The Plight of Housing Policies in Lebanon
The problems associated with housing have been topics of frequent discussion in Lebanese public discourse since at least the period of independence. But it has become an even more prominent subject in recent years due to three factors: since 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon; in 2014, old rental agreements were liberalized; and finally, there is currently a freeze on subsidized housing loans because of reasons relating to the financial crisis and protecting the national currency. Given this combination of factors, we deemed it necessary to monitor the various housing conditions in Lebanon, and to work on dismantling the official approaches to the issue while understanding and evaluating them.
We make no claim to have succeeded in covering all of the different aspects of housing in this issue of The Legal Agenda. Such a task remains extremely difficult and warrants the provision of resources and expertise beyond what we can mobilize. However, we have worked to open a number of windows onto the issue, some from the past and even more from the present, in an effort to understand the features of official housing policies in Lebanon – where they exist. These policies will be the object of exploration and analysis in much of our future work in a number of fields and sectors; here we are only laying a foundation.
The perspective of these “windows” makes apparent certain patterns and existing approaches within state institutions. From these patterns, we can discern the reality of state policy on the issue of housing. Based on this investigation, we have identified seven features of this policy:
1- It is a divisive and discriminatory policy, not designed to serve the public. In other words, its fundamental mechanisms and resources tend to target certain groups of citizens and exclude others; at the very least it caters to some more than others. As a result, official policies over the past three decades have focused on housing loans for the purpose of home ownership. These are policies that generally benefit social groups of middle-class financial status or higher up. These are the citizens able to make a down payment and who can afford relatively high payments in relation to their wages.
Meanwhile, the kinds of remedies for housing problems that concern those most in need of state support have all but disappeared, particularly once the state ceased to play any role in building public housing, encouraging renting, or monitoring and regulating rental contracts. It appears that in many instances, the only option available to low-income groups is resorting to informal settlements on public or common property, or even on privately owned land. Practically speaking, occupying such spaces is not possible without support or cover provided by influential forces in the areas concerned. Not only are low-income groups seldom provided with adequate housing conditions, but when they are it is typically because they are subject to a system of patronage. That is, they are granted an extralegal right (to informal construction) in exchange for political loyalty to an influential entity. Typically official authorities in these situations either play an intermediary role or remain neutral.
Enabling this system of patronage only deepens the discrimination against these groups, not only in terms of their right to adequate housing but also the extent of their freedom to exercise their citizenship, and particularly its political dimensions. Within this system, they resort to electing dominant forces that maintain the very mechanisms of governance that produced their social, economic, and legal marginalization in the first place.
2- The policy has ambiguous aims. According to a study of housing policies in recent decades, the foundation of these policies is serving the economic and political interests of dominant groups and factions. A number of economic analysts have arrived at the same conclusion, based on the primary component of state intervention in the field of housing (that is, providing subsidized loans). In their view, the goal of this particular intervention is promoting supply – that is, encouraging investment in home construction – more so than it aims to meet the demand for housing or to realize the right to housing. They even go so far as to say that guaranteeing housing (the right to housing) is less an end goal or purpose of this policy than it is an instrument of it. This view was affirmed last year (2018) when the Bank of Lebanon announced that it would stop granting subsidized loans due to the pressure of the currency crisis.
Rather than moving to adjust its housing policy and working to locate other methods for solving the increasingly serious problems of housing, the state has abandoned any viable alternative solution, and is content to grant what loans it can and wait for the return of more favorable conditions to grant more of them. These conditions are by necessity tied to monetary policy, from which the right to housing is absent. This viewpoint is further supported by the mechanisms in place to implement housing policy. Because the granting of “housing” loans is subject to such weak oversight, a number of well-off individuals have been able to secure such loans. As a result, official policy directly contributes to the accumulation of wealth among limited groups of people.
3- It is a policy that has no qualms about sidestepping and violating the law. This is clearly signaled in the successive circulars issued by ministers of the interior permitting local authorities (municipalities) outside of the cities to license construction that does not comply with the provisions of the building code. This can also be seen through the related issue of informal settlements. Laws have sought to resolve successive building violations, which appear to be a part of official policy, by altering their descriptions in order to minimize the number of buildings in violation. Even so, the majority of violations remain irreconcilable due to the fact that they are built on public land owned by the state, or on private land owned by others.
4- It is a policy that is pragmatic to its core. It remains devoid of any point of reference based on values. This stems from two primary features:
State policy does not include any clear definition of the right to housing (e.g. adequate housing conditions, which individuals should benefit from it, etc.). Nor does it mention the state’s obligations or plans to fulfill that right. This can be seen clearly in the types of state intervention that do exist, which are practically devoid of any connection to the needs of citizens and all who reside in Lebanon.
This right requires state intervention to guarantee adequate housing to low-income groups in the first place. Yet the policy of subsidizing housing loans works in the opposite direction, supporting citizens with medium and even sometimes high incomes. The same can be said of the approach taken in the law that liberalizes old rental agreements: this law established a fund to help long-term tenants with limited incomes, unjustifiably discriminating against other citizens who may be in greater need of assistance (for example, those residing in informal settlements).
