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Broken social housing model

Political leaders usually announce their grand social policy strategies in their party’s political conferences where activists can give their feedback on whether the proposed policies are in line with their party’s values. But this does not always happen.

In the latest political address to the party faithful, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat seemed to be preparing his supporters for a radical change in social housing policy. He spoke about housing and rents and made it clear that government social housing is not a benefit his party intends to provide in aeternum.

He added that such accommodation would be available for the poor and those who need support and not the rich. Put simply, social accommodation will never become a family’s asset but will be a temporary concession to those who require such type of housing.

Even if these few comments lack the detail needed to decide whether Labour is changing direction in its commitment to social mobility and other social democratic values, it may well be the parting shot of a change in direction on social housing.

Dr Muscat did speak about the rents problem that is mainly caused by the demand created by the influx of foreign workers. Rather than elaborate on his administration’s strategies to alleviate this problem, he appealed to his mesmerised audience not to close doors in the faces of foreigners.

The Prime Minister stopped short of admitting that the social housing model is fundamentally broken and that many people, not just those who are destitute, are struggling to get on the property ladder. Many feel that, rather than dreaming of moving ahead with aspirations for steadily-upwards progress and stability, they are living a nightmare of being on a treadmill where staying on requires constant activity merely to remain in the same place.

The Prime Minister, like most politicians in this country, knows that the incomes gap in Malta, as in many other western economies, is becoming wider. The working poor have become a sizeable section of our society. Arguing that housing is a private matter and not a government concern will perpetuate some often-ignored realities that are afflicting our society.

Social research confirms that a lack of affordable housing does not just affect people’s ability to sustain a home; it also affects work, relationships and health.

Past administrations in the 1970s and 1980s honoured a social contract that helped people achieve their aspirations to enter the middle-class cohort by owning their own home with the help of various government subsidised schemes. This social contract is now broken. It would be unrealistic to promote the reinstatement of such large-scale housing schemes in a very different economic reality.

However, tweaking with limited schemes to help just the most destitute in our society demonstrates lack of sensitivity to social cohesion. What politician can look in the eyes of a young couple who does not enjoy the support of the bank of mum and dad and honestly tell both of them they will be fine if they just work harder?

Social housing should rightly be provided as a safety net for the destitute for as long as they need such support. But, in today’s often unacknowledged social realities, it would be correct for this safety net to be stretched wider if a socially democratic government honestly believes in social mobility.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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