back and you can extort as much money, tax free if you will, as you want from your captive market – the tenant.
The result of which is that property prices are increasing dramatically, as more and more property is bought by buy to let landlords. Who then expect to get a return on their investment. It’s a gold rush, but the gold in this case is precious Maltese property, which anyone will know is more finite than in most countries. Every badly construed and badly constructed block of flats replacing beautifully crafted, modest Maltese houses is a damning indictment of the failure of successive Maltese administrations to manage housing policy sensitively, and with an eye on a long term vision for our country.
The effect of these increasing property prices is that more and more people are having to rent. The danger is, that instead of renting being a temporary measure, unless something fundamentally changes TODAY, tenants will be tenants for a long time. The choice is stark – salaries have to dramatically increase or rents have to dramatically come down. Or, more realistically, we need to urgently look at the current disastrous situation and come up with a coherent, comprehensive renting policy to cover all three rental regimes.
All this inattention to the plight of tenants in the private rental sector from 1995 can be traced to an institutionalized indifference and contempt for tenants in general. As I’ve said before tenants, mostly foreign non voters, are regarded as cash cows. The poorest of the poor Maltese citizens living on the minimum wage in private rental accommodation (because there is no social housing available to them) are deemed a worthy sacrificial lamb on the altar of our so called ‘successful’ economy. Short termism is the name of the game. Politicians no longer work for the common good; instead they work at being re-elected or elected. The long term vision for Malta is non existent. Was there ever one, I wonder? And if there was, who was/is it for?
I’ll end with an illustration of how tenants are regarded with contempt even by those in high office and state owned entities.
In the Summer of 2014, I was invited to the Office of the Ombudsman to discuss my complaint on the tenant / Arms discrimination. I met with no less than Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino. I was elated that I was going to be able to consult a legal specialist of such high office. This soon turned to yet another disillusionment and I left the Office of the Ombudsman feeling shocked and bereft.
Apparently, ALL tenants have to pay more for their consumption of water and electricity than their landlords do because a few may abscond without paying the bill. Now I am not trained in the interpretation of law. But to me this sounded, and sounds, suspect.
For that matter, the recent initiative of the introduction by Arms of Form F2, Temporary Recognition of Tenant in Rented Premises, is another example of this notable contempt for tenants. If there were no €466 deposit or no €50 application fee – then this form would be welcome news, indeed.
But all this has done is extend the tenant/ homeowner apartheid. There are now 3 possible scenarios:
1. A compliant and cooperative landlord signs Section A of Arms Form H and therefore allows the tenant to access the correct tariff for people living in their primary residence without paying the hefty deposit of €466 or the application fee of €50. Please note that this will still depend on the signature, and hence the permission, of the landlord.
2. A non compliant and non cooperative landlord does not endorse Arms Form H for the tenant. Therefore the tenant applies for a temporary account in their name, via the new form F2, and pays the €466 deposit and the €50 application fee. How will the (tax evading) landlord react to the tenant doing this?
3. The tenant can barely afford the rent, let alone the deposit for the rental property when the contract inevitably comes to an end, and when the tenant has to therefore downsize yet again to an even more substandard, even more expensive rental property. There is no way that this tenant can also afford to pay the €466 Arms deposit or the €50 application fee. This tenant may not even have a bank account. So this tenant will pay 43% to 105% more than their landlord for their consumption of water and electricity.
The state doesn’t get it. Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Said Pullicino doesn’t get it. We are all equal under the law. What the homeowner is able to enjoy, so must the tenant. Access to the more favourable residential tariff for people living in their primary residence. Simple as.
You know, I am so glad that of all the institutions that I have approached to resolve this situation, the EU has kept my petition to the European Parliament open. If it weren’t for the EU, Arms would continue with this brazen injustice for ever. There are no Maltese institutions holding it to account.
I am insisting that, until all vestiges of discrimination against the tenant are removed, my petition remains open. An infringement is imminent. There is no point of the state coming up with half baked, absurd solutions to this. The Arms billing system, as it stands, is untenable.
Either make sure that everybody, tenant or landlord, living in their primary residence is on the correct tariff. Or scrap the two tier tariff.
Either way this obscene stream of income to the state coffers, this theft from the poor and this gift to the tax evading landlord must stop.
Be on notice, government of Malta, that tenants will no longer tolerate being treated as second class citizens.