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Modern-day homelessness

As usual, Prof. Mark Anthony Falzon’s column last Sunday puts its finger on a subtler aspect of a poorly understood phenomenon: homelessness in Malta, and the difference between having a home and owning a house.

By considering anything beyond the bare necessities for survival – which, according to Eurostat, is two rooms for a single person or for a couple, and three rooms for a couple with one or two children – to be ‘luxury property’, we have granted pro­perty-owners licence to gouge, simply because there is so much demand and so little in the way of quality supply.

My unwillingness to spend 40 years repaying a mortgage on a squalid two-room flat, which looks onto the blank rear wall of the adjoining block of flats, does not make me unreasonable, no matter what Eurostat would have you believe.

However, the unfortunate reality is that those looking to create a home for themselves will never be able to afford anything remotely resembling their old family homes unless they happen to work in gaming or financial services, or unless they enjoy an honorarium or two by virtue of sitting on this board or that. Neither is it just beggars who can’t be choosers, because even graduates earning above-average wages find themselves unable to sustain a decent quality of life.

When I started my own search (which is ongoing), I simply wanted to find an old house somewhere – anywhere, really – which was not too dilapidated and could be restored with a bit of elbow grease and some patience, and which perhaps had a small garden or yard. I was not looking for “luxury property”, which is how Social Soli­darity Minister Michael Falzon has chosen to define properties costing more than the €120,000 threshold for his ministry’s Home Assist scheme.

Initially, I found several properties online that fell beneath that threshold, only to see the listings disappear as soon as I asked whether they were still available, or to be told that the price had risen by 25, 50, or even 100 per cent in the space of months.

It is for these reasons, among others, that many of my generation feel that preceding generations have betrayed their interests, by undoing all of the advantages that they themselves had enjoyed when starting out decades earlier, and by deciding to cash in even further on those advantages.

Many of the terraced houses and maisonettes now being sold for up to 30 times their original value had originally been bought free of debt – absolutely inconceivable today – and on land cheaply available to those wishing to start a family. Today, similar properties are inaccessible even with the burden of 40 years of loan repayments.

Furthermore, many entry-level jobs don’t pay enough to support even a very basic monthly rent, let alone a decent mortgage, and the relatively low wages in Malta are dependent on familial support – the same sort of familial support which previous gene­rations had enjoyed unconditionally, and which is nowadays itself under threat.

Pointing to the inexorable march of time and of progress to justify these developments obscures the fact that our contemporary situa­tion – a situation by no means unique to Malta, but which is more obvious here due to our small size – has been wilfully engineered to appease those who currently own property or who can afford to own it, in the process damning those who cannot to the modern-day homelessness that Falzon describes.

Our cities and villages are quickly becoming either museums of the past or temples to the future; they have ceased to be refuges in the present. The problem is not just that those who currently have property are uprooting themselves because of the ‘carrot of a fat cheque’; how will my generation be able to find its roots in the first place, if the soil continues to be washed away from beneath our feet?

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