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Opinion & Analysis

Fairer housing now

Pic by Johnny Bugeja

By Rebecca Calderon
Gibraltar has a very unusual two-tier system when it comes to rental accommodation.

A one-bedroom flat in Engineer Lane, for example, could cost you £50 a month if it is rent-controlled or £1400 per month on the open market.

Most rent-controlled flats are in a very bad state as the landlords who are responsible for maintenance and upkeep cannot afford the costs.

Roofs leak, pipes burst, walls crack and gradually the properties are not fit for humans to live in yet humans do live in them.

Five years ago, GBC aired a heart-breaking documentary about the state of Gibraltar’s old town and the lives of the poor tenants who suffer these terrible conditions.

To be fair landlords were also interviewed to give their side of the story.

Many of them have inherited property passed down over the years and have been lumbered with an unfair responsibility.

They cannot put the rent up by much even if they carry out a total refurbishment, the tenants cannot be evicted and their children are also entitled to ‘inherit’ the rental.

The only solution is for the landlord to re-house them (at their cost) in another property as per the wishes of the tenant.

I’ve heard of a case where a landlord offered to buy his sitting-tenants a new flat in Gib V but the tenants refused as they said they did not want to leave the old town and be responsible for the maintenance of their new Gib V flat; these tenants preferred to live in a damp, leaking property rather than become mortgage-free home owners.

Landlords are understandably frustrated and often refuse to carry out any maintenance in the hope that the tenants will vacate; this rarely happens.

Tenants rightly report their unsanitary living conditions to the Environmental Agency and a whole circle of antagonism is created.

The old town is a neglected mess made up of a mixture of government-owned and privately owned buildings which have rents capped at impossibly low levels.

The government by way of building rental stock and organising existing stock are in a better position to decant tenants to modern estates and then sell the old properties.

Gradually there are pockets of beauty sprouting up here and there as a result.

New owners can apply to have their buildings ‘de-controlled’ once they have carried out the correct repairs, then they are at liberty to charge rents at full market value.

In time we see houses painted and restored, people return, demand cleaner streets, better lighting and in time a nicer environment is created. It seems sensible to try and find a solution to the ongoing stalemate which forces humans to live in shocking conditions and renders an area that should be a heritage jewel into a slum.

The only way to do this is to re-house all the sitting tenants whether in government or private rental over into decent government rental accommodation.

This way tenants all have a better quality of life and the landlords of the old town are free to sell or refurbish their properties.

These tenants have suffered for years in this cruel cat-and-mouse struggle but so too have the landlords.

People often deem landlords as rich ‘Fat Cats’ raking in the money, this may be so of those who buy vacant property but this is not the case if you are the landlord of a rent-controlled building full of sitting tenants and in need of massive repairs.

Recent statistics show that there are approximately one hundred and fifty cases of people living in pre-war rent-controlled flats in the old town.

Most have been waiting for years on a housing list which never seems to get any smaller despite the ongoing constant construction of tower blocks.

Government have just released plans for a modular eight-storey building consisting of over three hundred one-bedroom flats, described as temporary housing, to be located on Coaling Island.

This would be an ideal opportunity to re-house the one hundred and fifty and in-turn free-up the property in the old town with a clear town plan set out by the DPC for rapid refurbishment and urban renewal.

But will the government house those in dire need or use these blocks for others?

Governments don’t have a good track record on housing allocation.

When Mid Harbours was handed over to people on the waiting list many had already bought houses in Spain but declined to admit that to the Gibraltar authorities.

Those people should have informed the housing department they were no longer in need of social rental housing but instead they greedily took the keys.

Our community is fully aware of this unfair abuse where some people live in a house in Spain but also hold onto a cheap rental in Gibraltar which in turn could be used by others who are totally desperate.

There have also been recent cases where persons who were not on the list or eligible in any way have been given a government rental despite public outcry.

In a small society like ours, governments need to be minded to the affects these disparities have on us all including those who have been given the favours.

These temporary blocks at Coaling Island could be a clever and speedy solution to the historic problems experienced in the upper town but the government must use the opportunity wisely and allocate them to the right people.

We cannot have a repeat of the Mid Harbours bonanza where some people were gifted what was in-effect a second home.

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