Rent reform is long overdue

Over the years, successive governments have refrained from carrying out essential far-reaching changes to rent legislation.

The emergency which justified the original restrictive legislation was instead made more restrictive over the years. Court decisions from Valletta to Strasbourg denouncing the current state of play have been piling up. The rent reforms of 1995 and 2008 cannot be discarded, however they were not followed up. They were appropriate small first steps but too much time elapsed with no adequate follow-up action. Successive governments have been reluctant to disturb a hornet’s nest hoping that somehow time will solve the matter.

It is within this context that Government’s proposal to carry out a root and branch reform of the 9,700 remaining pre-1995 tenancies is thus a responsible and courageous political move. Through it government will be shouldering the accumulated shortcomings of all its predecessors, red and blue, which have generally ignored the matter over the years. The Greens in Malta have over the years actively campaigned on this specific issue: justice for the landlords must be carried out together with adequate protection of vulnerable tenants.

At the time of writing the statements made by Prime Minister Robert Abela and Social Accommodation Minister Roderick Galdes have not been followed up with the publication of the specific legal texts which will implement the policy declarations made.

The proposals as described so far, are, in my view acceptable in principle. It is however expected that when the detailed legislative proposals are published, these are accompanied by studies carried out, including costings. An essential healthy public debate needs to be adequately buttressed by well-researched background information.

The proposal as spelled out by Abela and Galdes is based on two fundamental points. It seeks to tread the difficult path of protecting both tenants and landlords.

Tenant protection will be achieved through ensuring that vulnerable tenants will at all times have access to a home, be it their current one or, in some cases, possible alternatives provided through access to social accommodation. This is essentially a transitory provision applicable to the identified 9,700 pre-1995 tenancies and is undoubtedly a restrictive condition on landlords. It is however of central importance. It is to be counterbalanced by a mechanism which determines a more reasonable determination of rental income which will be coughed up by the state in part or in whole depending on the vulnerability of the tenant. It is also a mechanism which over the past years has generally been accepted by the Courts as constituting a fair and reasonable rental income.

Of fundamental importance in the proposal as communicated so far is the manner of determination of the payable rent. This will not be left completely to the whims of market forces as it will be capped at 2 per cent of the property’s value. This signifies that, hopefully, some lessons have been learnt from the fallout resulting from the complete liberalisation of the post-1995 rental market.   

The proposal will be addressing an accumulated social problem with a substantial financial outlay consisting of millions of euros annually.

So far, the rent payable in respect of pre-1995 tenancies have been subsidised by the landlords who, in a number of cases are themselves in need of help! It is appropriate that this support is shouldered by the whole community, through the state, who now steps forward to shoulder the problem in the spirit of national solidarity.

So far most have acknowledged that pre-1995 tenancies are a tough challenge. What matters, now, is that we face this challenge head-on. It cannot be postponed any further.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 7 March 2021

L-impatti tal-Coronavirus: inħarsu l-impiegi kollha

Il-Gvern ħabbar pakkett finanzjarju ta’ €1.8 biljun biex jilqa’ għall-impatti tal-Coronavirus.

Kif ser ikun effettwat il-ħaddiem b’kuntratt bla rabta ta’ numru ta’ siegħat li jaħdem (zero-hours contract), jew dawk f’impieg temporanju, dawk tas-sengħa li jaħdmu għal rashom, inkella n-negozjanti ż-żgħar? Il-pakkett finanzjarju imħabbar, ftit li xejn jaħseb fihom. Allura, minkejja l-merti tiegħu, il-pakkett finanzjarju tal-Gvern mhux tajjeb biżżejjed.

Il-ħaddiem iż-żgħir l-ewwel li jlaqqatha f’kull kriżi. Hu l-impatt fuqhom li għandu jservi ta’ kejl biex inkunu nistgħu niffurmaw opinjoni dwar kemm dan il-pakkett finanzjarju, kif ukoll dawk li għad jistgħu jiġu, huma effettivi.

Ilkoll nieħdu pjaċir b’inizjattivi biex jassiguraw li l-ekonomija u min iħaddimha jiġi fuq saqajh, mhux biss meta tiġi fi tmiemha din il-kriżi iżda ukoll fil-mixja li jeħtieġilna ngħaddu minnha biex nirkupraw. Imma kemm hu sew li noħorġu r-riżorsi tal-pajjiż biex tkun tista’ tirkupra ekonomija li mhiex kapaċi tirrispetta l-iktar dgħajfa fostna?

