Saturday, 24 January 2009

Times: Unmarried elderly couple worried about rent reform
Saturday, 24th January 2009
Ariadne Massa

A woman in a 40-year relationship is worried she'll be out on the streets because of the discriminatory rent laws being passed in Parliament.

Every morning Cettina*, 68, wakes up with knots in her stomach and a gripping fear that any day soon her partner will die and she will be thrown out on the streets by the landlord.

The couple, who have been cohabiting for 40 years, were never able to formalise their relationship because Cettina was previously married. She escaped her marital home in Canada with her daughter because her husband used to beat her. She never managed to track him down to start the process of annulment.

Having found a second chance at love in Leli*, today aged 72 and suffering from the debilitating Parkinson's disease, Cettina was eager that they found a place to call home. After four years, they rented a two-bedroom flat in Rue D'Argens, Sliema, which they have been living in since... but the rental clock is now ticking with the proposed rent reform legislation.

The crux of the problem is the reform does not recognise cohabiting couples in the same way it acknowledges those who are married, so on Leli's demise Cettina has no right to remain in the house because the rental papers are in her partner's name.

"The landlord has already told me: 'Once Leli dies you'd better find an alternative home because I'm taking over the place.' I'm sad and desperate," she admitted.

While the government is working to pre-empt abuse that would hinder the owner from ever getting his property back, it is letting cases such as Cettina's fall through the safety net, through its failure to recognise cohabiting couples. On the other hand, the proposed reform upholds the right of continuity for a surviving spouse and children to secure their position against ending up on the streets.

This distinction was highlighted in Parliament by Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat and Labour MP Evarist Bartolo, who stressed Malta needed legislation on civil partnerships of cohabiting or gay couples.

Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg had retorted during the debate that the government was being accused of not championing the rights of the owner and questioned whether Labour was looking to help those who decided to cohabit after they were widowed.

As the debate continues in Parliament, in the apartment where Cettina and Leli live the conversation is dominated by the fear of insecurity.

The couple have been trying to move out in order to stamp out the daily uncertainties but they live on one pension and they can ill-afford to buy or rent another place.

At present they pay the landlord an annual rental fee of €210, which was recently doubled from the €105 they used to pay a year after he fixed the structurally unsafe stairwell. They are not complaining; all they want is a two-roomed place where they can live their "last days" in peace.

However, the future does not look promising. They have been on the Housing Authority's waiting list for 13 years, "but we're obviously not a priority".

As they get older, the couple are feeling increasingly imprisoned in their Sliema flat, which has 60 uneven steps. Cettina is on the waiting list for a cartilage operation and suffers severe back problems and Leli also suffers from chronic obstructive lung disease, hypertension and glaucoma.

Bringing out their files of medical ailments, they look forlorn that the authority has failed to consider their problems and secure them a small, ground floor place.

"I have given up. I pray to God to end my life," she said, her eyes welling with tears.

"We're desperate. I am not protected by law and I'm just so, so scared."

*Names have been changed to protect the persons' identity.

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