The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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Six-person dwelling cap does not tackle root cause, could lead to rent hikes – YMCA Malta

Kyle Patrick Camilleri Sunday, 7 January 2024, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

When authorities announced, a few weeks ago, that a cap was to be introduced for the maximum number of tenants per rental property, the reasoning behind this decision was to accomplish two things: regulate the rental market and put an end to some notorious landlord abuses of cramming an exorbitant number of low-income tenants into a single dwelling.

While Housing Authority CEO Matthew Zerafa had called this restriction a way to ensure “a dignified and stable living for Maltese families”, Christian Inkun – the head of YMCA Malta’s residential department – believes that this approach was not necessarily the most appropriate solution to deal with the issue at hand.

As YMCA Malta’s head of Home, Inkun regularly interacts with homeless people who have had their own struggles within the rental market. He directly helps over 50 roofless individuals through YMCA’s shelters and dozens more by providing food on behalf of his organisation.

“I think that the outcry of the majority of Maltese has led to the government taking action. It’s commendable, but I think they are neglecting one important factor, which is the root cause of people piling up in apartments,” he said.

According to Social Housing Minister Roderick Galdes, this new law will serve to strengthen the rental sector. He had also said that this policy also targets the few landlords who were abusing while acknowledging that most landlords act in conformity with the law.

Inkun believes that the government should carry out a study to uncover why people, especially migrants, are putting themselves in these uncomfortable living conditions to begin with.

 

The need for a guaranteed liveable wage

Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, Inkun said that the root cause behind this sardining of people “is clearly a matter of wages”.

“If they are able to fix the wage, this policy will not be essential,” Inkun said. “What they have done is scratch the surface and satisfy people’s complaints. They need to deal with the root cause. They need to deal with the abuse of migrant workers.” He then detailed that there is a difference between a minimum wage and a liveable wage; with a liveable wage, “people can live comfortably and will not need to crowd together in apartments to cope with the increasing cost of living”.

Inkun then went into further detail on the level of financial difficulties that low-income workers face when dealing with rent.

He said that the average rent for a room in a studio flat in Malta is almost €600, including in places that were once considered to be affordable, such as St Paul’s Bay. Assuming a migrant worker is earning close to a minimum wage (around €800 per month), after deducting this assumed value of rent, the migrant is then left with only €200 from their monthly earnings.

From that €200 he said one can deduct €50 to cover the bills of a minimal lifestyle, leaving €150 for the rest of the month. This value is not only there for entertainment, but more importantly, for food and water three times a day. Inkun said that dealing with the latter on a low income has grown more difficult as inflation has caused a sharp rise in food prices over recent times.

“This [scenario] is for €800 a month. In some cases, people do not even earn this amount.” This description did not even take into consideration a person’s desire to accumulate savings or the need to have cash ready in the case of an emergency, he said.

In this light, the head of the YMCA Home mentioned one example of a case he had helped in which the mother of a young child was earning just €600/month. Her finances ironically stayed low after finding work, although increasing slightly since her individual rent benefit had stopped. “I remember her telling me that she lived on bread, pasta and butter for almost a month,” he said.

 

Further criticisms against the six-person cap

PN MP Alex Borg has gone public with his own criticism of the six-person cap policy. He described these amendments as “draconian” through his social media pages, saying that “in light of the abuse and exploitation that was created by the rapid growth of the population, a problem that this government itself has created, it has now began taking decisions out of panic, without reason, logic and planning”.

Borg had also said that it should be obvious for this limit to depend on the type of property and its size, rather than opt for a universal cap.

Inkun told this newsroom that in most cases, the number of people who rent accommodation together is fewer than six. “If a group of four is sharing a flat with two bedrooms for €1,000 rent, then they pay €250 each,” he said.

He expressed worry that the introduction of the six-person cap could prove to act as a landlord’s legal legitimisation to be inclined to let to three people per bedroom or even charge for the equivalent of three persons for a single bedroom.

“This could incentivise landlords to raise the rent and make [the assumed four tenants] get two additional people to live with them, so that they would be three people per bedroom,” Inkun said. “They are legitimising putting three people into one bedroom,” he added.

 

Two issues: ensuring dignified conditions and potential rent hikes

In this regard, Inkun told this newsroom that “there is still a form of lacking dignity [in] legitimising three people in one room”.

