The Conversation Series Episode 1: Affordable Housing


“What is the state of dwelling in our precarious age? On all sides we hear talk about the housing shortage, and with good reason. Nor is there just talk; there is action too. We try to fill the need by providing houses, by promoting the building of houses, planning the whole architectural enterprise. However hard and bitter, however hampering and threatening the lack of houses remains, the real plight of dwelling does not lie merely in the lack of houses. The real plight of dwelling is indeed older than the world wars with their destruction, older also than the increase of the earth’s population and the condition of the industrial workers. The real dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell. What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight?”

Martin Heidegger
‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ in ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ (1971)

 “What is the state of dwelling in our precarious age?” It is this question which frames our study into affordable housing. Housing has long been a political football, reduced to numbers quantifying rather than qualifying the territory of housing. With the topic of affordable housing taking a prominent position in public fora, it has become urgent to study the present state of housing even though many (including architects) have been operating in this field without truly considering the fundamental concern: how do people dwell? It is through this lens that Text Catalogue approaches the study into Affordable Housing.

This first conversation between students and various members from the architectural, housing, and anthropological scene offers points of entry into the discussion on affordable housing. Student projects from the Faculty for the Built Environment open the conversation with three individual but related design proposals in Hamrun. The ensuing conversation is freely developed and touches on various issues and themes. The event is documented allowing a recontextualising of the information as the study progresses and new avenues are explored.

An Affordable Housing Manifesto

University of Malta projects from Masters in Architecture students Miguel Petrovic, Daniel Xuereb and Jake Cortis: Introduction

DX: The manifesto addresses affordable housing as well as social housing in the context of Malta. And the present situation in short is this: if you are eligible (below the poverty line) for social housing you are given a unit for life. Those who don’t fall under the poverty line are at the mercy of the Free Market. The concept of Affordable Housing tries to bridge this gap. 

The application process for possible candidates currently asks for basic information of applicants – age, income, number of children, etc. – which is graded under a point system that determines whether applicants fall below the established poverty line. What we realised was that the process leans heavily on economic criteria. What if we could define and understand “poverty” not only by economic status, but also through qualities like level of education, mental and physical health and other criteria? This could make some people more eligible than others. More than that, we could begin to understand that social housing could move beyond a one-size-fits-all model and instead people can be ranked based on their potential to pull themselves out of poverty, to improve their situation. 

What we proposed is a different model of assessment. Instead of having just one large pool of people categorised under “Affordable Housing”, a series of affordability levels were defined starting from the lowest category, “Social Housing” followed by a series of Affordable housing levels; A1, A2, A3 until finally the “Open Market”. 

This was the foundation for our manifesto. We were 16 Masters of Architecture students working on this manifesto collectively, and then each person focused on a specific threshold of Affordable housing. Some students addressed ‘Affordable Student housing’ categorised under the A3 and upwards, whereas others would have tackled the poorer levels of society, so they would have tackled the lower ranked groups. 

Our collective projects addressed a broad demographic – the economically lower levels of society with the higher. We wanted to understand what the role of architecture is in supporting the interaction and tension between these very different parts of society.

JC: Beginning the project initially was about having a reaction to the data and facts we were unearthing in the group research. One of the first things we had to take in was the fact that in extending the discussion from social housing to affordable housing, you would have to apply a massive extension in the number of units to be available, for the increase by tens of thousands of people who would now fall into our area of concern. 

So, starting off with some of the data that emerged; we quote “100 million dedicated to build new blocks”. We see this as a very quick and brash way of just extending large blocks to cover the larger figures. It’s totally treated as a numbers game. 

Our opinion was that this was not a sustainable way of moving forward. We decided to take an approach which looked into how many vacant properties there are – a piecemeal approach to solving this housing issue. A late 2000s survey (and this was the most recently available statistic at the time of our research) showed that there were 41,000 vacant properties on the island.

‘Redefining the Centre’, Miguel Petrovic


The chosen site is a piazza located in front of Hamrun Police Station, which is currently the only open space which potentially could be used recreationally by the community. However, one witnesses a strong element of commercialisation – take the imposing presence of the kiosk for example – reserved only for those who want to consume. Does it become an uncomfortable space for the non-consumer? Layered onto that is a further problem with drug culture, which albeit through different means, continues to place limits on the space. Force is the only solution currently being implemented (through police action). If densification is to take place (as projected), these rare spaces of opportunity require better planning. A particular trait of this piazza is its potential to easily pull pedestrians in and encourage a flow of people through and out of it due to its proximity to the popular main road.

