Despite the spike in prices, apartments’ safety standards have not improved. We are not paying more because we are living in safer, more comfortable units. Neither does the increase in price correspond to better design nor larger size of dwellings.
by Jacqueline Rotin
Image by Raisa Galea
In an online article on the Times of Malta, Dr Aaron Grech is quoted stating “Whereas in the past, most of the stock was houses, now most of the new units are flats. So you could argue that people are having to shift to different types of accommodation. That said, it is difficult to see if that implies a lower quality of housing as some of the apartments are very high standard.”
Central Bank Governor Dr Mario Vella is quoted remarking that “In Malta, it is still considered to be a downgrade to go to a flat, especially if your parents had lived in a house, which makes you bitter”.
The context of Vella’s comments is the post-war legislation and initiatives, enacted primarily by Labour government, where by the 1970s, ‘80s and up to the early ‘90s, the purchase of comfortable and modern two-story houses became affordable to lower middle and working class people for arguably the first time in their lifetime. Purchasing of this kind of dwelling today is beyond not merely working and lower middle class families, but outside the bounds of many upper middle class people’s pockets as well.
Apartments have become the only housing option for many. Here is a question I intend to tackle: is it justified to state that the high prices of apartments reflect their high standards, and whether complaints about the housing market situation are legitimate.
Apartments have become the only housing option for many.
The most salient change that occurred in the last ten years was the increase in the price of apartments. Ten years ago, one could still buy a decently sized apartment, sometimes with access to or ownership of the roof for around Eur100,000. The prices of these apartments have now soared up, neither in line with income increase, nor the increase in construction costs such as building materials’ cost and wages in this sector.
Did apartments become more expensive due to the superior quality of the product? I’ll focus on some aspects which concern the quality of life and which are frequently overlooked in most debates about the housing sector.
Dwelling or Death-trap?
The tragic death of a person in a fire in Msida highlighted the lack of safety planning. More than in any other type of housing, safety in apartment blocks is of paramount importance since one’s safety is not only dependent on what happens in one’s unit, but also on what happens in the apartments of those sharing the same block.
Recent events have demonstrated that apartments can become a death trap for tenants in an emergency situation such as a fire. Malta has no legislative framework which enforces the installation of fire safety features in private buildings, and most developers of apartment blocks have not done this voluntarily. We do not have mandatory gas safety certification either.
Following the tragic accident—smoke inhalation—which claimed life of a 35-year old man in February 2018, the Minister responsible for Planning had promised to set up new standards for common areas in such buildings, with the MDA committing itself to cooperate by giving advice on the matter. In the meantime, another fatality occurred in a block of apartments, and we have heard nothing about these safety laws as yet! Despite the spike in prices, apartments’ safety standards have not improved. We are not paying more because we are living in safer, more comfortable units. Neither does the increase in price correspond to better design nor larger size of dwellings.
Despite the spike in prices, apartments’ safety standards have not improved. We are not paying more because we are living in safer, more comfortable units.
Indeed, in terms of spaciousness, the quality of apartments declined in the past few years. Indoor and outdoor areas in the ‘cheapest’ apartments have become more restricted. Any carpenter will tell you that wardrobes with sliding doors have become the order of the day because some bedrooms do not have enough space for doors to open.
Lack of Energy Efficiency and Information
Another drawback of new apartments is that they no longer offer tenants access to or ownership of the roof, and thus more often than not, one would have to rely on tumble driers to dry clothes, which means an increase in energy use and expenses, with no possibility of ever installing photovoltaic panels and thus saving on utility bills. Increased use of electricity by apartment dwellers—and thus higher cost of living—is one of inequalities the housing market has created, thus complaints of people who were used to living in terraced houses are justified.
A high rating in the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) would be indicative of superior quality and energy efficiency of a dwelling and one would think that such a rating also affects its price. The cost of roof insulation and double glazed windows, and sometimes wall insulation and the installation of solar water heaters in finished apartments influences property prices, but only slightly. The provision of such certificates in Malta is inefficient and ineffective.
In many European countries property developers and agents selling or lending apartments highlight the EPC rating when advertising property. Hence, home buyers and tenants can compare prices in relation to energy efficiency. The least energy efficient buildings would be the least attractive which would be reflected in their price. In Malta, although an EPC has to be given to property buyers and renters, this information rarely features on real estate adverts. As a result, consumers lack information on how advertised properties compare with each other at the initial stages of choosing a home.
New apartments no longer offer tenants access to or ownership of the roof, and thus one would have to rely on tumble driers to dry clothes, which means an increase in energy use and expenses, with no possibility of ever installing photovoltaic panels and thus saving on utility bills.
It is evident then that Maltese consumers might not have enough knowledge on what quality features to look for when searching for a dwelling and methods of redress available to them if they encounter problems. This is where consumer associations, educators and the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority (MCCAA) should get more involved.
The Need for Legislation Which Prioritizes Dwellers
To me, it is clear that apartment dwellers are not served sufficiently well in terms of quality and safety of this kind of dwellings while these spaces are available at an ever-increasing price. Property market in Malta does not satisfy the need for safe, comfortable and energy-efficient housing, although national legislation stipulates that consumers have the right to access basic goods that are of good quality and value for money, as well as the right for information.
Authorities must ensure enactment and enforcement of legislative frameworks which guarantee quality and safety of housing. Wellbeing of dwellers—and not profit interest of developers and real estate agents—should be the key priority of legislators. Apart from making housing more affordable to younger generations, authorities have a duty to put in place and enforce legislative frameworks which empower dwellers and guarantee their rights in this unfair, unjust and unsafe scenario.