Prime Minister Joseph Muscat recently remarked that Malta has an 80 per cent home ownership rate, citing this as an example of the economic and social successes of our society.

But I recently also encountered another statistic, namely that evictions in Malta are on the increase.

This was announced during a conference on the white paper for rent reform at the University of Malta, which was co-organised by the Parliamentary Secretary for Housing. Elaboration and investigation of this statistic are most needed. For example, who is being evicted? Where do such people live after eviction?

Malta also requires other statistics and qualitative data on the housing challenge. For example, how many young people remain living with their parents not out of choice but out of necessity, in view of prohibitive housing costs and unavailable bank loans? How many people are living in garages? Who are they?

Indeed, it is ironic that until a few years ago one’s personal dream was to buy a house reflecting one’s lifestyle, but the dream of today is to be spared living in a garage or in a shared room. Not to mention sharing beds in congested apartments.

This is not to say that a good number of people are doing relatively well. Indeed, Labour’s relaxation of planning policies enabled many to build extra stories on their property and to make good money out of rent. Good luck to them, but we cannot forget the plight of the property-less masses who are facing increasing difficulties to afford housing.

Rents were artificially low because the market was dormant for years. It is now coming alive

Which takes us to the social housing policy today. Let me be clear: I believe that Parliamentary Secretary Roderick Galdes and housing chief Leonid Mackay have the best of intentions and are doing their best to assist people with housing challenges. I for one am ready to cooperate with them to assist persons in need.

But I am also very disappointed that in the ‘best of times’ Malta is characterised by a multitude of persons who are facing huge problems and that the Labour government is a relative laggard in the construction of social housing compared to its rush to widen roads without PA permits, to pay Vitals and various behind-the-scenes deals, and to rush through a corrupt energy policy courtesy of the tax payer.

This is the ‘best of times’ where Malta’s inflation rate is increasing by the month, and where salaries are not increasing as much as the cost of living. In an ideal policy world, rent should cover about 20 per cent of one’s income. Go tell that to working class and middle-class persons seeking to rent property today: the same people who were promised a living wage by Labour in its opposition years.

Indeed, I believe that Malta’s housing issue cannot be isolated from the reality that wages are generally low. Rents were artificially low because the market was dormant for years. It is now coming alive courtesy of legislative changes under different administrations and the recent influx of foreign workers.

I have nothing against the latter, but basic economics teaches us that an increase in demand for a product will likely increase its price if supply does not increase too.  

Hence, though it is positive that the government finally set the ball rolling through the white paper on rent, it is painfully clear that the same government rushed too fast in its economic policies and did not foresee the unintended consequence of spiralling housing prices.

The white paper focuses mostly on longer-term solutions, and these deserve a sober non-partisan debate and ideally, consensus. But let us keep in mind that persons facing evictions, those living in garages, those sharing apartments, rooms or beds need immediate solutions to their personal situations.

This is not to mention the adults living with other family members as they cannot afford otherwise, the 3,300 applicants for social housing and the 600 applicants for a change in social housing due to inadequate conditions in which they currently live.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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