The design development started with a visibility study which took into account the team’s various projects developing on the site; it situates itself as the ‘connection’ between such projects. The space is a magnet from all visual points, and it is designed as a playful one – like a fabric which moulds to the interactions of the surrounding demographic. Aside from the piazza, the proposal expanded to include interventions on a dilapidated block which is currently only partly inhabited by three families and the police station at the edge. This block finds itself surrounded by dead frontages which are not working; a quasi no-man’s land separates it from a primary school and a grim block housing an old people’s home effectively serving as a barrier to these sites.

With that in mind, the goal became to introduce an intermediary street, one which cuts the dead spaces between the school and front-gates. Dissected perpendicularly to offshoot connection between the primary school and the front block – now located to be the ‘anchoring’ block. By stitching the spaces together, the entire site blends into one whole civic centre of sorts with mutual surveillance; local council, childcare centre, health care centre (rehabilitating the existing), police station, public library, housing directorate and social services centre. Newly inserted programs are arbitrary, and could assume any use or function so long as people are brought in.

Tectonically speaking, the roof plan converges with the ground plane. Visibility from the main street is opened to the back – a perforation in the existing massing, this to reduce dead frontages. The old people’s home currently hidden from the piazza now hosts an exposed courtyard made visible from across – a silent conversation between piazza goers and inhabitants of the old people’s home.

The focus of the project was on the experience of the space as opposed to solely the overall plan, hence the decision for exploration through the medium of sketches.

‘It’s all about you’, Daniel Xuereb


The title is a play on the slogan of the shopping centre ‘Daniel’s’ located across from Miguel’s project. Above the complex are several residential units currently undergoing maintenance and (perhaps aptly) recently been painted bright red.

The project locates the ‘red’ units to continue serving the function of housing and extends their scope in tackling the so-called housing crisis. The project questions what the housing crisis really demands beyond the lazy framing of lack of houses. Rather, the focus shifts towards working through evident tensions in the context of ‘dwelling’ in Hamrun, namely those arising from a recent spike in multi-ethnic communities in addition to established local residents. The approach strives to overcome the stigma presently associated with including foreigners within the local community and seeks to find a common ground from a superimposition of cultural elements – food here serves as a comfortable medium for experimentation of interaction and exchange.

The ground floor becomes the element for a testing ground. Its handling requires sensitivity – currently observable transgressions of the public into the ground floor are framed by having a purpose to enter – to shop. The difficulty here is as Koolhaas states, “conditioned space inevitably becomes conditional space; sooner or later all conditional space turns into junkspace” – taken from ‘Junkspace’, Rem Koolhaas October, Vol. 100, Obsolescence.

The outcome is the formation of units for multi-ethnic communities born of a commercial-residential mix. Testing various configurations aimed at incentivising residents to gain financial independence, these configurations could effectively pull people out of an economic bracket which requires a house to one which affords a house. By providing a means of income the house itself becomes an agent of change in the housing crisis. The varying mutations of shop-house collectively form a somewhat collage of cultures affording cross-integration by default of requirement of services/goods exchange.

The success of this concept is hinged on overcoming isolation and restriction of housing – as is the norm – by synthesizing with public spaces, commercial zones and workshops.

‘Hu il-Fama u mur orqod’, Jake Cortis


Ochella house has evolved over time. In an attempt to get rid of its stigma, the place was superficially renovated – fresh coat of paint, intercoms slapped on only to be quickly broken or stolen. Basically, a wasted investment to which residents retorted with a “why not just give us a key to close off the common access?”. Rampant drug usage, dirty passages, littered corridors, but still, signs of life sprout out like greenery through the cracks; a facade organically decorated over time appropriated with colourful umbrellas and signs on the balconies.

The design development started with a visibility study which took into account the team’s various projects developing on the site; it situates itself as the ‘connection’ between such projects. The space is a magnet from all visual points, and it is designed as a playful one – like a fabric which moulds to the interactions of the surrounding demographic. Aside from the piazza, the proposal expanded to include interventions on a dilapidated block which is currently only partly inhabited by three families and the police station at the edge. This block finds itself surrounded by dead frontages which are not working; a quasi no-man’s land separates it from a primary school and a grim block housing an old people’s home effectively serving as a barrier to these sites.