The second feature lies in a lack of specifying social responsibility related to home ownership. It appears that the legislature distinguished between two categories of landlords. The first includes those who own apartments with lease agreements dated before 1992; they have borne (and continue to bear) the significant burden of guaranteeing their tenants housing for inexpensive rents over the decades. This burden goes beyond what is justifiable in terms of their social obligations. When it comes to the second category of landlords, however (which includes, first and foremost, new home owners), the state deals with their rights as though they are sacred – to the point that they are absolved from bearing any social responsibility at all on this front.
Lebanese legislation confirms this approach by omitting any measures that either limit or guide the rights of property owners. These could include, for instance, specifying maximum rents in overcrowded residential areas, adopting an index to govern increasing rents, or creating a new tax on empty residences in order to create an incentive to rent them out, etc. Consequently housing is becoming a matter subject to the principle of supply and demand, and thus to the greed and abuse that this allows.
5- It is a fragmented policy. The policies in the field of housing are both fragmented and fragmenting. They remain cut off from any notion or policy concerning civic organization or relations between residents from different categories, sects, and social classes. Most significantly they are also divorced from peoples’ relationship to their city and surrounding environment in every way. State policy is similarly disconnected from any notion of facilitating connections between different cities and villages, and from any plans for public transportation or regarding land arrangements and use.
6- It is a policy that promotes insularity, but not inclusion. This manifests on several levels. Firstly, lawmakers paid no attention to the importance of integrating sects or social classes when passing the laws that liberalized older rents. As a result, these laws may push longtime tenants to transfer from the areas where they currently live to areas more consistent with their sectarian and class affiliations.
Secondly, the expansion of informal settlements also results in class differentiation along similar lines, deepening a social divide between adequate and lawful housing, where well-to-do and middle-class people live, and housing that is inadequate and unlawful, where low-income groups are led to reside. Finally, insularity is epitomized in the trend to close off balconies as though the homes are turning their backs on the city and public life.
7- It is a policy that is built upon avoiding and evading responsibility, sometimes by fraudulent means. Avoidance can be seen through the extent of the informal settlements and the number of people who live there. We also see this through the blackout on discussing them and naming them for what they are in public discourse, unlike the case in other Arab cities (such as Damascus or Casablanca). As far as the relevant official sources are concerned, either the informal settlements do not pose any problems for their inhabitants or the surrounding areas, or they will eventually disappear on their own, or that they are a “mark of shame” on Lebanon’s flourishing real estate sector and their existence should therefore be denied.
In terms of actual evasion of responsibility, it can be seen in the attitudes of the authorities when it comes to enforcing the law liberalizing older rent agreements. Following decades during which existing property owners bore the responsibility of guaranteeing housing for tens of thousands of families, the state indicated its desire to assume responsibility for this burden itself. This was to be accomplished by the government paying off the increase in rent on behalf of tenants with limited incomes for a specified period (in some cases up to 12 years, after which all old leases were to be liberalized without exception).
But five years have passed since this law was issued, and the state continues to be negligent in fulfilling its obligations in this regard. The state has hindered and obstructed the mechanisms of enforcing the law (for instance, not financing the fund, and the five-year delay in establishing the committees responsible for determining who would benefit from it, etc.). At this point we can assume that these commitments were nothing but a ruse: property owners and existing tenants were informed of a new law but there has been an absence of any real will on the part of the state to enforce it.
It is as if the state had hoped that within 12 years the problem of the old rental agreements would simply dissolve, or subside to the point that it would be easier to address. This avoidance of responsibility also manifests through the legislature’s failure over the years to make the necessary decisions, even in the face of judicial confusion about the law’s application, which in turn is a result of the executive branch’s failure to carry out its own duties in relation to the law.
These are our conclusions regarding the features of Lebanon’s housing policy. We remain hopeful that this issue of The Legal Agenda will increase awareness around the policy’s inadequacies in the face of the requirements of Lebanese society, and even more importantly, around the need to address and rectify the existing policy.
We also hope that these windows into the issue of housing will lead to additional research efforts and public conversations that build on what has come before. We hope this will make possible a multidisciplinary approach to the right to housing, established to provide a critical approach to the issue that is difficult to develop given the absence of policies in the area. The official policies that do exist (even if they are not publicly stated) continue to enable affluent groups to accumulate wealth while absorbing the resources of the middle class, and limiting the poor to informal settlements and the ghettos of clientelism.
Keywords: Lebanon, Right to housing
 Myriam Mehanna, “What Housing Policy?”, published in the current issue of The Legal Agenda.
 Interview with Muhammad Zaynab, published in the current issue of The Legal Agenda.
 Myriam Mehanna, source referenced above.
 Mazen Haidar, “On the Balconies of Beirut”, published in the current issue of The Legal Agenda.
 Myriam Mehanna, “How was the amended rent law 2/2017 implemented? How the balance between property rights and the right to housing has been violated”, published in the current issue of The Legal Agenda.