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Print Posted by Kiribiss.com on 25/06/2017

Malta’s growing underground racket – the rental market

Malta’s growing underground racket – the rental market

Alice Taylor

A few months ago, I wrote about the sorry state of the rental market in Malta. Since then absolutely nothing has changed of course; if anything, the situation has just got worse. What boggles my mind is that in a country the size of a local council in any other EU member state, we do not seem to be able to organise a wine testing event in a winery - to paraphrase.

The situation for renters in this country is dire and beyond diabolical. Landlords seem to think they have the right to enter your property without your permission (shout out to my old landlord), hike the rental prices by sometimes as much as double, cut off utilities as and when they feel like it. They might also move out tenant's belongings while they are at work because they have suddenly decided they want to move back into the property. I hear countless cases of landlords threatening tenants with eviction for non-payment of bills that they never get to see and everywhere you look on Facebook, there are countless numbers of stories of harassment and abuse, unfair charges for wear and tear, and false claims of damage made after the tenant has long since left.

But it's not just the landlords that are doing as they please, oh no. This week I had the pleasure of witnessing a tenant being chucked out from a property in Marsascala. The tenant refused to pay the bills, had caused damage to the property, was abusive and aggressive, and then had the cheek to refuse to hand back her keys. Now, the suffering landlord is out of pocket to the tune of €1000, besides having to take four days off work to deal with the drama and experiencing a huge amount of stress all because her tenant preferred to get her nails done instead of paying her bills. I recall another case where a lodger physically, verbally and emotionally intimidated her roommate, refused to leave, threatened to ruin her reputation, and then left the poor woman with broken cupboards and beds, a disgustingly dirty bathroom, and unpaid utility bills.

But where are the authorities in all of this? The police refuse to help in the majority of cases, and filing a court case that cost hundreds of euros as well as lawyers' fees often outweigh the loss, so the majority of people do not bother. What this means is that these often-serial offenders get away with ripping people off, time and time again. The situation has got so out of control that members of the local community have had to step in to offer advice, mediation services, and sometimes even legal advice that they pay for out of their own pockets. I spoke to one such volunteer, Patricia Graham, who said: "I find myself starting work at 5:30am and going through the day having more and more added to my schedule and I am lucky if I hit the pillow by 11pm. I do not get paid to do this - I do it because I started and I must finish."

Why should members of the community be stepping in to help resolve legal issues? Where is the proper regulation on matters like deposits and tenants' rights? Why is there no law against a landlord cutting off a tenant's electricity supply? Why do the police refuse to handle any situation relating to the rental market (even if it is a criminal offence) because they believe it is a civil matter? Why should pursuing legal recourse of one's rights be extortionately expensive and time-consuming? We need a system such as a small tribunal that will handle these matters quickly, cheaply, fairly and effectively. We need to make sure that the laws that are already in place are actually enforced to stop tenants and landlords getting away with this outrageous and illegal behaviour.

Another major issue is the situation regarding utility tariffs. Malta is the only country in the EU that has two types of tariff for residential properties. Despite promises made by Konrad Mizzi that tenants would be able to apply for the lower domestic rate, this has not happened. Instead, we have been presented with a form called F2 which gives tenants the right to the correct utility tariff for a deposit of €466. My first point is: who can afford this? This figure is way beyond the reach of pretty much everyone, especially those on a measly €720 minimum wage. Secondly, F2 is not worth the paper it is written on in the case of tenants that are denied access to meters by their landlords. Furthermore, the landlord is required by law to register the number of people residing in the property, therefore allowing them to benefit from the correct rate. Of course, many do not want to do this because most do not declare their tax on rental income, so by making an individual pay a deposit, you are supporting tax evasion and disregard of the law and penalising law-abiding tenants for something that is beyond their control. Konrad Mizzi could not seem to grasp this concept and now that his (non) portfolio has been handed to Joe Mizzi, all attempts to contact him on the matter have gone unanswered.

But let us not forget that we are dealing with ARMS and Enemalta here, the money hungry entities that are so desperate to line their pockets that they had the cheek to pursue a woman for a bill of over €150,000 for a meter that had been disconnected for almost a decade in a demolished building. It seems they will be very reluctant to do away with their extremely profitable two-tier system, and I imagine that this has been reiterated to the relevant members of government on many occasions.

But where does this big mess leave the growing numbers of renters and landlords in Malta? We are faced with single mothers being forced to appeal to Facebook for affordable housing, with people being often abusively and sometimes violently evicted, with landlords stealing hundreds of euros off each tenant, with tenants trashing properties and refusing to pay bills, and the only people that are coming out A-OK from this situation is the courts, the government and the utility companies. We are building more and more flats that no one can afford to move into, putting up prices beyond the average salary per month, and allowing people to be ripped off left right and centre with no viable legal discourse, and it needs to stop.

The divide between those that have and those who don't is getting wider and the only people that seem to care about it are the ones that are being screwed, and the volunteers that donate their time and money to help those in need.

This cannot continue.

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