Tuesday 23 July 2024

The right to rent out property; the right to a home

This column first appeared in Malta Today

How does one reconcile the rights of landlords to enjoy the fruits of their properties, with the rights of tenants to find (and continue living in) decent housing at an affordable rate?

This is probably the crux of the current Rent Reform Bill which has drawn much heated discussion and differences of opinions from all quarters. However, it is only when one has come into close contact with both sides of the equation that one can see both points of view. As with most issues, both parties would have certain arguments which are absolutely valid.

It is very true that there are landlords who have been badly bitten. They have been left with havoc and wilful, spiteful destruction to their rental properties, after having to deal with untrustworthy tenants who have skipped out on their rent, leaving a trial of unpaid water & electricity bills in their wake. In some cases they belatedly find out, much to their astonishment, that their property is being blatantly listed and advertised as an air b’ n’ b with the tenant making money out of the rooms without the landlord’s knowledge and obviously without their consent. Many have similar mind-boggling stories to tell, and they are not pretty.

On the other side of the spectrum are the landlords from hell who have withheld deposits for trivial reasons, who have doubled the rent from one day to the next, have made tenants pay the wrong, more expensive w & e rate, physically threatened and bullied tenants and even shamelessly invaded their privacy, entering the property while they are out. Many tenants have reams of stories to tell, describing accommodation which is outrageously overpriced, woefully lacking in the basics and sometimes not even fit to live in. The type of treatment meted out at the hands of certain landlords often sounds like something from the Victorian era.

Is it any wonder that a line has been drawn in the sand and landlords and tenants have now ended up on opposite sides of the fence, speaking about each other with loathing? Are we surprised that each treats the other with automatic suspicion, always thinking and expecting the very worst?

This mess is the direct result of a market which has been allowed to explode without any proper controls, legislation or regulations, where everyone with any type of property (or room) available suddenly becomes a landlord and rents it out. Whether the property is habitable or not is immaterial; there are even squalid garages with no ventilation or toilets being rented out as ‘flats’. Apart from the horror stories which have made the news, there are countless other comparable cases which have stayed below the radar – for now. These overnight landlords know that there are truly desperate people out there, whether refugees or Third Country Nationals working for the lowest wages possible, whose meagre income does not give them a plethora of choices. They often accept to rent out rooms without a contract at the mercy and whims of the property owner.

However, it is not just the substandard housing which is the issue, but the rights of the respective parties. I was particularly struck by this comment which was left on the Malta Developers’ Association FB page following the meeting held to explain the new law. One landlord wrote the following: “It is obvious that whoever drafted this law doesn’t have a clue about the relationship between a landlord and a tenant. This law is going to erode the trust that should exist between landlord and tenant. The landlords will start to suspect all their tenants. We will have to request strong references, employment contracts, good conduct certificates, bank statements etc before we handover the keys. Because the new law is a throwback to the past whereby the tenant will become king of the castle that was built by the landlord, just like the postwar era. My advice to anyone thinking of investing in rental property, hold back and wait, or you might deeply regret it when some bum takes over your treasured investment.”

In a further comment, the same person wrote: “But if the owner knows at the start of the lease that he wants the property back after 1 year why cannot this be stipulated in the agreement from the start thus giving the tenant 1 year notice…Why must the landlords rely on an uninterested 3rd party, namely the postman to safely deliver a letter of notice which the tenant could easily slither out of resulting in the unwanted automatic extension of the lease and the loss of owner rights?”

The attitude illustrated in these comments, particularly the use of the word “bum” and the verb “slither” (you know, like a snake) is a classic example of the disdain in which tenants are held. The very fact that this person has a problem with requesting proof that the tenant is reliable is also hard to understand. Surely it is in the interest of any landlord that the person they are allowing to live in their property is of good character, is employed, is not a troublemaker and is financially sound? It will directly benefit landlords to make sure their tenants are the real deal, so I do not understand how this means that the so-called ‘bum’ will take over a landlord’s property.

The Malta Developers’ Association has claimed that, “both tenants and landlords will be worse off with the reform”. Again, I fail to see why obliging the landlord to give the tenant a three month notice period by registered letter if they do not want to renew the contract, should be considered a problem, especially in the current free for all. Failure to send the letter means the contract will be renewed under the same conditions for a year. This, I think, is quite fair, because one cannot expect tenants to find a new place to live in without adequate notice. However, the landlords fear that tenants will try to ignore the letter in order to renew the contract at the same rate.

The belief that this regulation (meant to protect tenants) is actually the state interfering in how the two parties can draw up a private contract has even led some landlords to once again threaten that they will take their rental properties off the market. I am puzzled by what this mindset and threat hopes to achieve. There are already too many empty, overpriced properties as it is, so if those who do not want regulation are going to throw a tantrum, it only means that those who have no problem with this reform are those who treat tenants in a decent way and are the not type who would throw people out on the streets when they get a better offer.

As the Consumers’ Association rightly pointed out, while property owners have a right to use their property as they see fit, consumers (tenants) also have the right to a roof over their head, which is a basic human right. “No one has the right to exploit the market, create poverty and place the burden of this poverty on society”, it added.

Another bone of contention, which this time was also voiced by the Nationalist Party, concerns a clause in which the tenant may ask a Housing Authority official to visit the premises to ensure that the landlord is adhering to the conditions of the contract and that the contract has been registered. The PN claims this means that officials can come and search any private property, which of course would be completely unacceptable. However, as pointed out by 15 NGOs who issued a statement on this issue, obliging landlords to abide by certain regulations is something done all over the world. Enabling the Housing Authority to carry out an inspection if there has been a breach of basic obligations should not worry anyone who is renting out a property in the proper way. According to the Parliamentary Secretary for Social Accommodation Roderick Galdes the clause is in direct response to the recent shocking cases of people living in horse stables, an abandoned hotel and other so-called accommodation. In fact, I would compare it to a restaurant or cafe being liable to inspections from health and safety officers to ensure that the kitchen is hygienic and food is being handled according to the correct standards. If we allow inspections to ensure that what we eat is safe, surely we should allow inspections to ensure human beings are not being treated like animals?

Of course, to set people’s minds at rest and to dispel the wild claim that “people’s private properties can be searched by the authorities at will” this clause needs to be better worded in order to ascertain that there are no loopholes which can give rise to abuse.

As the joint statement by NGOs so succinctly put it: “Opposing these rules means defending the status quo of total non-regulation that is placing thousands of people in Malta in an extremely precarious situation, hitting hardest those on low and medium wages, pensioners, and persons in vulnerable situations such as women experiencing domestic violence, resulting in deleterious effects on individuals, society and the economy.”

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