Residential Leases Act: The First Step Forward – Instability and Exorbitant Prices Yet To Be Addressed

Joint Press Statement

A coalition of 20 NGOs active in the social field view the Residential Leases Bill as the first step forward. The NGOs had presented a proposal for rent regulation in February 2018 and reacted to the White Paper on this subject in October 2018. This Bill introduces a much-needed framework with basic rights and obligations on tenants and landlords, and is clearly the result of serious research work and a broad consultation process. However, the Bill very marginally addresses the predominance of short-term contracts that lead to widespread instability, and fails to tackle the most pressing issue of exorbitant rent prices.

The sudden and continuing hike in rent prices is pushing thousands of persons into precariousness, hitting hardest those on low and medium wages and pensions as well as persons in vulnerable situations such as women experiencing domestic violence. Thus, much more will have to be done if Government is to achieve its objective, as set out in the White Paper, of making rent a housing alternative.

The NGOs welcome several provisions of this Bill. We favourably view the obligation on landlords to register contracts that include an inventory and the amount of money deposited, coupled with dissuasive measures against renting without a valid contract. It is also positive that the Housing Authority will be responsible for private residential leases, related enforcement and an adjudicating panel that will speedily decide on minor disputes.

We positively note that tenants will have the right to access utility bills, and that landlords will have to inform the tenant three months before contract expiry whether they intend to renew the lease or otherwise.

The proposed Act would establish a one-year minimum contract period for residential leases. One year is glaringly insufficient to guaranteeing a degree of stability to the tenant, leaving the current situation of short-term contracts more or less unchanged. The coalition of NGOs, when reacting to the White Paper last year, had proposed a three-year minimum in order to start addressing the issue of tenants living precarious lives.

The three-year minimum proposed by the NGOs would be binding on the landlord, with the tenant able to leave the place during the contract period without any penalty on condition they give due notice. Government plans to grant tax credits to landlords who offer contracts that are longer than one year are positive, but this will unfortunately have only a limited effect on incentivising longer-term contracts.

The Act would regulate annual rent-price increases by pegging them to the Property Price Index and capping them at 5%. However, this regulation only applies to increases during contract duration, that is, to those cases where landlords provide contracts that are longer than one year. Unreasonable rent increases, with no limit whatsoever, would still be allowed following the end of the contract period. The coalition of NGOs had proposed that the monthly rent to be paid in any new contract, irrespective of whether it is with the same or a different tenant, should not be higher than 10% of the last monthly rent paid under the previous contract.

This would prevent exorbitant increases in rent-prices following the expiry of contracts. We had also proposed the creation of a Rent Value Index that would enhance public knowledge on the private rental market and lead to a degree of rent-price stabilisation. The Rent Value Index would list rent-value in different areas and for different classes of property according to their size and quality. There would be a rule stating that an initial price should not exceed 10% of the price listed for that particular category within the Rent Value Index. This proposal has not been taken on board.

Besides these points on the principles underpinning the regulation framework, the NGOs also have specific points as feedback regarding some articles, namely:

  • The Bill allows two exceptions to the obligatory one-year minimum contract term. These exceptions apply when i) proof is presented attesting that the lessee is a non-resident worker or student whose stay in Malta will be shorter than six months, or a resident who needs to rent an alternative primary residence for a period of less than six months, and ii) in the case of room rentals. Whilst the first set of exceptions is understandable, the second should be removed. Tenants renting rooms should be afforded the same protection as those renting a whole unit.
  • The Bill states that the landlord has thirty days to register the contract from commencement of the lease. However, the law does not spell out that a contract should be in place from the first day of the lease and, when not, the lease is to be considered a de facto one with the protection afforded to tenants in such leases.

    In the absence of such a provision, landlords who are caught leasing without a contract can simply claim that thirty days from the commencement of lease have not yet passed, and it will be very difficult for the tenant to prove otherwise.
  • The Bill gives the right to the tenant to access their utility bills. The Bill should go further and establish a mechanism whereby the tenant has automatic access to their water and electricity bills.

The coalition of NGOs will continue to push for a rent regulation framework that enhances stability and peace of mind for tenants and landlords, eliminates discrimination and which avoids situations of precariousness, always bearing in mind that adequate housing is a fundamental human right.

Andre Callus, on behalf of the Coalition of NGOs.

To this end, the NGOs will be presenting their reactions and proposals during the Bill’s discussion in the Parliamentary Committee prior to its enactment.


