"Of course, there is no bribery in Lebanon, there is no bribery in this office,” quipped the official at the finance ministry’s Directorate of Cadaster and Real Estate (DCRE), where property owners in Beirut register their deeds. The wry smile and wink before adding, “no seriously, we have no comment,” belied the accusations of endemic corruption among the laws and bureaucracy that fashion the nation’s construction sector.
As the villages, towns and cities metamorphose to fashion the future residential, commercial and industrial face of Lebanon, exorbitant amounts of money are being made. The construction sector has grown immensely over the years and today comprises some 15 percent of the Lebanese economy, double what it did in 2003, with yearly volumes peaking at $9.5 billion in 2010. Deciding what is built, for whom it is built and where it is built has a profound impact on the country’s social, environmental and physical fabric, and is also clearly near the center of its economic heart — precisely why Executive, in this following report, offers a closer inspection of the charges of institutional corruption, political patronage and irresponsible practices plaguing Lebanese real estate.
The letter of the law
Construction in Lebanon is regulated by a plethora of laws, with the first Urban Planning Code passed in 1962 stating that “integrating the master plan and guidelines for cities and villages within the comprehensive plan for territory arrangement is mandatory.” Whilst this legal development endeavored, with very limited success, to realize a grand strategy for the nation’s territory, a decree passed in 1983 further outlined an urban planning code to map and implement designs and systems for urban areas. Within this plan construction is managed by a system of building permits, which are governed by the official Building Code.
Article 25 of the urban planning code stipulates: “The construction, conversion, restoration and renewal of buildings of different types, are subject to the provisions of the Building Code. The building permit may only be granted if the works planned to take place are in conformity with the rules specified in the Building Code.”
Obtaining such a permit from the local municipality is the first hurdle any developer must cross once they have purchased their property. Gripes of corruption and bribery at this stage are commonplace. “Everyone has to go through the ‘proper channels’,” said a developer we will call ‘Hani’, as he spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his business. “Nobody gets away without paying. It is big money. On big projects you are talking tens of thousands of dollars.” The accusations of widespread bribery within the real estate and construction sector are supported by a poll conducted in 2002 by Beirut-based research firm Information International which showed that 28.6 percent of respondents paid bribes within the sector, even when they had fully abided by the law, and 42.5 percent said they had not met the legal requirements but paid bribes to complete a transaction.
The system under the table
The rationale behind paying is two-fold. Firstly, developers know that if they don’t grease the right palms their application could get passed from pillar to post within the bureaucracy, leaving their project to stall. “A law was passed that limited the time they could take to return your file. Which is two months at the latest, but it is never enforced because even after that time they can always find something that needs to be changed and then you will resubmit again and then another two months and so on,” said Hani. Time is money, he reasoned, and as there is no escaping the inevitable requests for bribes, it is a price worth paying.
The second motive to pay bribes is to secure a lower price on the building permit itself, which is linked to the average value of land in the area. Hani explained: “There is no fixed amount of money for a square meter in a street. It is between X and Y, and the range is very big. They say they will give you the higher rate so you pay them a little under the table and they charge the lower fee. This is a very common practice.”
An engineer, who also insisted on speaking anonymously, reinforced this assertion saying, “This board [that appraises average street value] is the head of the municipality, the head of the engineering department and a third person. You bribe these people and you will receive a discount on this assessment” — something he said happens with “every single permit”.
Bilal Hamad is the president of the municipal council of Beirut and presides over this committee. He resolutely denies that there is any scope for corruption in the process. “No way [is there bribing]. This is completely wrong. We put the price on the land based on our estimate of that sector in which the land is, depending on the zoning,” he said. “We try to play it as logically as possible.”
Hamad admits that the prices within different sectors are not available to the public and any final valuation from the committee is based on “market prices” — however notoriously variable they might be from one block to the next.
Once a developer has run the bureaucratic gauntlet within their municipality and purchased a building permit they can move on with their construction. However, as the diggers are put to work and the concrete set in its mold, complaints of further underhanded practices persist.
“A $4 million project would cost around $100,000 in bribes from start to finish from building permits, occupancy permits and then electricity and so on,” said Mona Halak, an architect and a member of the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon (APSAD). “Every single issue in construction has a department and every one has its cost. It’s an industry within the municipality.”
One man’s burden is another man’s gain, and there are offices of people who make a healthy living navigating the inner machinations of the bureaucracy, making sure the right papers are signed and the money-packed envelopes placed in the right drawers.
“I have someone who knows all the people and I pay them to go and do it for me,” said Hani. “This is very common. There are offices specifically for this purpose. I’ll be paying those offices around five to ten thousand dollars [per project] for this service.”
When asked whether bribery and corruption with regards to construction were common practice within the Beirut municipality, Hamad said he would not comment on the specifics because, he claimed, the responsibility lay within the concerned departments of the municipality and he was not privy to the details.
