A friend of my sister has a small apartment in Sliema which he decided to rent out because he’ll be going abroad for a while. He got an estate agent over to gauge how much he could rent it out for, per month.

The estate agent in his snazzy drainpipe suit walked round the flat twice, three times, then he leaned against the wall and started instructing the flat owner to close this and that door off; make the kitchen smaller; create four microscopic bedrooms out of one; and install lockers in the corridor.

Four rooms smaller than shoe boxes? Lockers? What are you talking about, asked the owner.

“I’ll explain ey, Pete,” said the estate agent, in that very annoying habit that estate agents have, shrinking your name to a diminutive first syllable the very first time you meet them, like you’re old, trusted friends. “Your tenants will have a communal kitchen and a communal shower room. And with four bedrooms you can charge them each €250 per month.”

What? Like student digs? The owner explained that he did not have in mind renting out his apartment to students. “No! Of course not, Pete. You’ll be renting it out to shift workers, ey.”

Eh? said the owner, completely nonplussed by now.

“Ara, Pete, this is how it works. Mela, you’ll rent each room in two 12-hour slots. A morning slot for someone who works a night shift, and a night slot for someone who works a morning shift. At the end of their 12 hours, they get out of the room, put all their stuff in the lockers and go to work. And the next tenant will come in. He or she will go to her locker, get her sheets and things and use the room for the next 12 hours.”

The owner of the apartment looked at the agent, aghast and speechless, but the agent went on: “From each room you’ll get €500 per month. With four rooms you’ll get €2,000 in a month. If you rent it as it is now, Pete, you’ll get, what, maybe €900? With this plan I’m telling you, you’ll be doubling your income in a month.”

The hidden homeless are on the increase and it’s very distressing that as a society we are shrugging our shoulders and looking the other way

The owner lost no time in telling the agent what he thought of the shockingly greedy ploy. What if one of the tenants is sick? Is he meant to kick him out on the street because it’s not his bedroom shift? Or what if they take a day off? Do they have to spend it on the street? “If your estate agents are encouraging this, then you are truly ruining Malta,” said the flat owner.

The estate agent was unperturbed. With a shrug he said: “Up to you, Pete. If you don’t do it, others will.” He clicked his heels and left for the next appointment.

When my sister told me the story, I immediately thought of the pod-hostels in Japan. Friends of mine visiting Tokyo recently booked a bed for the night slot and had to leave everything in the lockers in the morning while touring the city. It would have never occurred to me that beds-on-shift were also being promoted in apartment accommodation.

This is just another nail in the precarious renting situation at the moment. Rentals keep rising and rising, so much so that the gaming industry – which employs thousands of foreign residents – recently urged the government to introduce proper rent reforms based on salaries and not on property value as is being suggested in the recently published White Paper.

The gaming companies warned that the high cost of rent was killing Malta’s competitiveness and if things kept getting worse, they would look elsewhere to expand their operations.

When tenants are asked to fork out €800 for tiny studio apartments in non-central areas such as Ħamrun, Birżebbuġa, Żejtun which they used to rent for €400, then there’s something wrong. Obviously if your income is an average of €1,200, then the rent would be more than half your salary.

It is immensely scary that for some people it has already become totally unaffordable to live even in pokey pigeonholes.

We all read the story, recently in the media, of a Gozitan student who was asked to pay €1,000 per month for an airless Brazilian favela-like flat in Msida. We all know of people living in garages with a bucket as a toilet facility, and a candle for electricity. And we all heard stories of people – who work like you and I – but who have to live in their car because they cannot afford to rent, let alone buy property.

These are Malta’s hidden homeless. Waking up in the morning knowing that you no longer can afford a roof on your head is horribly crushing. While people put up plaques on their façade, with house names such as ‘L-Aqwa Żmien’, there are others who are living l-agħar żmien.

The hidden homeless are on the increase and it’s very distressing that as a society we are shrugging our shoulders and looking the other way.

Never has there been a time where ‘there’s no room at the inn’ resonated more. 

Twitter: @krischetcuti

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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