With the Private Residential Leases Act of 2020 (the Act) came the innovation that lessors were legally bound to register residential leases with the Housing Authority (within the Ministry for Social and Affordable Accommodation).

This year, based on the Housing Authority’s three years of experience, the ministry went back to the drawing board and drafted Bill 87 that proposed a number of amendments to the Act.

Some of these proposed amendments would have gone some way in redressing the anomalies introduced with the Act, anomalies which had resulted in an imbalance in the obligations of lessors and those of lessees.

Without going into detail of all instances of legislative and administrative inadequacy, such as the torturous eviction process and the inability of the system to provide lessors with the whereabouts of absconding lessees, one instance which has been mentioned widely in the press is the di fermo period.

Prior to the publication of the Act, the point of departure of any relationship between lessor and lessee had been that a contract is a contract is a contract and is binding on both parties: one year is one year, two are two, and so on.

The 2020 Act allowed lessees, on a mere whim, to opt out after only half or not even half of the duration of an agreement.

Understandably, lessors welcomed some of the recently proposed amendments to the Act. Common sense had prevailed and some sort of parity regarding the di fermo period was to be introduced.

Sadly, at the final hurdle, instead of relying on the Housing Authority’s data and documented findings, the government buckled to media pressure and to the claims based on an amateurish Facebook survey carried out by of a number of NGOs.

In order to accommodate drama and hype, the ministry put aside the first-hand experience, based on tens of thousands of registered rental agreements now approaching the 100,000 mark, of its very own Housing Authority.

Our parliamentary representatives would do well to peruse a March 2024 Housing Authority study, ‘Tenant And Landlord Experiences Of The Maltese Residential Market’ (Briguglio, Grima, Galea), in order to better equip themselves to reach conclusions based on reality instead of hysteria.

The study found that, while lessees were very satisfied with their rights, one third of lessors were dissatisfied. Bearing in mind that 97% of lessors are Maltese nationals, mainly middle-aged (65%) and seeking to supplement their approaching retirement income (one-third of lessors are actually already retired) it’s about time politicians dispel the myth embedded in their psyche that only lessees (and, somehow, all lessees) are vulnerable while lessors are some species of raving monster.

The government buckled to media pressure and claims based on an amateurish Facebook survey- Francis Darmanin

While acknowledging the intentions of the ministry for actually proposing the changes, lessors are very disappointed that some of these were eventually not adopted.

It is depressing to note that, during the parliamentary committee sessions where Bill 87 was discussed, there were members who gave the impression that they couldn’t distinguish between tax-funded social housing and private leases.

A healthy relationship between lessors and lessees is the way forward but this relationship has to be based on equitable legislation.

Lessors need to lobby their representatives and get the message across that they are actually doing a valuable service to the country by providing housing to the tens of thousands of expatriates (90% of lessees are not Maltese) who have moved to Malta in recent years and that their efforts and investments are not to be taken for granted.

Lessors will have to keep their eyes on the ball to ensure they do not fall foul of this unequitable bit of legislation. They will do well to vet very carefully any prospective tenants and not to enter into rental agreements with lessees who are unable to provide their renting history and the contact details of recent landlords.

Know Your Client checks will become a sine qua non and these will have to include references from employers, proof of sources of wealth and income, good conduct certificates and others. To preempt frivolous claims, lessors might consider requesting lessees to sign a Healthy Condition Confirmation form before renting a property. All this will come at a cost.

Lessors will have to be particularly wary of new arrivals to Malta, some of whom, in order to obtain the necessary paperwork from Identità, request document validation from landlords, only to wave goodbye once the di fermo period is over.

Until such time comes that politicians realise that lessors’ concerns are not to be entirely ignored, lessors will have to ensure that they cover themselves adequately for all eventualities.

Francis Darmanin is a member of the ad hoc committee of lessors’ association that held discussion with the ministry on Bill 87.

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