“There must be a solution,” he said in regard to the overcrowding issue. “Yes, this is one of the solutions, but this is, for me, putting a rubber stamp on the abuse that already happens.” When YMCA Malta’s Head of Home was asked whether this legitimisation will hinder the livelihoods of these affected persons, he responded that “their livelihoods are already hindered, unfortunately”.

Elaborating on this point, Inkun said that despite the fact that Maltese and migrants both face the same challenges in finding accommodation/affordable rent, migrants are more likely to accept harsh conditions than Maltese. One noted factor to this is that “there are laws that provide an extra layer of protection for Maltese” that migrants do not enjoy, for example, the 10-day policy.

Migrant workers’ 10-day policy sees these foreigners face deportation if they lose their job and are unable to find new employment and handle the required related documentation within a period of 10 days. He said that it is normal for many migrants to work second jobs as for example cleaners or food couriers, to cope financially to the point that “most migrants see a home as a sleeping place, rather than a home”, and that it is unsurprising that migrants often cope with undignified living conditions, especially when they are left underpaid.

When discussing the potential increase in rent prices, following the implementation of this six-person cap, Inkun told this newsroom that he does not think this hypothetical price hike could push more people to the brink of homelessness.

“I think the factors that lead to homelessness have nothing to do with the overcrowding of rooms. The factors are clear – finances, family issues, domestic violence, migration, addiction, legal issues… they have nothing to do with overcrowding,” he said.

Providing homeless people with a roof is just 1% of YMCA’s efforts while the remaining 99% is centred around getting them out of the cycle of homelessness.

He said he wished to make two clarifications on homelessness, according to YMCA Malta’s data over the years. Firstly, he said that financial challenges are the leading factors behind homelessness in Malta and that it is not a product of irresponsible decision-making. Secondly, not all homeless people have low incomes – some median/high-income earners end up homeless as well due to a variety of reasons.

 

YMCA Malta’s proposed solutions

On behalf of YMCA Malta, Inkun spoke of three solutions that his organisation had already recommended to authorities in 2022. The first proposal is to begin placing a cap on rental prices by area. He also said that it is essential to look at rental prices if we want to “fix” homelessness.

“There is too much profiteering, it is almost everywhere, and especially in the rental market,” he said. “This problem does not just affect migrants, but even the ordinary Maltese.”

“People are just taking advantage because there is no [rental] cap, there are no checks and balances, so they increase rental prices as much as they want – not even tied to inflation.”

Stating that this may sound like a restriction to the free market, he followed that “such restrictions are necessary to create a balance in the market, because clearly, the market is not healing itself while left alone”.

“I don’t think that pricing should be done as and when a landlord wants,” he said. “When they think they need more money, they increase it. If they see that their neighbour is renting for an extra hundred or two, they’ll increase their own rent to match it.” He then described how in some cases of the latter situation, some landlords pressure their tenants to either match the desired increase or vacate their premises.

The second of three proposals was that “we should start looking at social services from an individualised basis”. YMCA Malta has already recommended to authorities for social services to be present in government housing buildings to help end challenging personal cycles from childhood.

Referencing the earlier example of the mother earning just €600 monthly, he stated that he does not believe that generic cases are always helpful, but rather, that social activists should see the plight of such persons as individual cases. He continued that after looking at such cases from an individualised perspective, the government will begin to benefit by empowering these individuals to form part of the workforce while retaining a more dignified livelihood.

The third and final proposal was one that YMCA Malta has already made to the Housing Authority – for a rental agreement benefit (or a shared benefit) to be introduced in conjunction with the individual rent benefit. The reasoning behind this is to support struggling tenants to cover their rent while sharing their room with someone, since the individual rent benefit, as the name suggests, only applies to those living alone. Their recommendation would allow both persons to receive subsidies for their shared rent.

In conclusion, Inkun said that in order to fix homelessness and tackle other issues within the rental market, “there must be regulations to control the insane rise in the price of rents and cost of living”, he said. “This is not just one policy – it must be fixed in a holistic manner.” He also added that such regulations should also cater for the increasing cost of living and “the proportion in terms of wages and expenditure, [which] do no match”.

“If we are not careful, the policy will create a cycle for them where they would love to stay in shelters rather than be outside and renting,” said YMCA’s head of Home. “These are some of the dangers if we do not fix the problem from the root cause.”

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