In contrast, the back facade is stark and massive, almost unidentifiable as a frontage at all from within the building – despite the largest proportion of common areas being orientated at this back portion of the building. This drew me towards a design approach focused on making the building more permeable, particularly in the context of a town now being filled up with different and unforeseen social strata. This aspect required that the project seeks to understand how the residents appropriated their spaces and what potentially new appropriations could be possible.

The building’s back side is dismantled and a new approach to the building is configured. The opening up for something new saw the introduction of performance spaces. These look onto the public realm and play a game of hide and seek – allowing for the birth of a multi-functional space based on the needs of the community.

It now becomes immediately noticeable that the building is not serving solely and purely a housing function/program but includes many ancillary facilities, namely the crucial incorporation of public space. How can our housing policies similarly look at the bigger picture and not strictly just at houses?

Excerpts from the Conversation

Density vs Sprawl

The conversation points towards solutions being a shade of grey – a black and white policy approach often deemed unfit, or largely missing out on opportunities: The students question how policy strategies could shift towards providing for different levels of affordability.

JC: In developing this approach we wondered how, within a particular area of urban fabric, we can try to fit in these different levels of affordability. From the onset we are aware that this is not a new approach, and that in fact there exist a number of schemes which follow a similar logic; one being the ‘restawr tad-djar battala’ which is still running locally at the moment. This scheme offers you 25,000 euro to fix up a derelict house and then you would lease it out to the government for ten years, following which you would have it back. Whilst we can see the value in this scheme and others similar to it, we must acknowledge that one type of scheme can and will not cater for all types of housing; in particular when looking towards the different levels of stratification that we identified earlier. What we think is that under that social stratification, we need to see different schemes being formulated for different issues. So just to take an example which could branch off from this existing scheme; it could be the case that a particular social stratum would only need to lease that property for 5 years. That could be an incentive for people who own derelict properties to, with a little bit of help, reinvest in them.

Another topic our research looked into was the effects of densifying urban fabric; so in the case of Hamrun for example, you already have a rather intense piece of urban fabric, where yet more people are being introduced into the small pockets which are still available. This raises questions; is the Maltese urban fabric ready for such over-densification of residences? We felt that Hamrun offered a good testing ground to look into this and similar questions.

AD: In fact undeveloped land is often taken to cater for new densification, rather than mixing into an already built but not necessarily inhabited part of the urban fabric.

MP: And you actually observe ‘social housing’ blocks to be very spread out and far apart from one another.

DX: A group of students asked some questions along this line. Do you put social housing in the central core? Or rather do you build on the outskirts, the fringes, or in new localities entirely (example of Mtarfa), away from surrounding towns? There is literature which is affirmative to both arguments.

AD: If you look at Pembroke there are scenarios where the barracks appropriated for social housing are far from the town centre and in these instances, you can observe that there is a strong community.

EFS: When you are walking in such spaces as an outsider, you feel like you have entered the space of a community, as though you have trespassed. You sense that you have gone across some boundary.

AD: This is where we wonder about issues of segregation, that risk being created from fringe developments.

EFS: I think it depends also on what the surrounding really is. If you were to take the Mtarfa housing project and compare it to Pembroke, in terms of typology, maybe they are similar, especially on plan, in that they’re focussed clusters which are surrounded by in-between or open space. But the experience of approaching one and the other is quite different. Pembroke is slightly swallowed up in trees and there is the coast road quite closeby which is a hard edge. On plan, Mtarfa is the same, but pulling up in your car there to take a walk around does not feel as intimidating. So it’s also about looking into the actual architecture of it and its surroundings.

Home Ownership & Social Transformation

Social Housing units in Mtarfa here – previously documented here – could shed some light on how form contributes to ownership.

MP: One thing we had noted about Mtarfa was that it became more private as you ascend the levels. The project is split on 4 levels, the first one feeling most ‘public’ and the top feeling most ‘private’. So we see privacy changing with height rather than with depth. This was very different from the case in Camrata in Valletta; where there was a total sense of ownership by the residence: the spaces in front of each flat felt like they became part of the flats themselves.

