Under normal circumstances writing about public policy in the real estate sector in Lebanon is akin to writing about the intellectual value of a parliamentary debate — there is just not much of the former to talk about in the later. Currently, however, a new draft law being discussed in the government has the potential to reshape the playing field for tenants, landlords and developers. How far it gets toward implementation is, as always in Lebanon, the major question.
The property market until now
Politicians have tended to adopt a decidedly laissez-faire approach to this lucrative corner of the Lebanese economy and policies are somewhat thin. After all, many of the men sitting in parliament have built their own fortunes from bricks and mortar and are wary of government interference. However, changes are afoot and all is not business as usual.
Lebanon is anomalous, in that while land and property prices have climbed steeply skyward over the past couple of decades and luxury apartment blocks have sprouted unrelentingly from the earth, there are tens of thousands of people paying virtually non-existent rents. These somewhat contradictory realities are the consequence of a series of laws stretching back to the end of World War II (as was discussed in detail in Executive’s March issue).
As a new world order was being forged out of the rubble of war, Lebanon enacted the ‘old rent law’ to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords. The legislation stipulated extending the existing contracts, even if against the landlords’ will, at the same rent. This law served its purpose in the short term but as the months turned into years and the years into decades, inflation ravaged the real value of the rents. Tenants were left laughing and landlords were left seething. “For the past over 70 years we have been living under the tyrant rule of rent control,” says Joseph Zoghaib, head of the Association of Landlords in Lebanon.
With the end of Lebanon’s notorious fifteen-year civil war in 1991 began the gargantuan mission of rebuilding the nation, and in 1992 rent law 160 was enacted, which went someway to addressing the imbalance between tenants and landlords. The law liberalized the real estate rental markets and allowed landlords to negotiate new contracts, but the legislation only allowed cosmetic adjustments to the amounts paid by tenants on ‘old rents’ — that is, rents from before 1992. As such there are now thousands of tenants enjoying their old rents from before 1992 while others are struggling with soaring prices. As the debate about a grand solution has moved back and forth, the law has been extended no less than a dozen times, and last expired at the end of March this year.
The potential new game
As such, the country’s landlords and residents are currently living in legal limbo, uncertain as to whether the law will be extended once again or if a new piece of legislation, which is currently under consideration, will be passed and realign the perennial quirk of Lebanon’s old rents. A member of parliament (MP) on the Justice and Administration Committee — the body fleshing out the details on the new law before it goes to a vote in parliament — told Executive on condition of anonymity that, “Up until now I really am not sure if there will be an agreement. It could go either way.”
While there is near unanimous agreement that the landlords are being done an injustice, the dispute concerns how this can be corrected without throwing tens of thousands of tenants onto the streets. How many people are on old rents is a matter of dispute; Zoghaib claims there are 81,000 of which only 13,000 are poor Lebanese who need support; the parliamentary source claims there are around 150,000 of which up to 50,000 would not manage at market rates and argues, “If there are 50,000 who cannot pay what are you going to do with them? Are you going to send the police to throw them on the street like in America? There will be a kind of revolution in Lebanon. You simply cannot do that here.”
Executive obtained a copy of the draft law as presented to the Justice and Administration Committee and it incorporates a number of measures intended to protect the tenants during the process of the landlord’s property being liberated. The proposal is to have old rents increase over a 6-year period to an amount agreed by the landlord and tenant and overseen by government appointed experts. The landlords will increase rents by 15 percent annually for four years and then 20 percent for the final two years. The tenant also has the right to stay for an additional three years at market rates if they request it at least three months before the end of the six-year period.
There are also clauses relating to the conditions if a landlord wants to buy a tenant out during the six-year period. If the landlord wants the property for their family they must pay four years rent after four years of rent increases, and if they want to demolish the building they must pay six years rent at the increased rates. If properties are deemed to be luxurious these amounts will be halved.
For low income households there will be a government fund established to assist them with the rents over the nine-year period. What’s more there is a parallel law, which encourages the development of affordable rent-to-own housing. According to the source within the Justice and Administration the legislation stipulates, “If you make a building and you rent it on a rent-to-own basis over a long period the law will give benefits to you. It gives benefits such as tax breaks and allows developers to build 20 percent higher than what is permitted in the building code, which the developer can do with as he likes.”
The developers’ push
While the landlords have reservations about the law, Zhogeib says, “We have to accept it as it has the liberation clause, which liberates our properties after nine years.” Zhogeib is adamant that the only opposition to the law comes from the “communists”, but in reality the debate is far more complex.
The fact is that the politicians that are preparing the law to put it to the floor in parliament are at loggerheads over who should receive government support and by how much.