“I come from a world of ethics and I am trying to do as much as possible to raise the level of ethical awareness in the municipality,” said Hamad. “We are trying to review the structure to reduce the time between application for the permit and the issuance, and also any possible violation of laws and regulations.”
When challenged on whether there were any specific policies or oversight mechanisms being employed, he declined to comment.
As the construction phase on a building nears completion and the cranes come to rest the developer has to reenter the bureaucratic melee, but this time at a department within the ministry of finance. To obtain the property deeds the final construction has to be appraised at the DCRE’s Afraaz inshaat, roughly translated as the ‘building registry’, upon which one percent will be paid on the total value. With the deeds in hand the developer can sell the building or apartments within it, but with a sale comes a transfer of title, which carries a cost of 5.25 percent. So once again there is an appraisal and once again the developers will pay bribes to get a favorable price.
“The government is screwed here,” said Hani. “Lets say you buy an apartment for $1 million and pay 5.25 percent — you are paying $52,000; if you register it for $600,000 you are paying $31,500. So the government gets around half of what it should get. As for the person registering it, they take a healthy cut. How much? It depends, there really is no science in that calculation.” Officials at the registry refused to comment on the accusation.
The developers’ law
Assem Salam, former president of the Order of Architects and Engineers, lamented the failings of the state in managing urban development: “All of these permits are to the law but the problem is that the law and all the regulations are wrong, because these laws were outlined not 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 landowners and speculators for the maximum coefficient of land use irrespective of the damage it creates on the community.”
On June 20, 2009, decree 2366 was passed in which the government adopted a comprehensive plan for development in Lebanon, albeit with a delayed implementation of four years. The fact that there is no ministry of planning, or any other body which coordinates between ministries, lends credence to Salam’s assertion that the laws and the governing institutions are kept purposefully weak so as to allow the property developers and speculators free rein.
“The Building Code is constantly being changed in favor of the developers because it is really controlled by… the main developers who are the ones who determine what is in this law,” said Architect Mona Halak. “They have a committee where they come together and meet and decide what needs changing to accommodate what they need in the coming years. It is a secret club, but everybody knows about it.”
She cited a recent amendment whereby areas such as lifts, stairwells and secondary walls were taken out of the calculations measuring the construction area, thereby increasing the potential exploitation factor (how much floor space can be built on any piece of land) on buildings by up to 30 percent. That is to say a building that would have previously been permitted to have 5,000 square meters (sqm) could be increased to 8,000 sqm.
“There is no urban planning policy in this country,” said Muhammad Fawaz, the former director general of urban planning. “There is talk of urban planning but there is no actual implementation on the ground… The government has no role in the speculation that happens. There are no property policies. They have no desire to interfere in this sector.”
The octogenarian still writes and campaigns on this issue and at his office in southern Beirut he brandished the most recent building law passed in December 2004. “This was made by the developers… this is their law,” he said.
Salam claimed the “devilish arrangement between the Council of Ministers [Lebanon’s Cabinet], the politicians and the speculators,” is enabled by the fact that the responsibility for the establishment of land use and urban plans does not lie with the municipalities, but ultimately with the Council of Ministers, which, “is a political body subject to political desiderates, and to influence by the speculators on a higher level.”
Architect Halak explained that even within these laws, corners can, and regularly are, cut due to both professional incompetence and legal loopholes. For example, every tower that is built requires a traffic impact assessment to see how the increased car load from the development will affect the local infrastructure and road network.
“People buy traffic impact studies, they are just photocopied because no one really reads them,” she said. “They don’t care what is in the report; they just want to see it is there.”
This flagrant disregard for the sound development of Lebanon’s shared urban areas may be disconcerting, but when the same practice is done with the soil reports the implications have the potential to be far more serious, or even fatal in the event of building collapse. Halak maintains that these documents, which say whether the soil in a certain plot can support a particular structure, are similarly bought as slightly doctored copies of recent reports. Policing these and similarly shady building practices is the responsibility of the Internal Security Forces [ISF], tasked with monitoring the implementation of the building permits. Considering that the ISF regularly fails to even direct traffic properly, it can be of no surprise that they have little inclination or capability to monitor technical building practices.
View from the street
Construction is about more than just steel and concrete — it is about creating the spaces where people live. Proper regulations and their implementation ought to ensure that this development leaves people with places they can afford to live in, is sustainable with the natural environment and contributes to the physical and social wellbeing within the communities we all share. What the corruption endemic in Lebanon’s real estate sector does is erode all of those things, lowering the quality of life for those who reside in this country.
Indeed, we would do well to take heed of a quote from a bygone era: “First we shape our buildings and then they shape us.”
This article is part of a ongoing series covering corruption in different sectors carried out with the support of the Lebanese Transparency Association.