Research is key for housing policy - Roderick Galdes
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Research is key for housing policy - Roderick Galdes

In an article on this newspaper (January 7), Nationalist MEP hopeful Michael Briguglio posed several questions relating to Malta’s housing policies and vacant properties. I had, more or less, the same queries and concerns when I first entered office in June 2017 as the politician responsible for this sensitive sector. Thus, I know that Briguglio’s is a genuine attempt to raise awareness but his comments indicate he is not well-informed. Let me address his questions and our vision.

He describes as ironic the fact that the government has proposed a well-thought out rent reform while “no one knows how many vacant properties exist in Malta”.

If that were true, I would have agreed with him. But it is not.

While his colleagues in Opposition were accusing us of unnecessarily delaying the White Paper, we were undertaking an unprecedented research into this sector with the help of experts and the participation of about 350 stakeholders, ranging from different government entities and company owners to workers who depend on the rental market.

I had opted for research-based policymaking from day one.

But back to his original question: how many vacant properties? According to data gathered from ARMS Ltd, based on the number of completely unused meters all year round, there are about 22,000 vacant properties in Malta. This figure corresponds to the data included in the 2011 national census quoted by Briguglio.

Beyond the facile regurgitation of the total figure, however, we took the analysis a step further by removing from the equation secondary residences and properties in shell form.

Such information was never a secret. Indeed, I remember giving this information myself during a public seminar prior to the launch of the rent reform White Paper.

The proposed rent reform must not be viewed in isolation

At this point, it is noteworthy to add that the 22,000 vacant property figure includes dilapidated buildings and uninhabitable properties which are in severe need of repair. In other words, if we opt to deduct these abandoned buildings from the tally of permanently vacant properties, the figure of unused units recorded in 2011 could be reduced further to just over 12,000.

It must be further questioned, however, how many of these units remained vacant after the surge in demand for rentals and the resulting inflation of rental yields.

This contrasts with the perception out there that vacant properties amount to several tens of thousands and that a large segment of those is readily habitable.

Indeed, evidence suggests they are limited in number and in need of regeneration.

In fact, in a bid to reduce the number of vacant properties even further, both the Housing Authority and the Planning Authority introduced separate regeneration schemes to give life back to this dormant source of economic activity.

I was, therefore, surprised to read Briguglio’s views that the proposed rent reform lacks vision or an evidence-based approach. Indeed, it is the first housing-related policy in years which is based on real data and its informed recommendations are tailor-made to Malta’s housing reality.

I also disagree with his opinion that the draft White Paper “does not really tackle short-term issues”.

The White Paper recommends a regulatory model capable of instilling the much-needed stability, predictability and transparency in our rental system.

I affirm that such models address the problem in the medium to longer term. Yet, this does not mean the government has no short-term measures to alleviate the problems faced by some.

The proposed rent reform must not be viewed in isolation. Briguglio seems to be forgetting the relative Budget measures announced a week after the White Paper was launched and which will be implemented as from this month. Both the White Paper and the Budget measures form a holistic plan inspired by a well-informed housing policy, of which we will soon be seeing the desired results.

Ultimately, Malta remains a country where 80 per cent of its people are home owners and that is a very positive sign.

As a government that truly listens, we did not shy away from the challenges posed by the prevailing regulatory model. The fact that, after months of research, the proposed rent reform was welcomed by all stakeholders filled me with pride and even more determination.

The only stakeholder that opposed the White Paper was the Nationalist Party. Ironically, it was also the only stakeholder that offered no vision and concrete recommendations while opposing it.

But that’s another story.

Roderick Galdes is Parliamentary Secretary for Social Accommodation.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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