Taming the residential rental market

The proposals in the White Paper entitled Renting as a Housing Alternative is a breath of fresh air in the long overdue debate on the need to regulate the rental market for residential property.

As rightly pointed out in the White Paper, the Maltese community has developed an allergy to local rent regulation as, when it existed, it was generally too rigid. It oscillated from strict over-protection of the tenant to absolutely no controls.

For a very long time, we also ended up with temporary legislative provisions enacted during the war which were over-stretched too long after their useful life. In effect, this reluctance over the years to introduce proper landlord and tenant legislation effectively killed off the rental market for a long time and it is only as a result of this fact that Malta is a nation of home-owners: it would not have developed in this way, had the post-war governments got their priorities right.

The proposals put forward by the White Paper are generally a good step forward. If properly implemented, they will go a long way towards laying the foundations for a stable residential rental market based on adequate (and necessary) protection of both landlords and tenants. A serious debate is, however essential in order to avoid creating unnecessary difficulties.

The rental market is currently in a state of anarchy, where the only applicable rules that apply are those of the jungle – where might is right – because, so far, the state has abdicated its duties to protect the vulnerable from the excesses of the market. Subject to the three exceptions listed in the White Paper (temporary foreign workers, tertiary education students and temporary leases for persons repairing and/or upgrading their own homes) establishing the period of one year as the minimum length of a residential lease addresses the abuse currently resulting from short-term leases. Likewise, establishing as a duty of landlords to give a suitable notice period of their intention not to renew a lease is right and proper. It is in everybody’s interest that everyone is aware of their rights and duties, as this will lead to better planning on all sides and, consequently, to a more stable and civil relationship between landlords and tenants.

It was also about time that the deposit requested on the signing of lease agreements are properly regulated – both as to the actual need for a deposit, its quantum and the circumstances in which it would be reasonable for it not to be refunded. This is a subject about which countless stories of actual abuse on the part of both landlords and tenants abound and regulation of it will bring some sense into the subject.

It is also right that variations to the rent to be paid during the period of the lease are properly regulated,  thereby defining the limits of permissibility. Too strict a limitation, however, will lead to a preponderance of short-term lease agreements because the market prefers frequent rental revisions that enable the rent payable to be as close as possible to the full market value.

Registering lease agreements is a step forward. It will not only lead to a check to  ensure that agreements comply with the new legislation but will also have the potential to ensure that tax evasion associated with rent paid is history.

When considering the White Paper’s proposals, one should avoid introducing unnecessary exceptions as these will only serve to stultify the objective of the exercise: the development of a stable rental market for residential properties. In particular, the proposal in the White Paper to justify the premature determination of a lease agreement, when a landlord needs the property for his own use or in order to sell with vacant possession or else to redevelop it, is uncalled for. Given that the residential leases in question will most probably be short-term leases anyway (between one and five years) no harm will be done to anyone if the landlord patiently awaits until the end of the lease before taking back possession.

The current proposals, with the one exception referred to above, are an essential next step to help the residential rental market develop properly. On their own, however, they are insufficient because they must be supported by a Housing Authority that proactively addresses the needs of the vulnerable when facing the market, which is eager to fleece those who meekly submit themselves as they see no way of becoming homeowners!

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 22 October 2018

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Ghost towns in the Maltese Islands

The last Census, carried out in 2011 – with results published in late 2014 – revealed that in the Maltese islands only 68.2 per cent of residential property is regularly occupied. The rest is either vacant (18.4 per cent) or else used seasonally or for some secondary use (13.3 per cent).

If we focus on the regional data, the situation is much clearer. The rate of occupied residential property varies – from 79.5 per cent in the Western Region (between Dingli, Siġġiewi and Balzan) to 46.4 per cent in the Gozo and Comino Region. Table 1 gives the full data. Property that is completely vacant varies from a rate of 16 per cent in the Northern Region (between Naxxar and Mellieħa) to 23.9 per cent in Gozo and Comino as shown it Table 2. Finally, property which is used seasonally or for some secondary use varies from an insignificant three per cent in the Southern Harbour Region (Valletta to Xgħajra, up to Paola and Luqa] to a staggering 29.7 per cent in Gozo, with the Northern Region (between Naxxar and Mellieħa) with a 25.9 per cent rate being a close second as shown in Table 3. This data has been extracted from the 2011 Census Final Report pages 221 and 222.

This amounts to more ten times the size of residential Birkirkara, meaning that the vacant or underutilised properties in Malta and Gozo at this time are equivalent to 10 ghost towns – each of which is equivalent to Birkirkara, the largest locality in the Maltese Islands. This represents a substantial waste of public funds. As a minimum it means that funds spent on the development of the infrastructure (roads, electricity, water, drainage and telecommunications) for these 10 ghost towns went down the drain and could have been mostly avoided.

While all this built-up residential property is vacant or under-utilised, the building industry keeps building more – thereby adding to the glut. They call this progress and a significant contribution to the economy. Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green Party and the environment lobby in Malta has been vociferous about this over-development of the Maltese Islands. This state of affairs has been worsening, with neither the Labour Party nor the Nationalist Party giving a fig about the consequences.

Instead of addressing the issue, the PN government increased the size of the development zone through the addition of the so-called “rationalisation” exercise. On the other hand, the Labour Party has, during the past four years, encouraged more development.

Last March I had the opportunity to represent a number of Mosta residents in opposing the scheming of a large tract of land at Tad-Durumblat, Mosta. This concerned 38,600 square metres of land which formed part of the rationalisation exercise piloted in 2006 by a PN-led government. Mosta has a sizable vacant and under-utilised residential area consisting of 19.4 per cent of the housing stock as in November 2011. The Executive Council of the Planning Authority accepted my arguments and rejected the relative planning control application, thereby saving – at least temporarily – this large tract of land from the greedy forces of development.

Faced with this situation, AD considers that the number of vacant properties in any locality should be an important criterion in determining whether development applications for larger areas are approved or not. This should also apply to the large tracts of land forming part of the rationalisation exercise, in respect of which the determination of the applicable scheme should not be decided if the number of vacant properties is substantial.

It is about time that this situation is addressed and for this purpose, AD’s election manifesto is making this specific proposal: in those localities where the number of vacant properties is substantial, large-scale residential projects will not be permitted.

This would be a good first step in addressing Malta’s ghost towns, ensuring that their enlargement is restrained and thereby applying a significant brake to over-development in the Maltese Islands.

 published in The Malta Independent on Sunday, 14 May 2017

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 29,107 75.9
Northern Harbour 46,181 72.9
South Eastern 22,279 71.6
Western 19,584 79.5
Northern 23,989 58.1
Gozo and Comino 11,630 46.4

Table 1: Occupied property by Region 

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 1,113   3
Northern Harbour 6,650 10.5
South Eastern 3,294 10.6
Western 6,33  2.6
Northern 10,692 25.9
Gozo and Comino 7,444 29.7

Table 2: Property used seasonally or for secondary use by Region

 

Region No. per cent
Southern Harbour 8,126 21.2
Northern Harbour 10,556 16.7
South Eastern 5,552 17.8
Western 4,420 17.9
Northern 6,582 16.0
Gozo and Comino 5,996 23.9

 Table 3: Vacant Property by Region

The rental markets

The liberalisation of the rental market over the years has not served its objective. Those who own property are still reluctant to rent out to Maltese tenants and the rental market is, albeit slowly, developing in such a manner as to mostly serve non-Maltese residents and ignore the locals.

I have no quarrel with non-Maltese residents renting residential property in whatever form or shape. The problem is, however, that as a result the high rents demanded have squeezed out of the market the small numbers of Maltese residents who, not having the means to purchase, must perforce rent out.

The rental market was dormant for over 60 years and was resurrected primarily as a result of the 2008 overhaul of rent legislation. It was a process that started with earlier amendments to the law in 1995. Unfortunately, there was no real preparation for the impact of its resurrection in the residential sector.  The end result was that the residential rental market is functioning in a warped manner, catering for the high (foreign) earners and ignoring those at the lower end of the scale: the low wage earner who lives from hand to mouth.

Malta and Gozo are being incessantly raped to produce more residential units, primarily for renting out to non-Maltese employees in the financial services and betting sectors that are mushrooming to benefit from favourable taxation rates. Yet the properties that can be rented out to the locals are being left vacant, as can be ascertained by an examination of the information published as a result of the last census.

Subsidies dished out by the Housing Authority may be of some help in reducing the resulting social pain. However, what is required is a radical overhaul that would place all vacant properties on the market. Ideally, this should be done through fiscal incentives that would encourage owners to shoulder their social obligations. A number of incentives have been or will be rolled out to encourage the rehabilitation of dilapidated property. The carrot will certainly function in a number of instances and a number of vacant properties will, as a result, return to the marketplace.

However, after the carrot has carried out its duty, it should be the turn of the stick. Properties vacant for a long time, say for more than 5 years (or some other reasonable length of time), should be taxed until they are put back to use. In such a small country we cannot afford to waste any of our scarce resources. Ensuring that this waste is avoided is everybody’s business.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 22 January 2017

Malta’s Nine Ghost Towns

The 2005 Census had revealed that 53,136 residential units in Malta were vacant. This was an increase of 17,413 units over the 35,723 vacant residential units identified during the 1995 Census. Faced with an increase of over 48 per cent in 10 years, a responsible government would have contained the development boundaries as existing supply can satisfy the demand for residential accommodation for many years to come.

In 2006, just nine months after the 2005 Census, the Nationalist Party-led Government defied common sense and, instead of applying the brakes, it further increased the possibilities for building development through three specific decisions. Through the rationalisation process, the PN-led Government extended the boundaries of development in all localities. Then it facilitated the construction of penthouses by relaxing the applicable conditions. If this were not enough, it increased the height limitations in various localities, intensifying development in existing built-up areas.

As a result of increasing the permissible heights, sunlight was blocked off low-lying residential buildings in the affected areas.

These residences were using sunlight to heat water through solar water heaters or to generate electricity through photovoltaic panels installed on their rooftops.

They can now discard their investments in alternative energy thanks to the PN-led Government’s land use policies!

The result of these myopic land use planning policies further increased the number of vacant properties, which is estimated as being in excess of 70,000 vacant residential units. (Mepa chairman Austin Walker, in an interview in June 2010, had referred to an estimated 76,000 vacant residential properties.)

The estimated total of vacant residential properties is equivalent to nine times the size of the residential area of Birkirkara, the largest locality in Malta, which, in 2005, had 7,613 residential units.

These ghost towns over the years have gobbled up resources to develop or upgrade an infrastructure that is underutilised. Spread all over the Maltese islands, these ghost towns have required new roads, extending the drainage system, extending the utility networks and street lighting as well as various other services provided by local councils.

The funds channelled to service ghost towns could have been better utilised to upgrade the infrastructure in the existing localities over the years.

The above justifies calls for an urgent revision of development boundaries through a reversal of the 2006 rationalisation exercise where land included for development in 2006 is still uncommitted.

Similarly, the relaxation of height limitations and the facilitated possibility to construct penthouses should be reversed forthwith.

All this is clearly in conflict with the efforts being made by the Government itself, assisted with EU funds, to increase the uptake of solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels.

I am aware of specific cases where decisions to install photovoltaic panels have had to be reversed as a result of the development permitted on adjacent property subsequent to the 2006 height relaxation decisions.

In its electoral manifesto for the forthcoming election, AD, the Green party, will be proposing a moratorium on large-scale development in addition to the reversal of the above policies as it is unacceptable that the construction industry keeps gobbling up land and, as a result, adding to the stock of vacant property.

The market has been unable to deal with the situation and, consequently, the matter has to be dealt by a government that is capable of taking tough decisions in the national interest.

Neither the PN nor the Labour Party are capable of taking such decisions as it has been proven time and again that both of them are hostages to the construction industry.

The slowdown of the activities of the construction industry is the appropriate time to consider the parameters of its required restructuring. It is clear that the construction industry has to be aided by the State to retrain its employees in those areas of operation where lack of skills exist.

There are three such areas: traditional building trades, road construction and maintenance as well as marine engineering.

Traditional building skills are required primarily to facilitate rehabilitation works of our village cores and to properly maintain our historical heritage. Our roads require more properly-trained personnel so that standards of road construction and maintenance are improved and works carried out in time. Our ports and coastal defences require a well-planned maintenance programme and various other adaptation works as a result of the anticipated sea-level variations caused by climate change.

The construction industry employs about 11,000 persons. It is imperative that its restructuring is taken in hand immediately.

In addition to halting more environmental damage, a long overdue restructuring will also serve to mitigate the social impacts of the slowdown on the families of its employees through retraining for alternative jobs both in the construction industry itself and elsewhere.

The so-called ‘social policy’ of the PN and the PL have neglected these families for years on end.

 

published in The Times on 29 September 2012

Ħarsien għal min jixtri daru

minn Carmel Cacopardo

ippubblikat nhar l-Erbgħa 21 t’April 2010

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Għadu kmieni biex jiġi eżaminat l-effett tar-ri­for­­ma tal-liġijiet tal-kera. Iridu jgħaddu ftit tas-snin oħrajn biex dan ikun jista’ jsir. Li qed iseħħ bħalissa huwa l-aġġustament tal-kirjiet eżistenti. Kemm dawk residenzjali kif ukoll dawk kummerċjali. Aġ­ġus­tament li ilu jistenna aktar minn 60 sena biex isir!

Sadanittant in-nies tibqa’ tixtri l-proprjetà u kontinwament teżamina l-opportunitajiet li s-suq jipprovdi. Is-suq tal-kera jeħtieġ ftit tas-snin biex jiżvilup­pa mill-ġdid. Imbagħad ikun ap­prezzat li hemm ċirkostanzi fejn jaqbel li tikri flok tixtri pro­p­­rjetà.

In-nies li tixtri sfortunatament mhux dejjem hi konxja tad-drittijiet tagħha. Min ibigħ dan jafu sewwa u mhux darba jew tnejn li jkun hemm min japprofitta ruħu minn din is-sitwaz­zjoni. Huwa fl-opinjoni tiegħi meħtieġ li min ibigħ ikun obbligat li jipprovdi informazzjoni sħiħa u korretta dwar dak li qed jinbiegħ. Dan jgħodd kemm meta l-bejgħ isir direttament mis-sid kif ukoll meta jsir permezz ta’ aġent.

F’diversi pajjiżi oħrajn hekk isir. B’mod partikolari l-aġenti tal-proprjetà (‘estate agents’) għand­hom rwol importanti f’dan is-sens. Min jagħmel użu mis-servizz ta’ dawn l-aġenti ġus­tament jassumi li dawn jassi­guraw il-kwalità. Jiġifieri meta biex tixtri l-proprjetà tagħmel użu minn servizz ta’ aġent tal-proprjetà inti tassumi li dan l-aġent ikun diġà eżamina sewwa dik il-proprjetà. Tassumi wkoll li l-aġent ikun jista’ jiggwidak lejn dik il-proprjetà l-aktar addattata għall-ħtiġijiet tie­għek. Fl-ebda ħin ma jgħaddi­lek minn moħħok li meta aġent jaċċetta fuq il-kotba tiegħu xi proprjetà biex joffriha għall-bejgħ, din tkun difettuża, għax fost affarijiet oħrajn ma tkunx mibnija skont il-permessi. Meta tmur għand l-aġent tmur għax tafdah u allura tistenna li jagħtik l-informazzjoni kollha li tkun meħtieġa. Ma tistenniex li aġent ma jinformakx għax ma jafx, jew, agħar li jaħbilek informazzjoni biex ikun jista’ jdaħħal il-kummissjoni dovuta lilu mill-bej­jiegħ hekk kif jiġi negoz­jat il-bejgħ.

Sfortunatament l-affarijiet mhu­­­miex dejjem hekk. Għal­kemm in-numru ta’ każijiet mhu­­­wiex wieħed kbir, dan qie­għed dejjem jiżdied. Xi aġenti qegħdin joffru proprjetà li dwar­ha jew ma jagħmlux il-verifiki inkella jagħlqu għajnejhom għal dak li jaraw. Ma jiħdux pjaċir meta xerrejja potenzjali jirrealizzaw li kienu se jingidmu u wara li jieħdu parir ifittxu li jħassru kull impenn li jixtru jew konvenju li jkunu għamlu (meta dan ikun possibbli).

Dawk li jfittxu parir għax ma joqogħdux fuq dak li jgħidilhom l-aġent jagħmlu dan biex jassiguraw ruħhom li ma jin­gid­­mux. Sfortunatament iżda, hemm ftit, dawk li jafdaw wisq, li xorta jingidmu. Il-flus li jkunu laħqu ħallsu b’sagrifiċċju mhux dejjem ikun faċli biex jiġbruhom lura.

Mhux darba jew tnejn li ltqajt ma’ każijiet li l-proprjetà offruta għall-bejgħ minn aġenti tal-proprjetà tkun difettuża fis-sens li tkun mibnija b’mod li ma tkunx koperta b’permess tal-bini. Bosta drabi, għal min jif­hem, ma jkunx diffiċli li tiden­tifika dan il-fatt. Mhux il-każ li nsemmi hawnhekk każijiet spe­ċi­fiċi, iżda naf b’numru. Xi dra­bi l-problemi jitfaċċaw wara l-iffirmar tal-konvenju u xi drabi wara l-kuntratt ukoll.

Dawk li jixtru l-proprjetà jagħm­lu sagrifiċċji kbar biex ikunu f’pożizzjoni li jħallsu għall-akkwist li jagħmlu. Jagħm­lu użu minn dak li jkunu faddlu kif ukoll jissellfu mill-banek. Għand­hom dritt għal servizz ħafna aħjar milli qed jingħataw uħud. Min joffri jew jiffa­ċilita dan it-tip ta’ bejgħ qed jonqos u jagħti isem ħażin lil kul­ħadd.

L-ebda wieħed mill-aġenti tal-proprjetà ma jixtieq jieħu l-inizjattiva biex ma jaċċettax fuq il-kotba tiegħu proprjetà difettu­ża. Jippreferu li jaħslu jdejhom billi jgħidu li mhix res­ponsab­biltà tagħhom li jieħdu dawn it-tip ta’ deċiżjonijiet.

Ikun f’loku li l-aġenti tal-pro­prjetà jieħdu l-inizjattiva huma u jistabbilixxu bejniethom rego­li li japplikaw għall-aġenti kollha li bihom jipproteġu l-ewwel nett lill-konsumatur u b’mod indirett lilhom infushom ukoll. Jekk dan idum ma jsir naħseb li wasal iż-żmien li l-Parlament jikkonsidra li jirregola hu din il-ħidma. Għax il-konsumatur jeħ­tieġ li jkun protett minn sidien u aġenti bla skrupli.