Issued by:

  1. aditus Foundation
  2. African Media Association Malta
  3. Alleanza Kontra il-Faqar
  4. Forum Komunita’ Bormliża
  5. Integra Foundation
  6. Isles of the Left
  7. Koperattiva Kummerċ Ġust
  8. Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement
  9. Malta Humanists Association
  10. Malta Tenant Support
  11. Mid-Dlam għad-Dawl
  12. Moviment Graffitti
  13. Platform of Human Rights Organisations in Malta (PHROM)
  14. SOS Malta
  15. Spark 15
  16. The Critical Institute
  17. The Millennium Chapel
  18. Third World Group Malta
  19. Women’s Rights Foundation
  20. Żminijietna – Voice of the Left

Malta’s review under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – (2) Concluding Observations

This second article summarizes the Concluding Observations on Malta issued by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and follows our first article that focused on shadow reports submitted by civil society organizations and other stakeholders.

All the review documents (State Report, List of Issues, Civil Society Input, List of Delegation, Concluding Observations) may be found on the OHCHR site, under Malta.

What are Concluding Observations?

Malta is required to submit regular state reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on how rights provided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child are implemented. Following an analysis of these reports and of the shadow reports presented by interested entities, the CRC adopted Concluding Observations on Malta wherein it presented its concerns and recommendations.

Concluding Observations should be widely publicised in the State party as they serve as a basis for national debates on the improvement in the enjoyment by children of their fundamental human rights. Malta is also expected to follow up the recommendations provided in the Concluding Observations, as these will be looked at in the Committee’s next review.

What did the Committee on the Rights of the Child say about Malta?

Several topics were addressed by the Committee, including the allocation of resources, cooperation with civil society, children’s rights and the business sector, civil rights and freedoms, family environment and alternative care, disability, basic health and welfare, violence, non-discrimination, leisure and cultural activities, special protection measures and administration of juvenile justice. The Committee based its Concluding Observations on national and shadow reports, as summed up in our first article focusing on reports submitted by civil society organizations and other stakeholders.

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Malta’s review under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – (1) Shadow Reports

This is the first of two articles bring you information on Malta’s review by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. In this article we’re looking at shadow reports submitted by civil society organisations and other stakeholders, whilst in the second article we’ll be summarising the Committee’s Concluding Observations on Malta.

What is the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

On 20 November 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which came into force on 2 September 1990. This Convention is composed of 41 articles and guarantees children of State Parties rights, separately from adulthood, that are classified in different themes.

Indeed, the Convention provides children survival rights (e.g. the right to life and basic needs such as nutrition or medical services), development rights (e.g. education, play, culture, freedom of thought, conscience or religion), protection rights (e.g. protecting children against exploitation, harm, neglect, abuse, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, protection in employment) and participation rights (e.g. freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly).

Thus, “the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty in history” provides children until the age of 18 a special protected time, “in which (they) must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity”.

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5-year Schengen Entry Ban issued against a young mother for overstaying 21 days

Katerina’s Story

Facts

Katerina*, a Macedonian national and single mother of two young children, entered Malta legally and applied for a work permit in 2016. She was legally allowed to stay in Malta until a decision on her application and subsequent appeal was taken. Throughout that year, her two minor children aged four and six were attending school in Malta and finished their scholastic year in June 2017.

The whole process ended with a final rejection one year later in the beginning of July 2017, after which she voluntarily bought three plane tickets to return to her country mid-July. She overstayed in Malta for merely 21 days, in order allow her children to finish their scholastic year and to get things packed.

On the day of her flight, she was stopped by Immigration Police as she and her children were boarding the plane at Malta International Airport. An Immigration Police Officer issued a Return Decision accompanied by a Removal Order, together with a Schengen re-entry ban** of five years. She was then asked the by same Officer to sign a paper waiving her right to appeal as she was told that if she didn’t sign it then her return might be delayed.

At at that point, Katerina was being held by Immigration Police, pre-flight with her two minor children and was afraid of being held for longer periods of time at the airport. She was in an extremely vulnerable position. She signed the document and returned to Macedonia.

As a result of this, our client was banned from entering the European Union for 5 years, irrespective of the reason for travel. She was offered a web design job in Berlin which she had to decline due her ban and she could not travel even for tourist purposes with her children in Europe.

Our role

  • We filed an appeal with the Immigration Appeals Board (IAB) on the basis of the fact that our client was returning voluntarily, that there was no individual assessment that took into account that she only overstayed for a short period, and that she did not pose a public security risk. In our appeal we requested the IAB to withdraw the ban on re-entry. Our client received a negative decision from the IAB 15 months later.
  • We corresponded with Immigration Police for over 12 months, requesting a lifting of the ban. The ban was finally lifted by Immigration Police after two years.
  • We filed a complaint before the EU Commission for a breach of EU Law, namely Article 47, the right to an effective remedy, of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Articles 7(1), 11(2) and 13(1) and (3) of the Returns Directive (2008/115/EC). This complaint is currently ongoing.

