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Housing rights after the Beirut port explosion

by Public Works Studio

Heightening violations

In addition to its tragic toll on human lives, the August 4, 2020 Beirut Port explosion intensified existing injustices and threats of permanent displacement to tenants. A survey by the Order of Engineers and Architects shows at least 1,120 buildings are in need of repair in the neighborhoods closest to the explosion, consisting largely of old or historical buildings densely inhabited by tenants. The official response to one of the biggest explosions in history came in October 2020, in the form of a law meant to protect the damaged and affected areas and support their reconstruction. However, the main motivation behind the law is to protect real estate interests, while only 30 percent of the affected neighborhoods’ residents have indeed returned to their homes to date, according to CARE figures.

The law once again stresses the sanctity of individual property rights and the freedom of contract within the framework of free market economics, while ignoring the fundamental right of housing. Moreover, and in clear disregard for the concept of social justice, the law deprives residents from agency in the rapid restoration of their damaged buildings and fails to stipulate criteria and priorities for the recovery of the most affected neighborhoods. Although it provides for the extension of residential and non-residential lease contracts in damaged properties for a period of one year, preventing evictions in that period, most residents are unaware of their rights and there have been no official attempts to enforce the law. Additionally, the extension period is clearly insufficient amid the stifling economic, financial, and social crises plaguing the country, especially considering that building restoration is a lengthy process and compensation distribution is slow.

Tallying violations

As at end-June 2021, the Housing Monitor had recorded 127 eviction threats from the most damaged areas. Over half of those came from Rmeil, Mdawar, and Saifi, the cadastral sectors protected by the law; other threats came from Bachoura, Karm el Zaytoun, and Burj Hammoud, which were heavily affected, yet not included by the law. Based on the above reports and further fieldwork, we can summarize housing rights violations as follows:

The failure to provide alternative housing while repairs are pending. The state has left the most vulnerable groups exposed to homelessness and obliged to bear the burden of securing housing within a context lacking social policies that produce affordable and decent housing. 

The failure to provide a clear plan for renovation. The rapid, temporary relocation necessitated by the blast risks turning into permanent displacement. According to a survey Public Works conducted on a sample residential neighborhood between Armenia Street and Al Khazinein Street in October 2020, 42 percent of apartments were permanently vacated, compared to 58 percent classified as temporarily vacated until the completion of repairs. Many tenants were evicted or permanently relocated. Some of them left permanently before the end of their written or oral contract, unable to bear the costs of renovation or the psychological trauma, or unable to wait for hypothetical repairs. Many were unwilling to front repairs, given that the legal framework does not protect tenants but allows owners to increase rents or simply refuse to renew the lease. The Directorate of General Antiquities is the only official body undertaking renovations, but its selection of historical buildings is not based on an occupancy study that understands the socio-economic background of the residents, and therefore does not prioritize the return of the most vulnerable. 

The failure to remove obstacles pertaining to renovation permits. The bureaucratic pathways for obtaining such permits that are solely granted to the total shareholders of a property, have not been waved despite the catastrophic blast, and have consequently compromised the right of tenants and residing small property shareholders to renovate their homes or places of work. Indeed, property owners have exploited the explosion to prevent renovations and evict tenants.

The failure to protect tenants from evictions despite article 5 of Law 194. Eviction threats come in many forms: Owners increasing rent upon the completion of repairs paid for by NGOs; attempting to confiscate allocated aid before it reaches tenants; refusing to repair or allow tenants to repair themselves; attempting to terminate leases or refusing to renew them. 

The rising threat of abusive behavior and inadequate housing conditions. Eviction threats were not only verbal but involved physical violence and forced evictions that have been carried out, exacerbating the suffering of residents who survived the horrific blast. Moreover, many previous and new residents of affected neighborhoods reside in damaged houses with inadequate living conditions. These neighborhoods have become a main destination for the socioeconomically vulnerable because they host aid-providing NGOs and offer social protection for the LGBTIQ community.

True justice entails the right to housing for all, the protection from permanent displacement, and an uncompromising zero evictions policy.

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