A Social Success story: Eradicating the waiting list for social housing

Anyone who lived through the noughties can tell you that the waiting list for social accommodation was often touted as one of Malta’s most embarrassing (and dragging) unresolved issues. It seemed an impossible task for any administration to consistently get these numbers down and nobody dared to promise the general public that we’d ever get to zero. This turned an incredibly delicate subject into political football in successive elections, with both parties pointing fingers at each other for the nation’s failure in this area. Despite the rhetoric, the political class avoided grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns and repeatedly limited itself to dishing out random allocations on the eve of national ballots.

This all changed in 2017, when this challenging sector was dissected from the remit of social solidarity, and a Parliamentary Secretariat exclusively dedicated to social accommodation was created, which later evolved into a Ministry. The mission was clear: this gargantuan waiting list for persons with a genuine need for social accommodation had to gradually become a thing of the past.

By the end of 2017 however, the waiting list had peaked to an all-time high of 3,288 persons. The reasons why the country was struggling to keep this list down were varied, but could be boiled down to two main factors. First of all, the State had abdicated from its role of housing provider for the most vulnerable of its citizens for the best part of thirty years, and at the same time the country was undergoing an unprecedented period of economic growth, resulting in a staggering period of hyper-inflation in both the prices of residential rents and property sales. Wages, despite a noticeable growth, still lagged behind soaring housing costs. 

By the end of 2017, the waiting list had peaked to an all-time high of 3,288 persons.

The Government set out to turn the tide by securing financing for the construction of 1,700 new social accommodation units in 16 localities around Malta, and managed to secure the allocation of 110 million in public funds for the largest development of public housing since the 1970s. Private landlords were roped in, resurrecting the ‘Nikru biex Nassistu’ scheme, dilapidated public properties started being regenerated and rigorous academic research was carried out to better understand this complex scenario.

For years, persons on the waiting list were nothing more than numbers and files, with individuals who had been stuck in this limbo for decades and who had never had the opportunity to give a human face to their application. The profiling exercise extracted the story behind each application through thousands of in-depth interviews with applicants. The results guided the Housing Authority in a new sensitive approach towards housing policy, one which did not consider construction as the be-all-and-end-all solution to housing challenges faced by a heterogenous and dynamic cohort of vulnerable individuals.

The profiling exercise led to the creation of new schemes and the strengthening of existing ones to reach people on the fringes of the waiting list who could either rent on their own, or even purchase their own property, but needed a helping hand from the Government to do so. The Home Assist scheme provided social loans to low-income individuals and families to become homeowners whilst the Equity Sharing scheme introduced the concept of shared ownership by allowing persons over 40 years of age to access home loans from banks with the Government as a silent partner in the lending process.

The 10% Home Deposit scheme helped middle-income young persons purchase their first property without having to fork out the down-payment from their own funds and the Housing Benefit Scheme was strengthened so low-to-middle income renters did not spend more than 25% of their disposal income in housing costs. These schemes were intended to act as preventative measures, and were effective in reducing the number of new applications for social accommodation to just 25 new applications per month.

On the allocations front, the work carried out to revive the Nikru Biex Nassistu scheme and regenerate vacant properties started bearing fruit, with the Housing Authority allocating 700 units from its existing and regenerated stock to persons on the waiting list over the course of the past 4 years. This shift was gathering momentum, and by the end of 2019, the waiting list had been decreased to 2597 persons.

By December 2020, the waiting list dropped to 2380 persons. By June of this year, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, the list was cut by almost half (46%) when compared to December 2017, with the figure now standing at 1980 persons.

By June of this year, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, the waiting list was cut by almost half compared to December 2017.

With the construction of new social accommodation units nearing completion, further reductions are expected. TheJournal.mt is informed that by the end of 2021, with the allocation of hundreds of units from the completed sites in Birkirkara (Tas-Sisla), Ħ’Attard, Ħaż-Żebbuġ and Kirkop the waiting list is projected to decrease further to 1321 persons. In the first half of 2022, with the completion of sites in Imsida, Żebbuġ, Bormla and others, there shall be another 330 allocations, and by the end of the year, another 315 persons will be allocated social accommodation units, with the waiting list projected to fall beneath 800 persons.

Moreover, in 2023, the social accommodation sites financed by the National Development and Social Fund enter their final phases. This will push the waiting list further down towards ‘zero’ for the first time in recent history.

The Government’s pledge to shake things up in the social accommodation sector was ambitious and its performance has often been the target of wanton criticism from prominent stakeholders and the Opposition. However, it has now been proven that it’s possible to write a success story in a policy area which was considered unworkable by politicians and policymakers alike.

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