Results

  • Our client can now freely travel to and take up employment in all European Member States with her two minor children.
  • DG Migration and Home Affairs within the European Commission is examining the complaint in order to determine whether infringement proceedings should be opened against Malta.
email from client after lifting of the ban

* Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
**Schengen re-entry ban: a decision prohibiting entry into and stay in the territory of European Member States. 


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Respecting the human stories

This is our right to reply to an opinion piece appearing in The Times of Malta on 23 March. Our opinion is published in the Times of Malta on 30 March.

In his opinion piece of March 23 entitled ‘Self-respecting’, Steve Pace makes a number of incorrect assertions on the relationship between abortion and fundamental human rights. He frames his piece as two parallel narratives.

One narrative talks of migrants stranded at sea and aditus foundation’s related efforts at securing their safety. In parallel, Pace positions embryos and foetuses and our participation in the Voice for Choice Malta movement. He questions aditus’ respectability, alleging that we are supporting human tragedy and making a “gross parody” of fundamental human rights. He concludes, grandly, that “it is a well-known fact that abortion is not a fundamental human right”. Our clarification will shed light on the relationship between abortion and fundamental human rights and the rationale of our call to  decriminalise it.

First, the exercise of comparing migrants to foetuses fails to honour either and belittles their complexity. Urging Malta to allow the disembarkation of rescued migrants rests on the combined authority of the right to life, the duty of shipmasters to rescue any person in distress at sea and the right to be protected from the atrocities perpetrated in Libya against African migrants. Our advocacy on migration, with no fewer than 63 other local non-governmental organisations, targets interests that are purely political within a national and European context that is increasingly reluctant to abide by clear international legal obligations.

Discussions on decriminalising the termination of pregnancy are essentially about extremely personal and sensitive situations, and appeal to a very different set of rights, emotions and policy considerations. Comparing the two – or rather exploiting one to score points for the other – at best minimises human experience and at worst disregards it entirely.

For us, a human rights NGO, abortion has a strong foundation in international human rights law and social justice. While there might not be a clearly formulated fundamental human right to abortion, it has repeatedly been read into other rights: to life, health, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, freedom from gender-based discrimination, privacy and family life. To be clear, this ‘reading’ is a common exercise in human rights interpretation, where the actual text is broad and vague in order to allow for those shifts in interpretation that necessarily follow from our increased understanding of how people, societies and communities work. For example, there is no scripted fundamental human right granting marriage to same-sex couples, yet it is has been read into the broader right to marry and found a family. It is thanks to the very broad formulation of the prohibition of torture that courts have been able to include in it heinous State practices such as waterboarding, isolation and mock executions.

Additionally, we are keen to stress an aspect that is often forgotten in discussions on abortion, especially when judgemental fingers are wagged at ‘evil and selfish’ women. On many occasions, many of the women needing safe abortion services are actually children. Malta’s stubborn refusal to openly talk about sex, reproductive health and contraception often punishes those with the least access to support, information and other preventative measures. Acknowledging this serious gap in Malta’s human rights framework in relation to children, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed its concern at our exception-free penalisation of girls and women who choose abortion, often exposing them to life-threatening situations. The Committee has repeatedly underlined that, to protect girls from early marriages and pregnancies, States are required to secure access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, contraception and safe abortion.

aditus foundation’s position on abortion is a nuanced one, and it would have been more honest of Pace to base his critique on our actual position rather than saying we mock life and set our own standards on its worth. Contrary to Pace’s allegations, our position is inspired by human rights standards and also the human stories we encounter in our work: women who are told the embryo inside them will die in days or weeks, women raped in Libyan detention centres, girls repeatedly abused by fathers, uncles and brothers. In these situations, we believe that the woman’s set of human rights definitely overrides the rights of the embryo – whatever one believes the embryo’s status to be. Today, Malta’s laws describe these girls and women as criminals. It brings shame and prevents them from seeking the guidance and support they need.

aditus foundation has always proudly done its utmost to urge Malta to extend its protection to people and communities denied their fundamental human rights. While we find Pace’s critique distasteful in its tone and imagery, we are nonetheless thankful for this opportunity to clarify the little-known fact that yes, access to safe abortion is a fundamental human right.