Two and a half years ago, Sofia showed up to pick up the keys of her newly-rented apartment in St Julian’s and was met with surprise.
Her new landlord took one look at her and said, “I expected you to be Swedish.”
Sofia, whose parents had rented out the apartment in her name, was shocked. “I am Swedish.”
“But your parents are white, and you’re not. You’re Asian,” the landlord replied.
Sofia, of Vietnamese ethnicity, was adopted when she was young and grew up in Sweden. She did not wish to use her full name.
“I have Swedish nationality, a Swedish passport. I didn’t know what to say… I was only 19 and had never faced a racist comment like that before. This was my first time renting and I wanted to remain on good terms with my landlord.”
Two months later, however, the tension had not diffused. Her landlord approached her one morning complaining the apartment was in a “mess”.
“I had a couple of dishes in the sink and clothes out,” Sofia said, “but it was obvious that she was entering the apartment when I wasn’t there.” She objected but was told to leave – and her security deposit was never returned. She believes she was evicted because of her ethnicity and that retaining the deposit was unjust.
But your parents are white, and you’re not. You’re Asian
“I was alone here and young. I was very scared at the time and lonely. I didn’t know what to do or who to call.”
Two years later, Sofia finds herself having trouble again with her current landlord. This time, however, she had support.
A slim blonde Scottish woman, Patricia Graham, wouldn’t strike you as someone intimidating. Her name is often passed on through Facebook posts, where foreigners and Maltese alike seek support over some rental dispute.
For 10 years, she has been running the Up in Arms advisory lobby and keeping an extensive database of the cases she deals with, the most common being disputes over bills and security deposits.
“I wish I could tell them [tenants] when they first arrive to take detailed pictures of everything in the house and then again before they leave.”
And that includes serial numbers of items in the inventory.
Most landlords, she said, see the deposit as a bonus, so unsuspecting tenants sometimes have their deposits withheld for unfair reasons that include unsubstantiated damages and exorbitant cleaning bills.
Since it is not financially viable for most of these tenants to take these cases to court, she often supports them by advising them of their rights and helping them to collect the necessary evidence with which to confront the landlord.
“Sometimes tenants call me up and they’ve left the house in an absolute mess.”
But in most cases, she asserts, it is the tenants who are being taken advantage of.
The proposed rent reform recognises the security deposit as a “common cause of dispute” and speaks of the need to provide a more transparent method for its release or retention.
Ms Graham said she is hopeful but years of experience in the field have taught her that “it is one thing recognising [an issue] and it’s another thing enforcing”.