Monday 08 August 2022

You need to treat people like you expect them to treat you

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It might sound like a cliché, but the things which were drummed into every little boy and girl who were raised in the Christian faith really do become more meaningful and relevant as we grow older.

Take, for example, the Golden Rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you…” or as it is also known: “Love your neighbour as yourself”.

What is interesting about these sayings is that one does not have to be a part of any organised religion to understand that at their core, they are based on empathy, compassion, a sense of community and above all, ethical behaviour.

Personally, even though I may not go to Church regularly, like most lapsed Catholics, the deeply ingrained roots of my upbringing are always there, just below the surface. So while I am no saint, the echoes of the Golden Rule still echo in may brain, and I do my best, although I do not always succeed. In fact I often fail miserably to love all my neighbours, both literally and metaphorically. Some people are just very hard to like, let alone love.

But anthropologically speaking, I am constantly fascinated by how this country manages to be so double-faced in the way it wants to be perceived (rosary-clutching, pious and “good”) and the way it actually acts (heartless, selfish and greedy). This was all brought home to me once again by that jaw-dropping video of a landlord bashing down the door of his tenant’s bedroom (where she was hiding in fear), ordering her and her room mates to get out because of an unpaid bill for a technician to fix a broken down washing machine. The voice of a woman in the video is heard saying, “they will have to pay for this damage”; “they” being the tenants, even though the landlord, in his fury, was damaging his own property.

The video was damning evidence enough but it also served to unleash the guttural hatred and sheer contempt there exists out there for tenants (for which read, ‘foreigners’). Now when I speak of the landlord-tenant relationship I am not speaking off the top of my head, or in abstract, or simply as an opinion (despite this being an op-ed column). On this specific topic I am speaking from factual, hands-on experience because my mother has rental properties and I handle a lot of the never-ending issues. There are good tenants and tenants from hell. There are good landlords and landlords who are a nightmare. There are tenants who care for the property as if it is their own, repairing minor things themselves, but there are others who vindictively thrash the place, leaving you with extensive damage or else leaving it so filthy that even a professional cleaning company balks at the job. There are those who pay both rent and utility bills promptly and without a murmur – others do a runner, leaving you high and dry. There are some who have never given one bit of trouble, there are others with whom you end up in court for years, forking out more for legal expenses than the dispute is worth. The rental property market is a minefield and not for the faint-hearted.

As for landlords, the same applies. There are those doing everything by the book and above board, registering the contract with the Housing Authority, paying tax on their income, filling in Form H so that the tenants get the residential rate for their water & electricity, and who will fix what needs to be fixed, as per agreement. They have an amicable, friendly relationship with their tenants and see them as people. Others simply see tenants as their cash cow, faceless, dispensable, untrustworthy and easily replaced. Some of the rental contracts which are posted on Facebook (by tenants asking for advice) contain terms and conditions which are so outrageous and illegal that the only phrase that comes to mind is the inimitable sarcastic colloquialism in Maltese, ‘jarawh wiċċ Alla’ (literal translation, “they will see God’s face”…in other words, they will not).

In a country steeped in patron saints and little girls dressed up in horrendously expensive and elaborate Holy Communion dresses, it is very difficult for me not to bring the issue of religion, compassion or just plain common decency into this. How can you be making the sign of the cross one minute and spitefully turning tenants’ electricity off the next, as happened with a recent case? Imagine having your electricity turned off in this heatwave – what kind of callous way is that to resolve a dispute over the utility bill? (Having said that, landlords need more immediate legal recourse against tenants who fail to pay what they owe as well.)

If the video referred to above were not stomach churning enough, the comments people were posting who were siding with the landlord, were equally nauseating. Some were blaming “the abysmal quality of tenants these days” but what about the “abysmal quality of landlords” where everyone with a property on the side has turned into a landlord because there is money to be made, but not wanting to spend one cent if they can help it. It’s like the Wild West out there with cowboys taking matters into their own hands.

Every day I read of cases where the Police have to be called to the scene because the altercation between tenants and landlords turns ugly and even violent. Unfortunately, sometimes even the Police fail in their duty and do not handle the matter professionally but tend to act too chummy with the Maltese landlord in what turns out to be an “us versus them” situation. Or else they tell them it is a civil matter which needs to go to Court – which means it can take forever to be resolved.

The rental scene is a two way street in which mutual respect and trust are paramount. Landlords are taking a blind chance when they are renting out their property to strangers, so tenants should be more respectful of the property which is being entrusted to them. And both parties need to treat each other like people first, rather than just a cold-blooded business transaction. While the new rent law has afforded some protection to both sides (if the contract is registered), there are still too many loopholes which have not been covered, and if someone wants to turn nasty and unreasonable, the situation can become explosive.

In the video which was posted it seems to me that the enraged reaction of the landlord towards an unpaid technician’s bill was completely out of proportion. There were so many better ways it could have been handled and for it to have escalated to that point means that there was no real tenant-landlord relationship to speak of. As corny as it sounds, it does boil down to treating people they way you wish to be treated. Alternatively, if you cannot handle things going wrong and are unable to deal with (sometimes difficult) people calmly and reasonably without blowing a fuse, then being in the rental property market is simply not for you.

Clarification:

With reference to last week’s article about childcare centres, I am publishing the following clarification by the department concerned. However I would like to point out that they did not address the crux of my argument: that the spouse of the legally responsible person (LRP) also needs to be vetted.

 
“The Directorate for Quality and Standards in Education’s (DQSE) webpage gives a detailed explanation of the registration process for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) centre (0-3 years) referring the reader to the National Standards for Early Childhood Education and Care Services (0-3years) (2021), the Registration Criteria for Early Childhood Education and Care Services (0-3 years) (2021), the official application form and list of required supporting documentation.
 
With regards to the Legally responsible person (LRP) and any other persons authorized to be in the centre, the DQSE requests a valid Police Conduct (issued within 2 months of submission) and official Protection of Minors Act (POMA) clearance, both of which are renewed and vetted annually.  The list of people submitted is further checked during unannounced on-site visits to ensure that only authorized persons are allowed within the centre. 
 
The application referred to in the article “the Registration of Childcare Facilities as an Educational Establishments (LN.54 of 2008) recognizes already registered Childcare Centres as Educational Establishments for tax exemption purposes under section 12 of Part Two in the Fifth Schedule to the Value Added Tax Act.  It is not the relevant application for Registration of a Childcare to operate.  Article 3 of the Legal Notice sets the conditions for registration of a Childcare Centre as an Educational Establishment with article 3(2)b specifying that a centre needs to be already registered with the Education Division and be certified to meet the criteria established by Standards.”

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