by Dr. Maria Brown, Visiting Senior Lecturer, Faculty for Social Wellbeing
The current housing situation in Malta needs to be contextualised in a mainstreamed culture where home ownership is considered as the ideal tenure status (Parliamentary Secretariat for Social Accommodation, 2018). As 78.2% of all households in Malta own their main dwelling and 60% of households belong to mortgage-free owners (National Statistics Office, 2018), the inequality between those who own their main dwelling and those who do not is more than the quantitative difference of 21.8%. There is a qualitative inequality threatening social wellbeing that may be clarified by Robert K. Merton’s sociological analysis (1968). Merton explained that deviance results when mainstreamed cultural goals cannot be accomplished through socially acceptable institutionalised means. In layperson’s terms this is a carrot chase scenario where giving up the chase is associated with social disorientation (anomie or normlessness), which Merton associates with the rise of innovative and technically expedient yet often illegal means used to access the culturally desirable goals. In other sociological research, anomie has also been associated with suicide (Durkheim, 1979).
The above breeds a social justice-oriented rationale for incentives targeting increased home ownership, such as Malta’s 2019 Budget incentives that include the equity-sharing scheme for people who have turned 40 and are interested in buying a home, as well as stamp duty reduction for first-time buyers and second-time buyers (Scicluna, 2018).
Furthermore, ownership of dwellings for purposes that go beyond home ownership, particularly by small and medium newly emerged renting enterprises, testifies to proactive entrepreneurship that is likely to trigger decreases in state welfare expenditure. This is an optimal development considering that, until recently, policy analysis associated state welfare provision in Malta with being “too extensive and abused by society” (Azzopardi, 2011, p. 73); with welfare dependency and as requiring better monitoring on benefit claims and tax evasion (Azzopardi, 2011).
Nevertheless, this does not necessarily translate to increased social wellbeing for the projected shrinking cohort of the disadvantaged. Decline in at risk of poverty rates may be spuriously correlated to a shrinking gap between financial and social resources of those who are at risk of poverty and of those who are thriving. The risk of out of sight, out of mind is high.
Thus, figures tabled at Parliament in 2018 that account for 27 individuals sleeping rough between 2013 and 2018 testify to a situation where the size of the community is by no means comparable to the qualitative disparity with general standard of living. Homelessness in Malta has been qualified as an institutionalised phenomenon as YMCA accounted for 30 individuals requesting its beds each night. The phenomenon has also been tagged as the hidden scandal due to legislation prohibiting and formally sanctioning homelessness. Civil society has also drawn attention to the discourse limitations inherent to the use of the term ‘homelessness’ because it factors in only ‘rooflessness’. Consequently, data tabled at Parliament excluded people hosted at shelters or other institutions, people who lived in inadequate housing, on beaches, in cars, people who squatted in abandoned places or wore clothes found in donation piles that successfully camouflaged them as ‘normal’ (Carabott, 2018).
In analysis, the burgeoning renting sector has acted as an eye-opener. Not immune to incongruence between goals and means, renting as a housing alternative triggered public outcry, as well as civil society and Government initiatives. In the Faculty for Social Wellbeing’s contribution during the consultation period concerning the White Paper ‘Renting as a Housing Alternative’ (Parliamentary Secretariat for Social Accommodation, 2018), those living in relatively low-cost residential rental units, who do not own property and earn relatively low salaries were identified as risking the hardest hit of the rent-wage disparity and, consequently, as a key priority for intervention.
It was also argued that the same cohort’s wellbeing is at risk of an instant rise in rent prices by lessors to hedge against a possible Government cap, particularly in the view of the White Paper’s proposal to peg rent increases to the Property Price Index, which would be followed by Government’s consideration of capping rent prices. Consequently, the Faculty for Social Wellbeing recommended measures to monitor and discourage potential abuse during the transition period occurring between the publication of the White Paper and implementation of the finalised Act. Aspects at risk of abuse during the said period include rent prices, contract duration and stability, as well as evictions – whether these would be legally forced or occur by lessees giving up on unaffordable leases.
Homelessness, eviction, undesired uprooting, insecurity, substandard dwellings and un-homeliness are minefields in politics of housing. Preventive and responsive policy-making calls for empirically informed policy, for policy that is based on rigorous research. This should include action research, longitudinal research and tracer studies. Updated and specialised demographic research that accounts for household demographics and composition is also a must to plan affordable and sustainable housing, particularly in view of the rise in divorce and separation rates and related rise in single parent and reconstituted families.
In times of economic prosperity, equity-inspired politics and policies need to safeguard shrinking cohorts of economically and socially disadvantaged persons from being considered as negligible not just numerically, but also literally. Investment in research is key to counteract speculative evaluations, political footballs and reactionary (rather than responsive) politics and policy-making.
Azzopardi, R. M. (2011). Social policies in Malta. London: Commonwealth Secretariat, pp. 73-74.
Carabott, S. (2018). Number of officially homeless in Malta is ‘not a reality’
Data excludes many people, YMCA warns. Times of Malta. Retrieved from https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20181006/local/number-of-officially-homeless-in-malta-is-not-a-reality.690850
Durkheim, E. (1979). Suicide: A study in sociology. New York: The Free Press.
Merton, R. K. (1968). Social theory and social structure. New York, NY, US: Free Press.
National Statistics Office. (2018). Statistics on income and living conditions 2017: Main dwellings. Malta: NSO. Retrieved January 31 2018, from https://nso.gov.mt/en/News_Releases/View_by_Unit/Unit_C1/Living_Conditions_and_Culture_Statistics/Documents/2018/News2018_159.pdf
Parliamentary Secretariat for Social Accommodation (PSSA). (2018). White paper renting as a housing alternative. Malta: PSSA. Retrieved January 31 2019, from https://meae.gov.mt/en/Public_Consultations/MFSS/Documents/White%20Paper%20Booklet.pdf
Scicluna, E. (2018). [Budget Speech 2019] Malta: Ministry for finance. Retrieved January 31 2019, from https://mfin.gov.mt/en/The-