Friday 19 October 2018

Rent

It is not in Maltese culture to live in rented accommodation on a long-term basis.

We will rent a farmhouse in Gozo for a weekend or maybe even a holiday flat for the summer, but to actually rent, rather than buy, one’s own home is unthinkable.

Contrary to other countries, young adults have absolutely no hang ups when it comes to still living at home with their parents and there is no stigma attached to it either. Whereas, for example, in the US, a man in his 30s who still lives with his parents usually sets of clanging alarm bells of caution for women (“Mama’s boy alert! Run!”) here, it is actually considered a good thing.

In fact, it is those single men and their ‘swinging bachelor pads’ who are looked upon askance. As for single women who want to live on their own, many a maternal eyebrow has been raised on that score, as vivid imaginations conjure up all sorts of scenarios about what she must be up to.  Most Maltese parents are still uncomfortable with the idea of their adult children moving out unless it is after they have done the right thing and got married first. Mothers, especially, beat themselves up, wondering what they have done to “deserve this” and asking their children why they should want to move out, “after all, you have everything you need right here” (“ma jonqsok xejn!”). I think probably only Jewish mothers are capable of inflicting the same kind of guilt trip on their children as a Maltese mother.

Meanwhile, the minute a young couple’s relationship turns serious, they embark on what seems (to me) a lifetime known as “saving up”, to buy their first home. Every penny, every cent, every Euro is channelled into this house fund, which explains why there are such long engagements. The decision to buy a property together (known endearingly as “il-post”, the place)  is taken as a sina qua non and sometimes comes even before the actual decision to get married.  Starting married life out by renting is unheard of because, the reasoning goes, why spend all that money on renting a property which will never be yours when you can be paying a mortgage instead? That does make sense, of course, although with marriages breaking down so quickly these days, I would think that a lot of financial headaches could be avoided if couples rented for the first few years to avoid all the stress of disentangling themselves from each other over a joint property should things not work out.

But, anyway.

There it is, in a nutshell. Those are the main reasons why the majority of Maltese people do not really look for rental properties on a long-term basis and why they have no clue what it really means to be a tenant.

On the other side of the coin we have the landlords, who for a very long time, were wary of renting to Maltese people because of antiquated rent laws which effectively meant that once a family moves in and proves they have no alternative accommodation, they could stay there forever (at the same rental rate) and you could never move them out.  Rents on certain properties were fixed at ridiculously low prices dating from the post-war period while the landlord was still obliged to carry out any maintenance.

That all changed with the rent reform of a few years ago, but I think it explains why there is still a lingering trace of mistrust and suspicion in the landlord/tenant relationship with the former forever assuming that the latter is going to screw them over in some way. (The fact that we are a suspicious nation by nature because it’s in our Mediterranean/Semitic DNA cannot be overlooked either).

Fast forward to Malta as an EU country, home to a number of iGaming and other industries which have brought in an influx of European nationals who want to live here for an indefinite period of time. EU nationals for whom renting comes as naturally to them, as buying property comes to us.

Suddenly, long-term renting is in high demand and savvy property owners with an extra home or two (the wisdom of investing one’s cash in property is not to be sneezed at after all) are busy offering apartments up for lease. So far, so lucrative.

The problem is that the rental market for long lets is completely unregulated. The problem is that the speed with which the rental scenario has changed has overtaken any formal structures which should, and have to, be put in place to avoid what is currently a Wild West free-for-all where unsuspecting foreign nationals sign leases in good faith, just as they would do back home, only to find that there are a hundred and one pitfalls no one told them about.

While this government is busy setting up new boards and authorities with fancy titles, perhaps it should make some time to set up an official authority which sees to it that some law and order is established in this sector. Properties available for long lets need to be registered (which will ensure that tax is paid), a standard contract which protects both parties needs to be formulated, rental properties need to be inspected regularly for safety issues, utilities need to automatically be on residential rates and any claim for damages by the landlord need to be backed up with photographic before and after evidence in order for the tenant to lose his deposit.

I am fully aware that there are tenants who skip town without paying their rent or bills and even cause willful damage, with the landlord left to shoulder all the expenses. But having experienced tenants from hell does not give anyone the right to turn into a landlord from hell and tar everyone with the same brush. It certainly does not give a landlord the right to phone a tenant’s employer, smear their name, try to get them kicked out of their job and place a garnishee order on their wages. This is the shocking reality of what happens when people take matters into their own hands.

Regulate the market, and make Malta a rent-friendly place for EU nationals to come and live here for a few years without feeling they are being scammed.  This is not some niche market we are talking about, but tens of thousands of tenants, and what they are all telling each other online at the moment is to move out and leave this “rip off” island for good.

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