A few days ago Siġġiewi residents protested against a social housing project that will host 84 new units in the middle of a residential area. Mayor Alessia Psaila Zammit invited me to address the meeting in my capacity as sociologist, which I did.
Unfortunately there were no government or Labour Party representatives present, despite being invited to attend. It seems that the government is busier pronouncing the Siġġiewi project through a propaganda advert featuring cheerleaders. I assume that this is being accompanied with patronage through incumbency.
I find it very sad when local issues which concern residents are simply boycotted by elected local councillors simply because their party is in government. There are notable exceptions though – the Gżira mayor being a case in point.
To be fair, one may legitimately ask why a social housing project should be opposed by residents, who, after all, chose the same area for their residence. I believe that the answer to this legitimate question is twofold.
First. The area might be ghettoised. When a large housing project is filled in by people in a short space of time, this might have a myriad of consequences. Some are obvious, like an increase in traffic, parking problems and over-congestion. Another possible consequence, though unintended, relates to social dysfunction.
A sudden influx of social housing applicants might lead to stigma, especially when existing residents were not consulted by authorities. It could lead to segregation between regular residents and the newcomers, or between the newcomers themselves. This is especially the case when such people do not know each other and suddenly all have to get used to their new situations.
Classic sociologist Emile Durkheim had referred to the sudden change in people’s conditions as “anomie”, wherein people may find it difficult to cope, thus resulting in adverse social consequences.
In this regard, did the government consider smaller housing projects and alternative housing schemes, which disperse social housing applicants in different parts of Malta? This could possibly facilitate matters in terms of integration and impacts on existing residents. Rather than creating state-sponsored pockets of poverty, the government and local councils could work together to build social inclusion and integration through more ‘invisible’ social housing, education, social facilities and so forth.
My second reply has to do with evidence-based policymaking. I have good reason to believe that the government frequently takes decisions in certain areas which have got to do more with short-term electoral concerns rather than longer-term priorities and outcomes. The Siġġiewi project seems to be no exception.
Indeed, did the government commission a social impact assessment? This could provide valuable evidence.
I would expect such an assessment to verify the impacts of development on existing and prospective communities. It should establish a community profile, engage with residents and other stakeholders and look at the impacts of similar housing projects elsewhere.
A proper social impact assessment should also verify and identify alternatives, cumulative impacts and mitigation measures. It should be peer-reviewed by experts, and not by partisan appointees who may not be experts in the field.
Hence, I would expect the government to justify its choice of such a massive housing project with evidence, rather than through propaganda adverts.
Beyond the immediate plans in Siġġiewi, the government can also look at good practices of social housing around the world. For example, in Vienna, around 25 per cent of the housing stock is owned by the government, and rent is comparatively lower than that of similar cities. But social housing is not restricted to low-income residents, and much ghettoisation is avoided.
This example is also followed in some other cities around the world. To the contrary, cities which segregate poor people in housing projects, such as some infamous examples in some American cities, have negative outcomes in terms of poverty and crime.
And this takes us to the government’s self-professed social conscience. Is this conscience really so strong when Malta is experiencing an increase of working poor people whose wages are simply outclassed by increasing prices in rental market? As long as demand, especially from foreign residents increases, and as long as the government keeps adopting a laissez-faire approach, the situation for such people seems bleak.