More than a real estate agency | Albert Buttigieg

The Housing Authority’s CEO Albert Buttigieg has set his sights on changing the way people look at social housing and is determined to bring about a cultural change whilst maintaining the authority’s social responsibilities.

Housing Authority CEO Albert Buttigieg
Housing Authority CEO Albert Buttigieg

As I made my way to the Housing Authority's offices in Floriana, I was struck by the large number of empty and unused buildings in the old town named after the Italian military engineer, Pietro Paolo Floriani. This brought to mind the thousands of empty dwellings all over the Maltese islands while the Housing Authority receives hundreds of requests from people asking for assistance.

As we take a seat in the authority's offices, CEO Albert Buttigieg makes it very clear that the authority is not a real estate agency. "We will still provide physical homes but we also have a social agenda especially in respect to the most vulnerable persons in society. The authority supports these persons by showing solidarity."

Buttigieg, a former Sedqa coordinator, is delighted with what he has achieved in the last one and a half years he has been at the helm of the Housing Authority and has an ambitious but sensible plan to change the attitude towards home-ownership and social housing.

Historically, housing has been used by political parties to grab votes. However, Buttigieg says that since taking office one and half years ago he has not experienced any political interference. While admitting that for decades that authority was used as a political tool to win votes and alter the fine balance in electoral districts, Buttigieg says that this no longer the case.

"I recently came across an MP and I did explain to him that politicians are the authority's foot soldiers because they enter homes and come into touch with social cases which the authority does not come across."

He explains that a lack of adequate housing results in social problems and adds that "in the equation of social problems one finds that many times there is a lack of social housing.  Throughout the past year the authority has been trying its best to improve the quality of people's lives by doing more than just giving out properties."

Buttigieg explains what the authority's remit is. "Our responsibilities are split into three; social housing, affordable housing and housing schemes."

Asked to explain the differences, Buttigieg says that social housing targets "socially and economically vulnerable persons who are unable to afford to own their own house or rent a place."

On affordable housing, he explains that the authority also helps persons such as first time buyers who have some difficulties in purchasing a house.

"The schemes give decency and dignity to vulnerable persons," Buttigieg says. He seems particularly proud of the authority's schemes which go beyond the perceived role of the authority as a provider of houses and apartments. Buttigieg explains that the new schemes aim at obtaining a culture change in the way people look at housing by empowering and educating persons currently living in housing estates and the general public.

At present the authority has 1,209 buildings with six or 12 apartments each spread out in 52 localities. The authority also has thousands of other properties which fall under different schemes. On the waiting list, Buttigieg says that at the moment the authority has a waiting list of around 1,800 persons. However, Buttigieg makes it a point to explain that the authority does not put everyone in the same category.

"We split applicants according to different needs and according to the different circumstances. Just to give an example, at present 406 of these applicants are sharing an accommodation but are living in adequate circumstances. On the other hand, at the end of February, the authority had 520 applicants which it considers as a priority," Buttigieg explains.

Buttigieg says that the priority applicants would be persons living in overcrowded residences, social cases referred to the authority by other agencies such as Appogg and Sedqa and victims of domestic violence, the homeless and persons who previously lived in orphanages or institutes and are now 18 years old.

"We meet all applicants one by one and sometimes people do not understand why some applicants are given precedence. I liken this to an emergency room in hospital where everybody has to wait for his or her turn but if somebody walks in with severe injuries, that person will be given precedence."

Buttigieg underlines the importance the authority gives to applicants who are willing to improve their personal situation and he bluntly says that these persons will be given priority over other applicants who are dependent on social services. He does not deny that everybody is entitled to apply for housing, however not all applicants show the same motivation to move forward.

"We help those who are willing to help themselves. People who are actively seeking work or taking training courses will be given priority over applicants who are addicted to social services."

He says that some people do not have a lot of room to manoeuvre because of physical constraints but some others simply do not try to improve because they believe they are entitled to such benefits and do not do anything to change their life. "People who do not help themselves will be stuck in their current situation and will not empower themselves," Buttigieg says.  

Buttigieg talks at length on the schemes which the authority offers including subsidies on rent, subsidies for first time buyers, the sale of government premises, the installation of lifts, redemption of plots, the regeneration of housing estates, the maintenance of common parts, assistance to foster carers and NGOs.

On the grants for first-time buyers, Buttigieg expresses his own personal opinion and says that in the light of the growing rate in marriage breakdown and the higher incidence of cohabitation "young couples would be better off renting then buying, at least for the first few years" as this would make things easier in the case of separation.

Buttigieg stresses the importance of the schemes for better communities and highlights the difference between having a house and a home. He explains that one of the authority's aims is to empower residents and change their attitude towards their abode. 

"We have encountered some resistance especially when removing illegal structures on roof tops but after putting in a lot of efforts, residents themselves are realising that they are responsible for their own residences which also includes common areas and roof tops." Buttigieg adds that in the process of removing illegal structures, apart from pigeon and rabbit sheds the authority came across some curious and absurd cases such as residents keeping a horse and a crocodile on a roof top and an above ground swimming pool which endangered the stability of the whole building.

On the residents' association which has been met with some resistance, Buttigieg says that the authority is offering incentives such as a reduction of rent to whoever takes the responsibility to lead a resident association. "I hold regular meetings with residents and gradually residents are taking more interest in setting up and participating in associations because they realise that it is to their benefit."

He explains that the authority is undertaking educational campaigns not only in housing estates but also in schools. The authority published an illustrated booklet which explains what should and should not be done in housing estates. Buttigieg says that this campaign has been a success. 

When asked whether the State is too dependent on Church and voluntary organisations who offer shelter and accommodation to a number of vulnerable sectors such as orphans, the homeless, refugees, victims of domestic violence and persons with drug and alcohol addictions, Buttigieg admits that these organisations have limited resources and the State is duty bound to intervene and shoulder more responsibility.

The Authority's schemes are also available for refugees and Buttigieg says that refugees are treated equally to all other applicants. "We do not consider them to be different. If we want to practice and promote inclusion in our society we cannot exclude refugees from housing."

Buttigieg said that some refugees are being abused by landlords who rent out sub-standard places such as basements to refugees. He calls this "shameful" and adds that sometimes refugees are left with no choice.

On the authority's schemes Buttigieg says "we make no distinction between married persons or single persons, we make no distinction between gay or straight persons. We make no distinctions between anyone at all, although we have criteria which all applicants must fulfil."

According to the census there are over 50,000 vacant dwellings in Malta, however Buttigieg says that there is no agreement on the figures because the numbers include summer residences, condemned buildings, sub-standard dwellings and places which are not habitable.

Yet, he admits that there are thousands of empty dwellings and says "that is why we have issued the rent scheme which encourages owners to rent vacant places. Additionally the government is not constructing new buildings because of a lack of land and because of the social cost of social housing."

Buttigieg says that social costs are often overlooked. He explains that while it is very probable that persons with social problems live in social housing, it does not mean that all persons living in social housing have social problems.

 "Social costs cannot be quantified in numbers or in monetary terms but the effects are tangible," Buttigieg says. 

Asked whether everybody in social housing deserves to keep their home, Buttigieg takes a bold stand and says: "Speaking in my personal capacity I believe that persons who no longer deserve to live in a social housing home because they have moved on in their lives and have moved up the social ladder should not remain in social housing. They should make room for somebody else who is in the same precarious position they were years ago and ensure that the authority helps other persons move forward."

Yet when asked what the chances are of this happening, Buttigieg explains that due to a multitude of reasons - including political ones - such a thing is almost impossible.