Cleaning up the mess


published Tuesday July 8, 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo


Over the years governments could not be bothered with rent reform. The resulting mess is such that the purposes of rent reform at this stage is primarily one of restoring sanity in the use of built-up resources. The White Paper aims at removing the accumulated injustices faced by generations of landlords, without creating new ones, and paves the way to reduce the perceived need to embark on more so-called development.

As aptly pointed out by the White Paper, the decision whether to buy or to rent is an economic choice depending on whether the annual rental value of a property is more attractive than the cost of purchasing property. This is an issue for the market to resolve over a period of time. To date the state has repeatedly intervened, strangling the rental market, encouraging home ownership and thereby putting on high gear the rape of our countryside and village cores. Rent reform is thus not just concerned with the rights of landlords and tenants but with housing policy, sustainable development and social and environmental justice.

A useful point of departure in this discussion is that throughout the years, primarily as a result of the maze of rental legislation, it has been next to impossible to distinguish between the right to accommodation and the right to own a home.

The concept of home ownership as successfully marketed by different governments and skilfully manipulated by the construction industry is considered a right.

The result is that our families are burdened with mortgages spanning a lifetime for properties which rather than providing them with a home are providing them with an investment which most can ill-afford but yet are forced to have.

The net beneficiary is the building industry, which as a result of this artificial demand keeps on churning out residential units at increasing prices and reducing sizes, at the end pleasing no one but themselves and the banks!

The state through the Housing Authority (and its predecessors) is the major culprit in this respect. Throughout the years political parties viewed the concept of home ownership as the means through which to make good the vacuum created by rent legislation, which was patched up in time of emergencies and has thereafter been retained as a permanent relic of these emergencies.

The White Paper entitled The Need For Reform. Sustainability, Justice And Protection, seeks to reverse all this. It attempts a solution through 33 recommendations most of which are valid and should be supported.

They are, however, underpinned by three issues which merit some discussion.

Firstly, there are too many perceived exemptions.

The separate consideration of agricultural leases may be valid. But this has to be considered within the context of a detailed examination of the agricultural sector, including measures required to halt the further sub-division of agricultural holdings. The party in government had tackled this issue in an electoral manifesto presented for the 1981 general elections. It needs to be revisited urgently and simultaneously with an examination of agricultural leases.

The White Paper is also not applicable to political parties, band clubs, sports clubs and other organisations of a social nature. Social Policy Minister John Dalli has clarified that this area of the rental market will be liberalised too, although they are not covered by the White Paper recommendations.

As long as the issue of rent reform applicable to agricultural property, political parties and other organisations is also tackled in the same spirit found in the White Paper there should not be any difficulty with its acceptability.

The second issue is an anachronism in that the White Paper selects the traditional family as worthy of social protection and dumps emerging relationships. This ostrich-like social policy ignores cohabiting couples and same sex couples. I have no difficulty in subscribing to a policy of reinforcing and defending the traditional family but I find it reprehensible that those who select an alternative lifestyle are dumped as not being worthy of the same civil rights as the rest of us.

Thirdly, the White Paper creates transitional protective periods which are too long. The 20-year transition period for commercial leases, in particular, could easily be halved. This would reduce the urge of those who could be tempted to lobby for a reversal of the proposed reforms.

Barring the above, the White Paper is positive and presents a reasonable proposal on the basis of which a reform of rent legislation can be carried out. If the government takes serious note of all the alternative proposals that will be announced in the coming weeks, the White Paper recommendations may be substantially improved.