DX: It is however difficult to quantify this balance of public and private. I’ll give the example of a slice of light passing through from the top levels down to the lower levels; that alone could change or affect the experience of how intimate or open a space could feel.

AD: Equally telling are the locations of entrances and doorways. In Mtarfa we’ve observed some which would be hidden behind a bend, and others which better connect to the common walkway. It could sometimes feel a bit too open, and other times be more secluded. This is also probably where ownership of space is negotiated. How much ownership are the residents allowed over the space? How much of what is outside their property boundary can they ‘take’?

MP: We observed that in some cases it seemed that that extended ownership was healthy for the place and its community. Many of these pathways are like forests: corridors full of plants, you’ll find a playpen and a pushchair.

AD: Though walking through that space, did you feel like you are intruding?

MP: Not so much because it is all taken up. You would not see a single unclaimed corner, so you almost can’t read a contrast – it becomes normalised in some way. The residents also seem to abide by some unspoken rules. They know that they need to leave a passage of 1.5m.

DX: This is also where we can imagine certain arguments to break out. There are rare instances where that free passage is not respected.

JC: On the subject of ownership, there is an interesting observation that we made at the Mtarfa housing units. The residents there are partly from Rabat (the neighbouring town). It is quite clear that these people created their own micro-community. This is something perhaps related to the architecture in terms of its configuration of the space. You can feel a ‘mini Rabat’ in some parts; you see statues on the windows when the local feast is being celebrated. The building allows that background to filter through. The social stratification approach allows you to possibly work on this aspect and gives an insight into which people will be living together. Studying cultural backgrounds could surely be a crucial viewpoint into how people live.

AD: This is where the task of housing can become a bit paradoxical. You have to design for the many, but within that “many” there are very particular situations. Is this something you solve? How can an architect approach this paradox? This is where we could argue that the task is not only at the hands of architects, but also say anthropologists, people who study economics. It really is an ecosystem.

EFS: I think this is where it is important to acknowledge that as architects, in these situations we are often designing for a client which is unknown. How often is it that the building is designed and planned with a specific receiver in mind? That receiver is often anonymous and likely to change over time. There are different ways that residents can be grouped or introduced. So how can we prepare ourselves for this situation? Is it a matter of bringing in people from different professional backgrounds to enter the discussion?

RS: Definitely. One way of resolving that would be to look at social transformation. So what are the current needs? When we talk about housing, there is of course a huge history of housing. There is post war home ownership rhetoric which is very political in itself. The state wanted us to become homeowners, because it was a great help to society. But you also have the other side, which is stigma, in relation to the typologies you’ve mentioned. Why should social housing look different to any other type of housing? At the same time, I know that when housing was being built in the late 60s and early 70s, obviously money was an issue. This was the era of Perit Mintoff. At the same time there was an element of Socialist architecture, which if you look at how the space was designed, it was more inclusive.

On top of that, in questioning how you can accommodate multiple ‘publics’ – multiple cohorts of different people, from different parts of society: back then we possibly had a more homogeneous society. Today we have a situation which is very different; our societies are multicultural, we have different needs. The critique of allocation – which comes hand in hand with the typology, with architecture and with the way we design space, needs to be taken into consideration. Back in the 90s and the 2000s, they would say that you had to have mixed groups of people for housing to be successful – you had to have people from different generations, from different abilities. Nowadays however, it is believed that that would not work out. What I think was key, that worked out back in the 70s here in Malta is the fact that people were going through the same lifestyles. So if you can connect through relationships, through networks of people (and this is where anthropology comes in) this is where I think you can have successful relationships. Because, why is it that in one block of apartments things work out and in others they don’t? Most of the time it is because there is something which connects people. For example, and they would self-organise to take care of the common parts. Should that be a duty of the state, to be allocated, or should it be left in the hands of the people who inhabit that space? I think it should be a balance between the two.

I recently carried out an interview with a housing estate resident in San Gwann, and he told me something really interesting, he said: “when we moved here in 1976, it was embarrassing to move into social housing.” I found this strange at first – to me, it would be a ‘gift’. Housing is a basic need and it should be available for all: it is in the UN declaration that we all deserve housing and shelter. He went on to say that nowadays he doesn’t feel that stigma because all the surrounding is so built up that everyone is living in an apartment. And it is true that nowadays everyone is living in an apartment; and these apartments are very ‘mixed’, just like the housing estates are mixed.

