Tuesday 23 July 2024

Affordable housing? We will just cram them in like sardines

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

A photo doing the rounds on social media showed a bird’s eye view of Sliema, revealing a town of wall-to-wall concrete with a tiny patch of greenery represented by what is left of Balluta valley.  It is a dramatic photo which different people may view in different ways: some as the sign of a bustling economy which is turning the whole of Malta into one large city, while others (like me) just look at it and are overcome by an incredible wave of sadness at what is fast disappearing. 

We all measure a high standard of living and a good quality of life according to our own yardstick and this is never so true as when a photo like this appears.  I suppose it depends on what one values the most, whether it is monetary gain or, to paraphrase that well-known Mastercard commercial, those things which money can’t buy, which are priceless. 

But do you really still think that all this rampant development and cranes on every corner is a sign of “progress”?

Well, think again. 

According to the MDA’s new technical section representative architect Stephen Farrugia, we need “to take a fresh look at the way we design buildings. Let’s have a mindset which increases certain units which will fall into the bracket of affordable housing. This is a mathematical formula, so to speak, which will provide further units on top of what you already have, which is reachable for couples who have certain limits. At the end of the day, salaries are what they are, and as I said in my  presentation we are victims of our own economic success, so we have to find a solution for certain problems. So we are trying to be more creative, not by interfering in the market, which is not our role; our role is to influence the politician to create certain initiatives to provide more affordable units.”  

The initiatives being proposed are simple: to make each unit smaller, enabling more flats to be inserted within a building and so leading to a lower cost per unit for the buyer.  MDA President Sandro Chetcuti, was quoted as saying that, “Space that is usually wasted for corridors can be used more effectively, in such a way as to provide for a greater living area. In this way, an 80 square metre apartment can actually have more space to live in than a 90 square metre one.”

Is that so now, Mr Chetcuti? It would be very interesting to know how much living space he himself lives in, and whether he thinks any part of his own residence is “wasted”.  I’m going to take a wild guess and say it’s slightly more than 80 square meters.  It is all very well for him to come along and lecture everyone on how they can make do by living in a smaller space, when he, along with other developers, are one of the main reasons Malta is facing an affordable housing crisis.  A rich paradox if there ever was one, seeing that the building of more and more apartment blocks has now reached ridiculous levels.  

Oh, and by the way, the MDA can just drop the pretence that all these proposals are coming out of a genuine concern for couples who are starting out and cannot afford to get on the property ladder.  Please, just do us all a favour and at least have the courtesy to be upfront about your real aims: cramming smaller units into an apartment block simply represents an opportunity to make more profit from the plot of real estate in question.   Instead of six good-sized apartments you just want to make eight or even ten cubby-holes.  You can see the results everywhere you look where vast apartment blocks are being built made up of tiny cubicles which look more like pigeon-holes than they do apartments. 

I am also very skeptical about the persistent claim that we need more apartments to be built because real estate agents cannot keep up with the demand.  Sorry, I am not swallowing this myth at all, and I believe that this is an artificially created “demand” to try and justify the construction mania.  Look around you and see how many still empty, brand new apartment blocks there are, go through the classified pages of the Sunday papers, and see the relentless ads on social media – does this look like a property market where the demand is greater than the supply?  

The only thing I agree with is that there is not enough affordable housing for average Maltese salaries – of course there isn’t, because developers and real estate agents have inflated the prices to unsustainable levels while owners have been lured into thinking that there are all these people clamouring to purchase apartments at these prices.  Well, I hate to break it to you but, no, there aren’t.  Foreign nationals who can afford to purchase a property would probably prefer to buy a house rather than an apartment in one of these over-populated blocks, while those who are not sure if they want to live here permanently will simply rent.   That leaves the Maltese market, and here you are looking at first-time buyers who are gradually being priced out of the property ladder.  So all this new development is clearly intended as a rental investment, and as we know Maltese people have never been keen on renting for obvious reasons – they would rather wait for years to get married while they scrimp and save to put a down payment to own their own home, which is a wise investment.   

The rental market has one target and one target only: the revolving door of economic migrants; people coming from other countries where unemployment is rife. The only problem is that these foreign nationals who come to live and work here from other EU countries are also finding it unaffordable to rent and are quickly moving on to other pastures, where landlords are not so greedy and the rental sector is properly regulated.  Refugees, mostly from African states, are being housed in appalling conditions while they continue to be exploited by unscrupulous employers in, you guessed it, the construction industry, intent on building more units for more phantom tenants.  It is a shameful, vicious, Catch 22 situation.   

On the other hand, there has been a slight glimmer of hope with the publication of the White Paper on Rent Reform which has suggested two options for landlords. The first model proposes the introduction of mandatory minimum rental contracts with annual increases in rent, which would be agreed beforehand between the landlord and tenant. The second model relies on fiscal incentives rather than the forced minimum duration, to encourage landlords to offer longer leases with agreed annual increases. The White Paper is also proposing the creation of a new department within the Housing Authority that will be tasked with overseeing the rental market and enforcing rental regulations.

The White Paper has also encouraged the Government to invest with the private sector to increase the supply of affordable housing for rent.  But I do not think that the way forward is for developers to build smaller units, as being proposed by the MDA. What is needed is for the Government to make an assessment of the many derelict buildings around the island which have been left to decay and to buy this property itself to turn it into affordable housing. Above all it needs to be housing which does not treat people like sardines, but which affords them the dignity of well-planned, proper accommodation, with open spaces, plants and shrubbery.  

We should not have to look at aerial photos of Malta and have our senses assailed by rows and rows of concrete buildings …and precious little else.

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