Saturday 22 June 2024

If you really want to stop the abuse, go after the source

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I never know whether to laugh or get angry when someone in Government comes out with a pompous-sounding statement in relation to some illegality or other which has been happening, unchecked, for years. As we say colloquially, “Bonġu!” (Which when used sarcastically means, “it’s about time you woke up”).

This week it was the turn of Housing Minister Roderick Galdes who announced with much fanfare that a Bill started being debated in Parliament which will introduce legislation to regulate how many people can live in one dwelling. He was reported as saying that “this was the latest in a number of ‘courageous’ laws aimed at ensuring there was fairness in the housing market….The time of setting up dormitories in rented apartments is over. If you want to set up dormitories, apply for a guest house permit under the relevant regulations.”

I hate to put a dent in his incredible badge of courage but … this law already exists.

In Subsidiary legislation 552.15 under Development Planning (Use Classes) dated way back in February 2014 it is clearly spelled out that:

CLASS 1 – Dwellings

Use as a residence, whether or not as a sole or main residence, by any of the following:
(a) a single person or by people living together as a family;
(b) not more than six residents living together, including a household where care is provided for residents;
(c) lodging of not more than sixteen persons, provided that the operation is licensed by the Malta Tourism Authority and the premises are located within an Urban Conservation Area

I am sure (in fact, I know) that I have written this before but it bears repeating and it will save the Minister the trouble of looking it up. In any case, the point is that this regulation has been in existence for ten years but it did not stop any landlord from flouting it. That’s right, the legislation has been there for a decade, printed in black and white, stipulating exactly what can or cannot be done when renting out a property and yet I still come across landlords and even real estate agents who think that they can rent out beds to as many people as they like, and it is all perfect legal.

Of course, even if by any stretch of the imagination it were legal, it would not be remotely ethical or even humane (but what is mere humanity where money is concerned, right?). I recently heard an anecdote which starkly illustrates the all too common sentiment when it comes to this issue. Some Maltese workmen were doing maintenance on a very spacious 5-bedroomed house. On learning that it was temporarily vacant, their eyes glistened with what can best be described as “greed by proxy” as they openly began calculating how many migrants they could fit into it, charging them by the bed. When they realised that there was also an adjoining garage they were practically salivating at the prospect. Their reasoning was that “they” are not like us because where they come from, their living conditions are so much worse and they would be happy to live anywhere. On being told that cramming numerous strangers into a house like animals was inhumane, they shrugged with indifference and nonchalantly said, “us Maltese would sell their own mother for money.”

They are not wrong. We have had too many examples of just how far people will go when there is monetary gain or power to be had. Not only will they sell out their own relatives but, in more extreme examples, they will even resort to violence and murder.

But apart from the fact that there is already a law in place which should have been preventing the abuse by landlords (if it had been property enforced, that is), let’s examine once again the latest clarion call by Minister Galdes, who is beating his chest like Tarzan for being so “brave”. What is actually so courageous about doing the decent thing, which is actually the norm in most civilised countries? In June the Times had reported that a five-bedroomed apartment in an upmarket Sliema neighbourhood was housing 40 (yes 40, you read that right) people who were sleeping up to 9 to a room and sharing three bathrooms between them. The property was being openly advertised at €250 per bed on Facebook for all to see – there was no attempt at hiding it; it was all done in plain sight which further confirms that the law was being broken right under everyone’s nose.

The “real estate entrepreneur” who had sublet the apartment from the owner, saw nothing wrong with what he was doing. “All the rental agreements for the property are registered with the Housing Authority and have been vetted and approved by the same agency.” If this is true then no one working at the Authority has any idea what the law stipulates.

A subsequent police inspection of the premises confirmed that the apartment had eight bedrooms sleeping around 45 people (which means living areas had been transformed into “bedrooms” or rather, dorms as could be clearly seen in the photos). “It is up to the health and housing authorities, whose representatives were present for the inspection, to decide whether further action should be taken”, the police sources said.
Where does one begin to point out all the inherent contradictions? The law is clearly already in place – but either not enough people who should know about it, actually do, or else they are turning a blind eye to flagrant abuse because __________ (insert the reason of your choice).

It was only when this particular story was picked up by the Times, following previous reports published by The Shift, that the Planning Authority issued an enforcement notice against the owner for turning a residential unit into an illegal hostel without a permit. The Shift reported that the apartment was vacated shortly afterwards. The owner, on his part, claimed he did not know so many people were living there and took the matter before the Rent Regulations Board to terminate the lease with the real estate agent. I was not able to find any reference to the outcome of this case, so I presume it is still ongoing.

As an aside, similar abuse has been having all over the island for a while but perhaps in less “desirable’ areas, so it is interesting that it was only when the practice of multiple tenants overcrowding an apartment block in the more affluent Sliema area came to the public’s attention, that it caused a real stir.

Another factor in this story is the dubious many hats being worn by this real estate agent. While there is nothing specifically illegal about it, something still nags at me that a real estate agent should not be leasing an apartment from an owner and then branching out into subletting said apartment to prospective clients looking for accommodation, thus becoming a landlord himself. I know that ethical behaviour is a very alien concept for many people but personally, when the lines become so blurred about what constitutes a conflict of interest, then I believe these are lines which should not be crossed.

Meanwhile, as we wait for the above-mentioned Bill to meander itself through the various readings in Parliament, this state of affairs of greedy landlords renting out numerous beds in one property still continues throughout the island. You know what would really be courageous? If the authorities would just cut to the chase and go after the source of the abuse and (here is a thought) make sure that the current law is simply enforced.