Dr Ellis in today’s Illum, gives an account of the history of Maltese rent legislation from his perspective. I agree with much of what he says – the tension between heavy handed, unfair rent control (which would result in landlords not letting their properties), and a total liberalization of the rental market (which would mean that many tenants live in expensive, substandard rental accomodation of insecure tenure) – has to be sensitively judged and carefully managed.
Dr Ellis mentions that rent controls of the past were meant to be a temporary measure. Surely, in this case, it is not the rent controls that are at fault here, but the fact that ‘temporary’ became politically convenient, and therefore, permanent?
I think it a great shame that rental policy in Malta has swung completely from a decidedly landlord-unfair situation to a decidedly tenant-unfair situation post 1995. I can understand how this has happened but, like Dr Ellis, I will never condone the Maltese powers-that-be not learning from past mistakes - this increasingly grave housing problem needs to be tackled responsibly and carefully.
From my perspective as a returned migrant, I would like to share the following, which I would hope adds to the current debate on renting.
For many reasons, there is a growing number of people from different walks of life entering the rental market. In 2010 my family and I needed to return to my country of birth. I speak from the perspective of having been a homeowner in London, a tenant in Scotland and also a landlady of our family house in Scotland, when this did not sell prior to our move to Malta.
First of all, I would like to say that our experience of renting in Scotland was wonderful - we were able to afford the rent on a property which we could not afford to buy. The Scottish rental market is regulated and both landlords and tenants are aware of their rights and responsibilities. We chose an ARLA registered letting agent, who were also the managing agents. As tenants, we were in charge of our own energy bill, council tax, telephony... We had our own water and electricity meters – we were in charge of our own lives. We felt that there was absolutely no stigma in being tenants – we knew that we would be tenants for only a short while, while our property in London was unsold.
Eight years later, we were forced to be landlords of our Scottish family home because the state of the housing market in 2010 was such that our house did not sell. We did not wake up one morning and put our house on the rental market. First of all we had to register with the local council our intention to be landlords. Anyone with a criminal record is not allowed to be a landlord. For a small fee which was payable once every three years, we received monthly emails about our rights and responsibilites as landlords. We were informed of courses which we could attend to keep in touch with updates in the law. We also needed to provide annual certification of electrical and gas safety. We needed to install smoke alarms on every floor of our house... basically, there was a long check list of things we needed to do in order to be allowed to let our property.
We had two tenants in our property before we managed to sell it. Somehow the system in place allowed us – I am aware that I’m speaking anecdotally here – to appreciate the fact that we had a responsibility towards our tenants. Yes, they were not perfect. Each time a tenant left, there was money and time to be spent on fixing and redecorating and cleaning... But, at the end of the day, we were able to afford the mortgage payments on our house because of the rent we received. Once the feelings of upset at the state of our previous family home had died down, and our property was brought back from the brink, then what remained was a gratitude that we were able to meet our mortgage payments. For us, the property was a way of paying our mortgage, but for our tenants, it was their home. We learned to be respectful of this distinction.
In contrast, our experience of renting in Malta was catastrophic. Ten days into our arrival, we trustingly signed a rental contract, which I never imagined in a million years would be tenant unfair. You see, when we rented in the UK, you would NEVER see an unfair rental contract – it would just not stand up in court. I was to learn in Malta that unfair but legal practices are all the rage, and that when you point this out, you are told that it was your fault for not checking with a lawyer or a notary. This does not just apply to rental contracts – I have found this attitude to apply to employment law, Arms’s billing system, the Annual Circulation Licence billing system... I find this very disturbing – law, which is meant to serve justice, being used to propagate injustice.
One of the unfair clauses in the contract stipulated that we were to pay 100 euro per month on account towards the Arms bill. Little did we know then the drastic consequences of this clause which we would suffer. I have written elsewhere of my court battle with my ex landlord who had the gall to garnishee my bank account and my salary when we refused to continue overpaying for our consumption of water and electricity. That little clause would mean that my ex landlord would be granted the garnishee orders because prima facie I was his ‘debtor’. Even though we were disputing a clearly unfair bill which was not even in my name. The court ruled that my ex landlord had to pay half of the arrears because it was argued that just as ignorance is no excuse for the tenant, it is no excuse for the landlord either.
This was a welcome judgement by the magistrate. However, this exposed to me the utter institutionalized indifference to the tenant residing in Malta. I was shocked, and I still am in shock, at what we had to endure.
Our experience with Arms/landlord/letting agent/Maltese administration/Maltese checks and balances, like the Office of the Ombudsman and the National Audit Office... was extremely frustrating and upsetting. It has dominated my life and that of my family’s over the last few years.
However, the Arms/tenant debacle is by no means the only bad we experienced as tenants. My experience of renting in Malta motivated me to start a tenant support facebook group and also to develop a website with important information for tenants. Tenants come to the group with hair raising stories of abusive, contract-breaking landlords and an administration which couldn’t care less. Substandard accommodation with ancient plumbing and electrics (in one property we rented, we couldn’t have an electric kettle in the kitchen because the circuit breaker would trip each time the kettle was on), ramshackle furniture, the insistence of most landlords at having the rent paid in cash, the overcharging of tenants on their utilities, the entering of properties without tenant prior notice or knowledge, the unjustified retention of deposits as landlords are upset that their ‘tale quale’ rental properties have not been upgraded by their tenants, tenants living in a block of flats with one meter ...
I see these stories on a daily basis. So, you will forgive me, I hope, when I advocate strongly for the rights of tenants. A rental property is an investment for the landlord. But, and please this is important, a rental property is a HOME for the tenant and the tenant’s family.
Now to the issue of rent control.
To add to the misery of tenants living in substandard accommodation, owned by unregulated and unprofessional landlords, we now have a situation where rents are rising at an alarming rate. In 2010, our rental property cost us 550 euro per month. We arrived in Malta on Friday, 24th September, 2010. On Monday, 27th September, I started my teaching job. I was to earn 1 000 euro net per month (this has resulted in another dispute with the Maltese administration because my 15 years’ UK teaching experience is not recognized.) My husband was out of work for a year and was looking after our 2 year old. In the UK I earned about 40 000 pounds sterling at the top of the teacher salary scale. I was shocked to discover that teachers are not able to be the sole breadwinners in Malta. Many of my colleagues have second jobs to make ends meet.
We are a professional working family. So therefore I would like to dispel the myth that it is only people living on one minimum wage in social housing, who are poor. In 2010, we fell under the definition of poor – our income was 1 000 euro per month, 550 euro per month was paid on rent and we were effectively paying 150 euro per month on the extortionate, summer residence tariff, misleadingly named the domestic tariff. Goodness knows how professional people like us are able to afford the rent payments today – rents have gone through the roof.
It is such an irony that the rental market is called a ‘free’ market. Tenants are a captive market – they HAVE to have a roof over their heads and those of their families.
Governments all over the world tinker with this so called ‘free’ market. They do this responsibly and carefully. The Maltese administration needs to do the same. A quick google search of renting in different countries (a recent one I looked at was Belgium) will show any casual researcher how different governments are managing this important tension between ‘free’ markets and tenants’ access to reasonably priced rental accommodation of secure tenure.
I sincerely hope that the Maltese authorities are looking at this from a long term perspective. I hope that they will forego short term political expediency. This would be hugely irresponsible.
Dr Ellis's article in today's Illum: