I always smile when I see those hand-made signs outside band clubs in Maltese villages, which read “Tourist are welcome”. I have to struggle to stop myself from going into grammar Nazi mode, whipping out a biro and adding an “s” lest some German family takes it literally and thinks only one of them will be allowed in.
It is these quaint touches of reaching out to visitors which still make me fondly affectionate towards my home country. There they sit, the red-faced-because-they forgot-their-sun-block tourists, unprepared for our sweltering summers, with their white socks and Birkenstocks, enjoying a pint in the shade while a rotund, jovial barman chats with them and makes them feel welcome.
Sometimes these tourists fall so utterly in love with our charming island (as so many do) that they suddenly decide in a semi-stupor of sun and booze that they have had enough of the grey, miserable weather back home because friendly, laid-back Malta seems such a great place in which they can check out from the rat race, even if only for a few years. They might even chuck it all in, sell everything and retire here.
But fast forward to the reality of ex-pats living here on a permanent basis and it’s like the whole country has gone into Jekyll and Hyde mode. Nowhere is this split personality more apparent than when it comes to renting property on a long-term basis. Suddenly little ‘ole friendly Malta doesn’t seem quite so friendly any more.
I have been following the ARMS saga vis-à-vis non-Maltese EU nationals who are renting property for quite a while now. Every time a hurdle seems to have been overcome, another one rears its ugly head and it has literally got to the point where the hapless tenants are facing off against what seems like the combined forces of landlords, estate agents and ARMS bureaucracy in a snarling us-and-them situation.
Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi has been backing the tenants all the way and there was a small victory last year when it was finally agreed that tenants could qualify for the residential rate on production of an ‘A’ ID card, passport or a new e-resident card. But as this account of this week’s meeting attended by Up in Arms representative Patricia Graham reveals, there is still a long way to go.
This is where the landlords come in – if a landlord refuses to sign Form H (change in the number of consumers) then the rate will continue to be the exorbitant domestic one reserved for second homes. I have heard accounts of landlords who have turned violent, threatening their tenants who refuse to pay the more expensive rate. There are people who have had a garnishee order placed on their bank accounts for refusing to pay the domestic rate, and have been dragged to court as a result. All of this, by the way, is completely illegal as far as EU legislation and freedom of movement goes – you simply CANNOT treat non-Maltese EU nationals differently with this two-tier utilities rate.
A long-term tenant should be paying a residential rate because it is his/her primary residence and it is appalling that ex-pats even have to fight for what is, frankly, their right not to be discriminated against.
To circumvent uncooperative landlords, Minister Mizzi believes that ARMS should accept a lease as proof of residency for tenants to qualify for the residential rate, but ARMS is digging their heels in, leading some to rightly question: who exactly is in charge?
Meanwhile new ex-pats arrive in Malta every week, setting up home here and eagerly looking forward to their new lives in the Mediterranean sun, but completely unaware that they are probably being charged a more expensive rate for utilities. As for some (not all) real estate agents, they should really be ashamed of themselves for being silently complicit in all this, washing their hands of the whole thing and pretending not to know what is going on.
Put bluntly, a rental property on a long term lease should automatically be on a residential rate and it should not be the tenants who have to get into disputes with landlords in what is obviously a tax-evading racket.
Anything else is downright fleecing of unsuspecting foreigners and very, very far removed from the friendly hospitality we try to project when we embark on our high profile tourism marketing campaigns.
Because frankly, what is the use of promoting Malta when this ARMS vs ex-pats battle is giving the entire country a truly horrible reputation as a nation of scoundrels and con artists who only welcome visitors as long as they can rip them off?