High rises are being built to meet rising demand for property. But what about all of Malta's vacant housing? Charles Mercieca explores.
Ever since the controversial approval of two high-rise buildings, discourse has been dominated by a lethargic polarisation. On the one hand, people are increasingly apprehensive of wanton development in a country where land is a starkly finite resource. On the other, many also acknowledge that development is a healthy economic activity, or, at least, preferable to the alternative. A good problem to have, if you will.
A recent Times of Malta report highlighted how rental prices have risen over the years. Some are using this as proof we need more rentable places to satisfy demand and bring prices down. And while a frequent criticism of new developments is that they are oriented towards a luxury clientele who are willing to pay a premium, very often these properties depreciate reliably, and some urbanists are of the thought that today’s luxury apartments are tomorrow’s affordable housing.
Ultimately, the plot for the grand Maltese landscape novel seems to be a contrived clash of either maintaining what little countryside we have and not grow at all, or grow in every imaginable direction leaving all that noise and dust in our wake. But what if there was some magical deus ex machina that would solve at least some of that plot’s problems? In a matter of speaking, there sort of is: Malta's hoards of empty buildings.
"Malta's vacant housing could therefore make up the equivalent of 259 Sliema high-rises."
Malta has a total of 223,850 dwellings, according to the 2011 census of population and housing. Dwellings are homes, so this doesn't include garages or office spaces.
At the time of the census, 68% were occupied, 19% were vacant and 13% only occupied seasonally (defined as a dwelling that's used for only one month of the year).
If we exclude the seasonal housing (second homes), we're left with 41,232 residential units.
For the sake of comparison, the 38-storey Sliema Townsquare towers will have 159 residential units.
Malta's vacant housing could therefore make up the equivalent of 259 Sliema high-rises.
"And if you think those completely vacant buildings are crumbling heaps, think again. More than half are ready to move in to or need only minor repairs."
And if you think those completely vacant buildings are crumbling heaps, think again. More than half are ready to move in to or need only minor repairs.
Things also get interesting when you examine the split by district, with the Southern Harbour region having the greatest proportion of completely vacant buildings. The south has at least 9,261, according to the census, of which 2,572 are in the best state of repair. Most likely, this would be more than enough to house the American University of Malta that is instead going to take up 31,000 square metres of virgin land, 18,000 of which should be outside development zone (ODZ).
For a better look at the trend defined in percentage change over the time period between 2005 and 2010, take a look at this fantastic map by MaltaToday back in 2013.
OK, so there are tons of empty buildings, but are they an answer to anything?
That’s a more complicated question. While some might take the stance that all available real estate should mean that very little if any development gets approved, such direct meddling is bound to raise serious economic questions and objections. Besides, if you owned a plot of land and could make a fortune by selling or developing it, do you really think you won't?
"Besides, if you owned a plot of land and could make a fortune by selling or developing it, do you really think you won't?"
Developers mostly shrug away any proposition of renovating abandoned dwellings – and with good reason. They earn most of their money fielding the machinery of construction, not repainting your walls. But an even greater problem is that any serious proposition on how the government would for instance motivate private owners to sell is fraught with peril: what if they don’t want to? What happens when you can’t contact them?
Loaded hypotheticals aside, it’s also hard to ignore successful experiments in revitalisation of vacant housing – mostly from the United States. For instance, in the 1980's, the city of Portland had 2,900 vacant houses, the ownership of most of which it managed to transfer to local community development organisations: NGO's committed to support affordable housing. San Diego’s approach was different: it tried to convince property owners to work on rehabilitating any abandoned property they owned. The Maltese government tried something similar in the form of schemes that refund a part of restoration expenses.
More than anything however, the issue is beyond the ability of an odd scheme to repair. For significant numbers of buildings to be revitalised, a consistent program that makes use of a variety of strategies is required.