The unnamed MP says, “There is still conflict over how much a tenant will take from the landlord if he decides to leave in the first year to free it up for a landlord to do as he likes. Should it be six years or nine years [rent]? And also for the poor people who are unable to pay the rent, how do we determine the standard for who the government will support? Is the line households earning LL2 million per month, or LL3 million or LL4 million?”
If the politicians fail to reach a consensus on these details within the law in their next session then the old law will have to be extended once again. This is anathema to Zoghaib, who threatens: “We’re starting to make a list of the influential people in parliament and society who are tenants on the old rents and we are going to make a CV of them, on what they rent, where and for how much. We are going to scandalize them. I don’t care.”
A universal benefit that would likely ensue from the passing of this law would be the money earned by landlords that could be put towards the maintenance of buildings — the importance of which was tragically highlighted with the collapse of a neglected old building in the Fassouh area of Beirut that killed 27 people in January. What is more, if landlords are able to start earning market rental rates then there will be more incentive to protect Lebanon’s heritage buildings.
Mona el-Hallak, architect and member of the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings (APSAD), says, “Landlords need to be able to make money on these properties if they are going to have an incentive to maintain them and not destroy them.” After years of campaigning for the preservation of Lebanon’s heritage, Hallak is despondent about the management of urban planning and concedes, “I have come to accept anything is better than nothing. Really it is in that desperate a state.”
Corruption destroying communities
In addition to the years of heritage protection legislation being watered down or just flagrantly abused, Lebanon also has no comprehensive urban planning code.
“The Director General of Urban Planning (DGU) should have developed an urban planning strategy for the whole country but they have done nothing,” says Hallak. “They do little jobs here and there but nothing that is applicable.”
The DGU did publish a national land use master plan in 2005, but by the admission of a senior employee — who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his job — “It is schematic and not specific.” Moreover, it is not binding.
One only needs to look out of the window to witness the consequent haphazard and incongruous development that is engulfing Lebanon.
As to the rules governing the actual construction and development of buildings, Lebanon has a building code. The unnamed employee at the DGU explains, “The building code is written by the DGU in collaboration with certain specific people and the developers have a large influence on this code.”
Referring to the code, examples were given as to how the exploitation rate — the amount of floor space that can be built per square meter of land — has been increased to increase developers profitability.
What’s more the code is full of nuances, such as allowing more floor space to be developed if underground parking is made public, but by the admission of the DGU employee this is then just made private and no one checks up on the issue. “There is something wrong in our regulation,” says the DGU employee. “It is so free that there are gaps that the developers can go through and do whatever they want.”
One of the most divisive trends in Lebanese real estate is the increasing predominance of high-rise towers shooting up around the city, and especially among heritage clusters. Any building that is more than 50 meters tall needs to get permission from the DGU, but as the DGU employee says: “Why do they always seem to get permission? Well, there are no criteria within the DGU to say when we can build 50 meters, or 100 meters. At the end of the day these big buildings belong to the nation’s major developers and they are working with political backers.”
Due to the absence of any coherent urban planning policy, and with the powerful hand of the development companies and speculators reaching into the institutions and even the laws that govern the sector, there is no holistic approach to development and construction.
“The laws have not been outlined in the interest of the community, not after a study of the socio-economic areas, not after a study of the welfare of the communities, but they are a result of the pressure from the landowners and speculators for the maximum coefficient of land use irrespective of the damage it creates to the community,” says Assem Salem, former president of The Order of Architects and Engineers.
Shifting the focus back to the suits in parliament, all property owners in Lebanon — whether they are big fish or small fry — will have their eyes on Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi’s proposed budget for 2012, as it contains a proposal for a capital gains tax on all real estate transactions. The plan that has been put forward is a 4 percent tax on the sale of properties purchased before 2009, whereas real estate owned since 2009 would be subject to a 15 percent tax.
While the government could certainly use the extra dosh and some argue it will reduce real estate speculation, many industry insiders argue the timing is wrong for such a fiscal policy maneuver.
If it was going to be done it should have been a few years ago when the market was strong,” says Karim Makarem, director at Ramco Real Estate Advisors. “Now it is plateauing and needs support. This will not help.”
Whether parliament actually passes the law in its draft form or dilutes it into impotence, or passes the budget (which last happened last in 2005), is yet to be seen. And then, even if it is passed, it will have the hurdles of political duplicity and weak institutions to vault before implementation. Given this, the continued chaos amid Lebanon’s urban development likely has some time remaining to play.
This article was published as part of a special report in Executive's July 2012 issue