Sociologist from Malta

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

How many vacant properties? - Michael Briguglio

Isn’t it ironic that while the government is considering reform of rent legislation, no one knows how many vacant properties exist in Malta?
The only reliable information which exists is from the 2011 national census. When one removes property which is used seasonally – for example summer residences – Malta then had around 41,000 vacant properties. 
But since then, no other official data was published, despite the changes which took place in Malta’s housing sector. These were very much related to economic and social changes. 
Malta was then relatively successfully weathering the global economic crisis but is now a high-flier in economic growth, a situation which could change again in the years to come. 
Back in 2011, construction played an important role in Malta’s economic policy, but it is now at the centre of the government’s plans, both directly and indirectly. The government is encouraging the development of big projects, selling passports and importing thousands of workers and their families. Again, the landscape could change in the years to come, both through internal policy change but also through unintended consequences or external factors.
In the meantime, it had to be a University of Malta student, Dario Cacopardo, to recommend through his dissertation that before the government embarks on new housing policies, it should update its information. I endorse Cacopardo’s views.
Indeed, Malta needs more evidence-based policymaking across the board.
Of course, the government can argue that the current housing situation requires urgent measures, given the increase in the price of rent. But as I argued in this newspaper, its draft white paper does not really tackle short-term issues. 
Perhaps prudence can call for two tranches of policymaking: one for immediate short-term measures covering people who are facing housing emergencies, and one for longer term measures to prioritise sustainability, equity, efficiency and social justice in the sector. 
In the meantime, the government can commission proper social-scientific research to count, categorise and interpret Malta’s current and future housing stock. We can almost be sure that vacant properties have decreased since 2011, but this assumption alone does not provide enough evidence for sustainable policymaking.
Neither do other very important assumptions which are highlighted by Cacopardo in his research. 
For example, he states that a lot of old vacant properties are found around the Grand Harbour but are not being sold, whereas new properties are sold much more easily. One reason for this is that various old properties in question are regulated through old rent regimes and were abandoned. 
Maintaining or upgrading them is very costly, thus resulting in further deterioration. Not to mention that when such properties are subject to court procedures, these can take an eternity to be solved, despite commendable reforms introduced by the government to facilitate their sale.
Besides, a lack of skilled workers exists, so much so that many foreign workers are being imported for this reason. I have witnessed related examples with my own eyes, for example in old government social housing, which requires the construction of lifts, but which can only be done once workers are available. In the meantime, mobility and accessibility problems are encountered daily by residents.
Incidentally, Cacopardo highlights that no one knows how many properties are owned by the government, let alone their current situation.
Such recommendations are important for various reasons. In the first instance, they refer to real challenges faced by various stakeholders in Malta: from property owners to tenants, from policymakers to estate agents and from scholars to workers.
Second, such recommendations confirm the importance of research carried out at the University of Malta and other academic institutions. These are not simply factories that produce workers, but are even more so hubs of knowledge that provide important questions and answers.  
Third, such recommendations provide building blocks for political deliberation and when possible, consensus on such important policymaking.

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