Christian Raggio Vella was born in Vittoriosa, got married in the local church and plans for his funeral to be held there – but, like a growing number of people from the area, he can’t afford a home in his home city.
“I live in Vittoriosa and only sleep in Tarxien,” says the 30-year-old, who moved out to the nearby town after property prices “exploded” in his native locality.
Various regeneration projects have transformed the three cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, turning a once-maligned area into a place that attracts wealthy foreigners seeking a Malta unspoiled by development.
Property was very cheap in the past “but has risen dramatically”, according to Dhalia real estate manager Gordon Dalli. He oversees the real estate company’s dealings in the Three Cities, collectively known as the Cottonera.
“A typical townhouse on two levels with a roof in an unconverted state will cost around €320,000 depending on the footprint and floor area,” he said. Five years ago, the same property would have had an asking price of €210,000.
Sea views add to the value and refurbishing an unconverted property could cost a further €100,000.
He said that property in the area is often bought as a rental investment and generally attracts foreign residents rather than locals.
“The fast ferry service to Valletta, the American University, Smart City, the Cottonera marina and the overall infrastructure together with the very well-kept cities and their rich history, especially Vittoriosa, all help to attract property investment to the area,” he said.
Government grants and tax exemptions on properties in urban conservation areas have further encouraged investment.
Stephanie Bugeja, a Vittoriosa community leader, who wrote her master’s thesis on the regeneration of the area, describes the gentrification of the Cottonera as a two-sided coin.
On the plus side, Vittoriosa has shed its former reputation which often left those from the city discriminated against and stigmatised.
She further points out that those living in the area can enjoy a busier street life with cafés and restaurants giving energy to the city.
Some local people even took advantage of the situation and sold their property, she acknowledges.
However, regeneration has attracted wealthier inhabitants who price out locals from the property market, Bugeja explains.
Roderick Busuttil, 48, is one of those who feels edged out. He has lived in Cottonera all his life. He grew up in Vittoriosa and moved to Cospicua after getting married.
Cottonera is losing its children and with that, the culture of the Three Cities will be lost
He used to pay €230 a month for his rent but has now been asked to pay €500 a month or leave his home, he said.
Prices are too high for him to even consider buying a property.
“Cottonera is losing its children and with that, the culture of the Three Cities will be lost,” he said.
“We were better when we were worse,” he muses, adopting an old Maltese adage.
Marlon Galea, 43, agrees. He left Vittoriosa when he got married 15 years ago, but visits the city every day to spend time with his friends and be in the city.
During the festa [village feast], he and his wife move in with a family relative to experience the period to the full and to remain active in community life.
“The regeneration has made Vittoriosa beautiful and brought progress, but those from Vittoriosa have lost the city,” he said.
While the many new restaurants and establishments are a sign of progress, he says that the owners are often uninterested in sponsoring the festa or local sporting clubs.
Some of the newer inhabitants don’t show a passion for the local traditions. He complains that some new residents have refused to allow the facades of their homes to be used to hang festa decorations or to move their cars so that banners can be installed.
Fr John Avellino, a priest of the Vittoriosa parish, said that almost all couples in the city want to stay but cannot afford to do so.
“Property prices in Vittoriosa are just exorbitant and most of them are in a dire state of repair, so it becomes very expensive to renovate and upgrade them to today’s standards,” he said.
Instead, they often move to Kalkara to remain close to their ancestral home. “They continue to come as often as they can, often participating and volunteering in community events,” he said.
In her master’s thesis in community action and development, Bugeja proposes several initiatives that could help retain the local population.
They include social housing policies that prioritise local people, the construction of new homes on the periphery of the city, and regeneration schemes that include a social element.
However, for now, people like Kalkara exile Andy Catania, 44, don’t see a return home in their future.
He has mixed feelings about having left the city when he could not afford to buy a property in his beloved Vittoriosa.
Although he feels he has more privacy in Kalkara now, there is less of a community in the neighbouring village, he said.
“I sometimes dream of returning, one day,” he said.
How much are prices really rising?
It is hard to quantify. A recent KPMG study on property shows that the Grand Harbour region, which includes the Cottonera, Valletta, Floriana, Marsa and Kalkara, saw the sharpest increase in average asking prices last year.
Prices rose from €2,968 per square metre in 2021 to €3,793 – a 28 per cent increase across the entire region. That contrasts to the North Harbour area (a region that includes Sliema), which saw a 10 per cent increase in asking prices.
However, Cottonera-specific data needs to be interpreted with caution, according to Steve Stivala, an author of the report, because of the small sample involved and the types of properties sold in any given year.
The median property asking price in the area in 2022 was €455,000. It was €390,000 in 2021 and €402,000 in 2020. However, because properties for sale were larger on average in 2022, the price per square metre actually decreased when compared to 2020.
“The median price per square metre registered a decrease of 7.2 per cent when considering 2022 data over 2020 data,” Stivala said.
This might be because property is often sold unconverted in the area and needs major investment to refurbish it, which goes further to explain why locals feel priced out.