Il-proposti tal-Gvern biex jilqa’ għall-impatti tal-Coronavirus ma jorbtux lill-operaturi ekonomiċi li jagħmlu użu mill-proposti differenti fil-pakkett milli jħarsu l-impiegi. Is-sensji diġa bdew. Il-ħaddiem iż-żgħir l-ewwel li jlaqqatha. Warajh ilaqqtuha oħrajn.

Il-pakkett tal-Gvern biex jilqa’ għall-effetti tal-Coronavirus jeħtieġ miżuri addizzjonali.

L-għajnuna li ser tingħata għandha tmur lil dawk li sofrew tnaqqis sostanzjali fid-dħul tagħhom meta kkomparat mas-sena li għaddiet. Il-pakkett tal-Gvern huwa iffukat biex jiffaċilita l-likwidità kif ukoll biex jgħin ħalli jkun iggarantit self bankarju. Filwaqt li dawn huma miżuri importanti, f’din il-kriżi hu essenzjali li l-għajnuna tkun iffukata fuq il-pagi tal-ħaddiema. L-għajnuna diretta lill-operaturi ekonomiċi għandha tkun marbuta mal-obbligu tagħhom li jipproteġu l-impiegi. Jekk ma jkunx imħares ix-xogħol m’għandhiex tingħata għajnuna.

Aħna l-Ħodor f’Alternattiva Demokratika mħassba dwar il-ħaddiem iż-żgħir. Hu l-ewwel ma jlaqqatha f’din il-kriżi: huma l-ewwel vittmi tal-Coronavirus. L-għajnuna li dawn jeħtieġu hi fil-forma ta’ dħul minimu garantit tul ix-xhur li ġejjin, kemm iddum il-kriżi. Huma l-iktar vulnerabbli u ħadd mhu jitkellem dwarhom.

Il-kirjiet ta’ residenzi għandhom jiġġeddu awtomatikament sakemm tintemm il-kriżi. Għandu jkun hemm provediment għall-ħarsien minn xoljiment ta’ kuntratti ta’ kera tul il-kriżi. Hemm ħtieġa ukoll li tul il-kriżi l-Gvern jimpenja ruħu iktar biex jassigura illi l-iktar vulnerabbli jkollhom saqaf fuq rashom. Dan għandu jsir dejjem imma b’mod specjali tul il-kriżi.

Aħna l-Ħodor tal-fehma li l-impatt ta’ din il-kriżi fuq l-impiegi turi difetti strutturali fil-qasam soċjali fil-pajjiż. Malta mhux l-unika pajjiż li qed jiffaċċja din il-problema. Huwa importanti li bħal numru ta’ pajjiżi oħra, fosthom l-Isveżja, in-Norveġja, il-belt ta’ Utrecht fl-Olanda, anke f’Malta nidħlu fil-fond u neżaminaw kif jistgħu jaħdmu skemi ta’ dħul minimu garantit li jirreferu għalihom bħala Universal Basic Income u Guaranteed Minimum Income schemes. Ikun għaqli li neżaminaw sewwa dawn it-tip ta’ skemi, għax dawn jistgħu joffrulna tarka tajba meta nkunu iffaċċjati b’dawn il-kriżijiet.

Huwa l-waqt li kulħadd iżomm rasu f’lokha. Il-paroli vojt fil-Parlament tal-Ministru Silvio Schembri iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa kien barra minn postu u għamel il-ħsara, minkejja li wara skuża ruħu. Qatt mhi idea tajba li thedded bit-tkeċċija lil dawk li b’ħidmiethom taw kontribut biex il-pajjiż kiber, anke bix-xogħol tagħhom. Meta din il-kriżi tgħaddi jerġgħu jkunu huma, inkella oħrajn bħalhom, li nsibu biex jagħmlu dak ix-xogħol li għalih la hemm Maltin, inkella l-Maltin ma jridux jagħmluh għal raġunijiet diversi. Anke issa stess l-Onor Ministru jista’ jagħti titwila lejn is-servizz tas-saħħa u jara jekk hux possibli li jopera mingħajrhom, flimkien dejjem mal-kollegi Maltin. Flimkien qed jagħtu servizz impekkabbli lil pajjiż.