The history of social housing therefore needs to look at the history of the people but also of the apartment. So yes, I think there should be an element of ownership and appropriation, to an extent that people can call that apartment their home. Because beyond focusing on housing and therefore ‘the house’, we need to understand that what people do is dwell. They create meaning out of four walls, and what they see outside of the window as well. I think a sense of belonging comes through a sense of ownership. Even if this may be a bit avantgarde for Malta, maybe we need not ‘finalise’ the apartment and allow people living there to finish it off.

Social Mobility

AD: I think it’s important to clarify the difference between Affordable Housing vs Social Housing.

RS: Social housing is also affordable housing, but affordable housing is not necessarily social. Malta is used to social housing, which is what we know as welfare: this is a system backed by rent, which is worked out in relation to income. This allows us to say that Social housing is also affordable housing. Affordable housing is housing that does not exceed more than 30% of a person’s income.

JY: The most important part of the research is the chart – the idea of entitlement and the poverty line. The moment you fall under the line of welfare you are almost taking a house for no work. The problem is that the system encourages people not to work. In this sense making a bit of effort is worse for your income.

DX: This is why the assessment criteria should not just be income but other factors like educational level. That way you are encouraged to work above the line, rather than remain below it to take the benefits. Our research showed that this was significantly magnifying the number of applications.

RS: I do not necessarily agree. The profile of families applying have changed. We are recently seeing that many applicants today are recent graduates.

JY: Nonetheless, we should not give people what we call entitlement, a reason to think “I don’t have anything, so I have to get a free house”. The position must be earned. So in a sense people are looking down rather than working themselves up. This is one of the negative effects of social housing. If we look at the economy and the current social housing condition, people say “how much of my income – how many years of it – must I save to get a house? Whereas if I do not earn an income I will most likely receive a house immediately. And I’m entitled to stay forever”. People should be encouraged to work out of it rather than into it.

DX: This was exactly the incentive to position our design projects in the imagined scenario of an affordable housing scheme; how would we go about it architecturally?

The graph we devised through our research becomes a tool of assessment, which supposedly is responded to by an architectural solution; for example, someone falling below the line gets 100% subsidized but the further up one moves the lower the subsidy given. But in shifting the measurement purely from income to the notion of performance, i.e. taking into account age, psychological state, education, health, etc. we are able to understand a current state in relation to a reachable state: over time the subsidy will decrease based on assessment of a person’s performance and ability to move up the scale. Somebody starting at the bottom is viewed to have the potential to move all the way up until finally in the open market.

JY: It is about the assessment of potential.

RS: I’m glad to hear this – It’s not just about putting a roof over someone’s head.

MP: This system could relieve the stigma of housing.

PB: How do you implement this architecturally?

JY: I think the “shop-house” proposed is an interesting response. This typology can respond to that potential. It is incentivising – and like it I am sure that there are many other typologies which can react in a similar way.

AD: Doesn’t this system risk still relying too heavily on economic achievement?

JY: There are other factors but those must be tackled entirely differently. Most cases are indeed about economic achievement.

PB: You could liken this to an element of behavioural economics. We could ask “what is a status symbol within that subculture? Is there anything that makes me want to move into an apartment through my ability?” It’s kind of like the metaphor of awarding a medal to all children on sports day – fairness is a very difficult concept. The problem with housing is that it is very generic, so it is difficult to address fairness based on an individual’s characteristics. Maybe what is required is addressing these status symbols as incentives/awards for people moving upwards.

JY: There must be a target to motivate people – an attraction to move people up. These projects curate something to gravitate towards in Hamrun. What we observe currently is linear – but if we could break that pattern, the status of the town, and indeed of its dwellers, could change.

The Conversation Series Episode 1: Affordable Housing was held on 11th September 2019, at Box Concept Studio. Special thanks to University of Malta Masters in Architecture Students Miguel Petrovic, Daniel Xuereb and Jake Cortis, Perit JingYao Xu and Perit Peter Brincat from Box Concept Studio for kindly hosting the event, and invited guests and conversation participants Dr. Rachael Scicluna, Luke Fenech, Jean Ebejer, Edward Zammit, John Bajada, Isaac Buttigieg, Jeremy Mangion, Tracey Sammut and Ellie Demarco.