The Malta Independent 27 May 2024, Monday
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Landlords own a business but should also uphold human rights – Solidarjetà Tenants Union

Andrea Caruana Sunday, 24 March 2024, 09:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

While landlords are running a business, Matt Attard, president of Solidarjetà, a union of tenants, said they must remember that their tenants’ human right to shelter is in their hands. Ultimately, the lives of their mainly foreign or expat tenants are under their control.

Following the Consideration of Bills committee meeting held a few days ago, he said the current amendments to the Private Residential Leases Bill seeks to place landlords and tenants on equal footing. However, due to the difference in business and human right, an equitable approach is more appropriate and is being lobbied for by Solidarjetà.

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Attard said that at present, landlords have too much power over their tenants and can control them to their own accord. To begin with, he said that Malta is the EU country that allows landlords most ease to evict tenants. By law, the landlord must have a valid reason, he said, however this does not stop gross abuse, going on to cite the incident in which a landlord cemented his tenants’ way out.

Another means of control is the deposit tenants must usually give on entering a contract, said Attard. Though it is usually meant to be held by the landlord and taken in the instance of damage to the property or omission to pay rent, with the approval of a tribunal, this is rarely the case, said Attard; indeed it may be seen as “added profit”. 

He said that it is not really for damages, based on the general lack of approval from the tribunal, and furthermore binds the tenant from leaving early, keeping the landlord in control. To address this trend, Attard suggested that Solidarjetà advocates for a neutral third party to manage the deposit.

Solidarjetà has a point of contention with the proposed amendment of giving both the landlords and tenants the opportunity to register a rent contract. As things stand, by law, Attard said that it is the landlord’s responsibility to register the contract and they are fully in favour of it staying that way.

When questioned if the amendment would allow more freedom for the tenant, with some independence from the landlord, Attard said it is not the case. While housing benefits and permits do hang in the balance of a registered contract for the tenant with Third Country Nationals being obliged to register, no power is really granted to them as they would still depend on the landlord to provide certain documents. Attard added that certain penalties exist also.

In certain instances, Attard said, the landlord would refrain from registering the contract and the tenants would go along with it because they do not feel comfortable and ultimately do not stand to benefit from registration. Attard said that the Malta Developers Association is lobbying for this amendment for tenant and landlord registration ability due to the sheer number of landlords taken to court for not registering, showing the failure of the previous registration system.

As things stand, if a landlord is caught renting out property without a contract and registration, he is immediately ordered to bring the rent price down to 75% of the property value. But to combat such lack of registration, Attard proposes that the same penalty should be applied to any landlord who doesn’t register in a timely fashion; thus, tenants would be more incentivised to speak up.

It was understood that during the committee meeting the landlord could indirectly contribute to a person's deportation. When questioned about this and how it may weigh on the landlord’s conscience, Attard agreed that it is an awkward position, especially when Third Country Nationals are involved, and neither the tenants nor the landlords are happy about how the way things stand.

This is with reference to Identità’s (Identity Malta) strict requirement of a minimum six-month rental contract, with the risk of migrant deportation for non-compliance. In such a case, the landlord can renew a contract for the current minimum of one year.

At this point Attard explained Solidarjetà’s lobby for a fixed so-called di fermo period for long and short lets. During this six-month period, if a tenant decides to leave, they are required to forfeit their deposit and cover the remaining months as stipulated in the contract.

As things stand, the longer the rental, the longer the di fermo period. Attard said that this may give rise to ridiculous circumstances in which a tenant may not be able to move due to the obligation to pay an exorbitant amount for their contractual remainder of their lease.

Attard said that in Spain the minimum three-year contract has a six-month di fermo period. Currently, landlords usually offer one year leases. It is ideal for the landlord as it is more practical for the tenant to pay the remaining rent and deposit outright should they leave early.  

This system has led to difficult situations, Attard said. He recounted an incident involving a member who, two months into his lease, discovered mould in the property. Despite reporting the issue to the landlord, no action was taken. As things stand, the tenant may opt to leave and forfeit a sum of money or endure a few more months until the di fermo period expires and they can move out freely. Reporting to the rental regulation board is not practical due to sheer waiting time, Attard said.

Solidarjetà’ currently has its sights set on fixing a legal loophole that allows landlords to set forth a chain of events that ultimately hike up rental prices for tenants “at gunpoint” on pain of eviction, Attard said. The law currently states that a landlord cannot increase rental prices by over 5% per year.

Attard said that landlords issue, and lobby for, one year contracts and actively terminate them when the time is up. At that point, they would present the tenants with a new contract with a higher rent, grossly exceeding the 5% limit within the current contract or instruct them to vacate the premises. For all these reasons, Solidarjetà lobbies for a longer minimum rent and a fixed di fermo period.

When questioned if their criticism and demands may harm a Maltese business and perhaps favour foreigners, Attard, an economist by profession, said he looked at the bigger picture and the greater implications of this market. He said the current demand for property is high and the prices are wholly unregulated.

As a result, he said that housing is insecure, unaffordable and the conditions are conducive to poverty. Furthermore, there is a drive for private housing and private rents while social housing is becoming scarce. In conclusion, he believes their proposed amendments would do the country good.

When asked about the Housing Authority statistic of landlords being pensioners trying to make some money on the side, Attard said trouble boils down to a handful of landlords who own the majority of property. Due to the irrelative amount of property to those owning it, this handful controls the market and so creates the high prices.

Attard was asked about the right of landlords to control their property and said that as long as it is lawful, Solidarjetà has no qualms. Ultimately it is the landlord’s choice to enter the business, he said, and they can simply choose not to rent or live in it themselves.  

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