It is common knowledge that one of the cornerstones of building a sustainable community is the provision of affordable housing, and thus it is impossible not to talk about it in terms of it being a fundamental human right. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to achieve greater economic, environmental and social justice by 2030, through a number of targets stipulate under Goal 11, also state that the world’s population should have “access to adequate, safe and affordable housing”. Yet, the affordability of housing is indeed one of the biggest challenges Malta has increasingly been facing in the last number of years, a situation which has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
In some cases, more than 70% of a household’s total income goes towards housing cost, resulting in less disposable income for other basic necessities.
This widens existing inequalities, hinders access to and participation in social life, and impacts all aspects one’s quality of life.
Prior to gaining pedagogical experience as a lecturer, Dr Mary Grace Vella was engaged in the social work and social policy fields, where she was employed as a Probation Officer with the Department of Correctional Services, and as a Social Inclusion Officer within the Ministry for the Family, Children’s Rights and Social Solidarity. She also worked as a night shift worker at Dar Niki Cassar, a residential shelter for the homeless.
All of this experience has provided her with direct hands-on experience with those most at risk of experiencing homelessness and their difficulties in securing adequate and affordable housing. These people, she says, are among the most vulnerable in society, especially because although homelessness is still relatively hidden in Malta, it is a stark reality for many people.
She succeeds the late Joe Bartolo, who she sustained a long-time friendship with, due to sharing the same ideological ground on many issues. They both hold the view that adequate and affordable housing is a fundamental human right, that the state has the duty and obligation to protect this fundamental right for all and that the private market needs to be duly regulated. “So I will definitely keep building upon his good work,” Dr Vella promised, upon mentioning the development of 118 apartments in Fgura to be leased out to those who aren’t eligible for social housing and yet find it difficult to access the private market.
Asked on what her guiding principles will be as the new chairperson, Dr Vella’s answer was clear and immediate.
People before profits, housing as a right not a privilege, sustainable communities over unbridled development, regeneration over gentrification and social cohesion and well-being over commodification and speculation.
But even if affordable housing has been established as a fundamental right for all, the feminisation of poverty, and as a consequence, the reality that more women are seeking affordable housing because of gender issues, is still very much being felt. This is because “there is a naturally strong symbolic relationship between poverty, homelessness and housing exclusion where poverty is both an underlying cause and symptom of homelessness and housing exclusion. In cases of domestic violence, it is often the victim than the perpetrator that has to leave the home environment.”
Has this problem been made worse through the rent bubble Malta is experiencing? “The current rent-bubble has indeed been growing bigger and bigger in recent years in the expectation that at one point or another it is going to pop though this does not seem to have yet taken place.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic could help to burst Malta’s big rent bubble, however affordable housing could actually see a turn to the worse as people are facing greater struggles to pay housing cost.” Dr Vella mentions the rent reform launched last year, which resulted in the regulation of the previously unregulated rental market, that made a significant stride towards addressing this rent bubble. “The rental market needs to be more affordable and should be seen as another viable option apart from home ownership – that is the direction I’d like to keep going in.”
It is pivotal that affordable housing is addressed as a key policy priority.
Indeed, the concept of affordability will be an overarching and underpinning theme of the National Housing Strategy which is currently being developed by the Ministry for Social Accommodation.