The Planning Authority has only one pending enforcement case against a trend of landlords and real estate agents turning apartments into dormitories and hostels with dozens of beds and profiting off low-income migrant workers, an analysis by The Shift can confirm.
The singular pending enforcement case encountered during The Shift’s analysis was against a Sliema apartment on Ġorg Borg Olivier Street which was revealed to be housing over 40 people in cramped and squalid conditions last May. The enforcement notice was only issued following significant media attention and public backlash.
That notice described the infringement as a “change in use of apartment, from habitation to hostel / dormitory”. The notice (EC/0114/23) quoted subsidiary legislation 552.15, the development planning (use classes) order, which caps the number of residents that can be housed in regular dwellings, categorised as Class 1, at six people.
Given the Planning Authority website offers information on pending enforcement cases on a locality-by-locality basis, The Shift’s analysis looked at pending enforcement cases from the five most populous towns in Malta – St. Paul’s Bay, Birkirkara, Mosta, Sliema and Qormi – as well as Valletta, Marsa, St. Julian’s, Msida, Pieta and Ħamrun, given the areas have a significant presence of foreign workers and documented abuses similar to the case in Sliema.
Among all the localities included in The Shift’s analysis, no other pending enforcement cases exist for similar infractions.
This is despite multiple searches using different keywords accounting for possible variations in how the enforcement notice might have been logged, considering that, according to a PA spokesperson, there is no standard way to log the notices, with each case’s wording “up to the specific enforcement officer writing it up”.
In February, The Shift reported on a growing trend involving hundreds of rental properties across the country, with reports of small apartments and old and dilapidated houses being turned into large unregulated “shared spaces” primarily for low-earning immigrants working in the construction, catering and other services industries.
Aided by some top real estate agents, landlords are asking between €250 and €400 a month for a single bed in cramped quarters – effectively doubling or tripling the income they would otherwise receive from renting the premises to, for example, a family.
In that article, The Shift had reported on a dilapidated house in Ħamrun rented to 20 tenants, and an eight-bed dormitory in Qormi rented out by Marco and Josielle Gaffarena.
The Shift’s analysis confirmed that neither case was pending in the PA’s system, implying that unless the cases were opened and resolved with uncharacteristic efficiency, no enforcement action was taken.
The Shift is also aware of another property in St Joseph High Street in Ħamrun where, in April, a landlord evicted 11 tenants from a 40-bed property. Similarly, no pending enforcement action is visible on this property.
A cursory Facebook Marketplace search for similar properties shows that the practice is still alive and strong among local landlords and real estate agents.
By August 2022, Malta had almost 50,600 declared non-EU workers, according to statistics given to parliament by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana. The number excludes thousands more working precariously and unregistered.
The migrant workers are commonly exploited before leaving their home country’s shores. The Shift has reported on recruitment agencies sending workers to Malta from countries in South East Asia. Examples include agencies shut down by Phillipinean authorities found to be illegally charging fees of between €2,000 and €6,000 in one February case and €7,600 in another case from June.
Of the declared workers, many worked in administrative and support services, construction, accommodation and food services. More than half earned less than €10,000 a year. Some 11,000 workers earned under €192 for a 40-hour work week.
Despite only a single enforcement case resulting from The Shift’s analysis, a PA spokesperson said when contacted that the Planning Authority welcomes any suggestions the public may have on any planning/enforcement issue.