Ilkoll niftakru kif madwar sena ilu, l-Prim Ministru Joseph Muscat kien assoċja l-involviment tal-barranin fid-dinja tax-xogħol f’Malta mal-ġbir taż-żibel. Anke hu, dakinnhar kien għamel apoloġija. Imma sfortunatament il-preġudizzji tiegħu ħallihom warajh fil-Kabinett ta’ Robert Abela.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 22 ta’ Marzu 2020

Coronavirus fallout: the need to protect all jobs

Government has announced its financial package which it described as being a €1.8 billion stimulus package. What is in it for a zero-hours contract worker, the casual worker, the freelance tradesman, the small-scale businessman? Nothing at all. Hence notwithstanding its merits, Government’s package is not a suitable package.

Zero-hour contract workers, the casual worker, the freelance tradesmen and the small-scale businessmen are the first casualties in each and every crisis. It is in the assessment of their plight that we can arrive at a conclusion on the suitability or otherwise of this and any other Covid19 recovery package.

We all applaud initiatives to ensure that the economy and its operators can stand back on their feet not just when this crisis is over, but also along the long road to recovery. But, what purpose is there in pumping the nation’s resources to recover an economy which is not capable of respecting the most vulnerable ones amongst us?

Government’s Covid19 package proposals do not seek to bind economic operators making use of the different opportunities in the stimulus package to protect their labour force. Redundancies have already started. Casual workers and zero-hour contract workers are the first casualties. Others will soon follow.

Additional measures are called for in Government’s Covid19 package.

Assistance given to economic operators should only go to those which have suffered a drastic reduction in their income when compared to last year. Government’s package is predominantly focused on assistance in providing guarantees for bank loans as well as in facilitating and ensuring liquidity. While these are important measures, in this crisis, aid focused directed towards wages of workers is essential. Any direct assistance to economic operators should be linked to their duty of protecting jobs. No job protection should equate to no aid.

Greens are concerned about several freelance tradesman, small scale businessmen as well as casual labour and workers on zero-hours contracts. They are bearing the brunt of the very sharp decrease in work opportunities: they are the first victims of Covid19. Aid to these categories should be a guaranteed income scheme for the coming months, throughout the duration of the crisis. These are the categories which are the most vulnerable and which nobody is talking about.

The lease contracts for tenants should be automatically renewed until the crisis is overcome. There should be introduced a special protection from eviction throughout the Coronavirus crisis. There is also a need for a greater commitment by the government to offer adequate and decent housing to the most vulnerable in particular during this time of crisis.

Greens consider that the crisis’ impacts on employment is showing the structural defects the country has in the social field. Malta is not the only country to have to face this problem. It is important that like various other countries, notably Sweden, Norway, and the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, guaranteed income schemes referred to as Universal Basic Income and Guaranteed Minimum Income are discussed in depth in Malta too. It would be wise to start considering such schemes for the future as they could offer a long-term solution.

It is time for level-headedness. Minister Silvio Schembri’s outburst in Parliament earlier this week was uncalled for and damaging, even though he eventually apologised. It is never the time to threaten with expulsion those who have contributed so much to our country and economy. When the crisis is eventually over it will be those whom the Hon Minister threatened with expulsion who will once more plug the gap. Even now, the Hon Minister should take a look at the health service and consider whether it would be possible to operate without the participation of non-Maltese medics and paramedical staff who are performing miracles through their professional service hand-in-hand with their Maltese colleagues.

We do remember that around 12 months ago then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat equated non-Maltese participation in the local labour force with refuse collectors. Though he too eventually apologised, his prejudice unfortunately lingers on in those he left behind in Robert Abela’s Cabinet.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 22 March 2020

A financial surplus, yet an environmental deficit

As was expected, last Monday’s budget speech solemnly announced a budget surplus for the first time in many years. However, the environmental deficit was, as usual, hidden between the lines.

The budget is aptly titled Preparing for the Future (Inlestu għall-Futur). In dealing with environmental issues, the budget speech does not lay down clearly the path the government will be following. At times, it postpones matters – proposing studies and consultations on subjects that have been in the public domain for ages.

On the subject of vacant properties, the government prefers the carrot to the stick. In order to get dilapidated and empty properties in village centres back on the rental market, it is offering a €25,000 grant to renovate such properties, but then rightly insists that, once renovated these should be made available for social housing for a minimum of 10 years. In previous budgets, various other fiscal incentives have been offered to encourage such properties being placed back on the market.

After offering so many carrots, it would also make sense to use the stick by way of taxing vacant properties in situations where the owner is continuously ignoring the signals sent regarding the social, economic and environmental impacts of empty properties.

The budget speech announced improvements to rental subsidies. However, it then opted to postpone the regulation of the rental market. It announced a White Paper on the subject which, when published, will propose ways of regulating the market without in any way regulating the subject of rents. In view of the currently abnormal situation of sky-high rents, this is sheer madness.

It is fine to ensure that the duties and responsibilities of landlords and tenants are clearly spelt out. Does anyone argue with that in 2017? It should have been done years ago. Instead of a White Paper a Legal Notice defining clear-cut duties and responsibilities would suffice: there is no need to wait.

It is, however, too much to bear when a “social democrat” Finance Minister declares  that he will not even consider rent control. There are ways and means of ensuring that the market acts fairly. Other countries have done it and are still doing it, as rental greed has no preferred nationality. Ignoring this possibility is not a good omen. The market should not be glorified by the Finance Minister; it should be tamed rather than further encouraged to keep running wild with the resulting social havoc it has created.

This brings us to transport and roads. The Finance Minister sends a clear message when he stated (on page 44 of the budget speech) that no one should be under the illusion that upgrading the road infrastructure will, on its own, resolve the traffic (congestion) problem. Edward Scicluna hints on the following page of his speech that he is not too happy with the current situation. He laments that the more developed countries encourage active mobility through walking, cycling and the use of motorbikes, as well as various means of public transport, simultaneously discouraging the use of the private car. However, he does not then proceed to the logical conclusion of his statement: scrapping large-scale road infrastructural projects such as the proposed Marsa flyover or the proposed tunnels below the Santa Luċija roundabout announced recently by Minister Ian Borg.

These projects, like the Kappara flyover currently in its final stages, will only serve to increase the capacity of our roads. And this means only one thing: more cars on our roads. It is certified madness.

While the Government’s policy of increasing the capacity of existing roads through the construction of flyovers and tunnels will address congestion in the short term, it will lead to increased traffic on our roads. This moves the problem to the future, when it will be worse and more difficult to tackle. The government is acting like an overweight individual who ‘solves’ the problem of his expanding wasteline by changing his wardrobe instead of going on a painful but necessary diet.

This cancels out the positive impact of other policies announced in the budget speech such as free public transport to young people aged between 16 and 20, free (collective) transport to all schools, incentives for car-pooling, grants encouraging the purchase of bicycles, pedelec bicycles and scooters, reduction in the VAT charged when hiring bicycles as well as the introduction of bicycle lanes, as well as encouraging the purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles.

All this contributes to the current environmental deficit. And I have not even mentioned issues of land use planning once.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 15 October 2017

Il-proposti ghall-koalizzjoni fil-qosor (2) Politika dwar id-Djar

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Illum ser niffoka fuq il-proposti li l-Manifest ghall-Koalizzjoni jaghmel dwar il-politika tal-AD fuq id-djar.

Il-Manifest jidentifika dawn il-prijoritajiet :

1. Ir-riforma tal-Ligi tal-Kera tkun fuq nett fuq l-agenda tal-Gvern ta’ Koalizzjoni li jmiss. Hi riforma li trid issir b’mod gradwali li tirrispetta kemm lill-inkwilini kif ukoll lis-sidien u tkun gusta maghhom it-tnejn.  

2. L-AD fil-Gvern theggeg il-holqien tas-suq tal-kera. Bil-potenzjal ta’ mill-anqas 53,000 propjeta’ fuq is-suq tal-kera, il-kirjiet ikunu tali li jifilhu jhallsuhom il-Maltin, li issa jkollhom ghazla flok jissallbu b’self mill-bank ghal-40 sena.

3. Id-dhul mill-kera jkun soggett ghal rata ta’ taxxa tad-dhul imnaqqsa, 15%.

4. Jigu stabiliti standards minimi ta’ manutenzjoni tar-residenzi. 

5. Min minhabba l-mezzi tieghu ma jkunx jiflah ihallas il-kera jkun imwiezen mill-istat b’sussidji. Din l-ispiza tingabar bhala kontribuzzjoni minn fuq propjetajiet li m’humiex residenzi primarji jew sekondarji (villeggatura). Din il-kontribuzzjoni tkun ta’ 0.5% tal-valur tal-propjeta.