Vulnerability and Displacement in Beirut

2016-02-29    |   

Vulnerability and Displacement in Beirut

In an article published in Issue No. 32 of The Legal Agenda, Nizar Saghieh explored a number of ways in which the system of stature and elite political leaders that exists in Lebanon is manufacturing vulnerability for Lebanese citizens.[1] He discussed the curtailment of social rights, the decline of social security services, the neglect of government schools, and the absence of an effective role played by the Ministry of Public Health. He also illustrated how the system deprives citizens and plays on their needs in order to frame them [within systems of loyalty], and put them into a vulnerable position that makes it easier to subjugate them and, in some cases, push them outside the law. In this article, I will elaborate on this discussion and address another dimension –alongside the aforementioned framing and subjugation– of the manufacture of vulnerability in Lebanon. This dimension is the displacement and exclusion of citizens. To develop this argument, I will explore the topic of real estate development and the material and demographic changes that are occurring in most of Beirut’s neighborhoods.

The enormous influx of foreign money into Lebanon during the past decade, accompanied by the amendment of the construction laws and the increase in exploitation coefficients, has changed Beirut in its entirety into a reconstruction project. Many buildings have been demolished to make way for real estate developers to begin modern and lucrative construction projects, in the form of grand buildings and high-rise towers that erase the existing urban fabric and familiar ways of social and economic life. Recently, there has been much discussion about the displacement of residents from their houses and areas, particularly in the context of the “old tenants” movement, which opposes the new rent law. This law abolishes the rent controls that apply to old leases signed before July 1992 and gradually raises these leases to market price. Thus, the law facilitates the process of evicting the tenants on these leases and demolishing the buildings they inhabited, so that they can be replaced with buildings that target wealthier social groups. Some people have spoken about the collusion of old landlords with real estate developers to evict and exact revenge on the old tenants, as the rent payments of the old leases had, despite successive increases, remained extremely low in comparison to those of leases signed after July 1992.

The old rent law [which allowed landlords to repossess their properties for family needs or demolition, provided that they pay compensation to their tenants] doubtlessly led to the forced eviction, both direct and indirect, of some of the old tenants. The new amendment to this law threatens to throw the remainder into the street given the absence of alternative strategies to provide suitable housing to low-income groups. Nevertheless, the interpretations that focus on the divide between an old landlord and an old tenant provide an incomplete picture of the situation. Not all old landlords are schemers and not all old tenants are victims, and vice-versa. Just as there are examples of landlords mistreating the old tenants of their properties, there are examples of old tenants exploiting and benefiting from a law that was not intended for them in the first place.[2] It is important that we address the root causes of the violations and exploitative trends, causes that are for the most part related to the vulnerability of Lebanese citizens.

The prevailing neoliberal regime and the state’s dereliction of duty in the affordable housing sector and other social sectors has put many middle and low-income earners –be they property owners or tenants, old or new– into a vulnerable position fraught with fear and anxiety. The rise in property and building costs has made accessing housing extremely difficult for both buyers and renters. The financial pressures on many families have multiplied because of the enormous rise in the costs of foodstuffs, education, and private healthcare, as well as the need to pay “double bills” for electricity and water to fill the gap in the public sector’s provision of these services. The lack of social security, unemployment, and old age benefits have exacerbated the vulnerability of the overwhelming majority of people. The Syrian crisis has also adversely affected some people’s living standards because of competition over employment opportunities in seasonal and unofficial jobs.

The vulnerability of some citizens has no doubt pushed them to participate in the manufacture of vulnerability by violating the rights of other citizens,[3] or by turning to theft and other crimes. Others have been prompted by their anxiety and aspirations to search for suitable opportunities to overcome their vulnerability, and have fought to survive and advance. In both cases, there are people who have submitted to the stature system and to a particular leader whose protection, mercy, or influence they solicit, and there are people who have been hurt or become marginalized.

Returning to the topic of the real estate sector and its impact on the vulnerable groups of Beirut residents, one finds that the major real estate firms’ interest in buying and developing lands constituted an opportunity for some people within these groups, and a loss for others. In some cases, it was both an opportunity and a loss at the same time due to contradictions and internal division between members within a family or, occasionally, within the emotions and behaviors of the individual person. For low and middle-income earning owners of developable properties, whether they lived in their properties or owned residential or commercial buildings subject to the old rent law, the construction boom and promises of lucrative partnership with real estate developers provided a sure and effective means of improving their living conditions, and accessing the desired social safety.

According to field surveys, no one forces small owners (especially in the case of shared and interlocking properties) to sell their houses and properties or move away from their areas. They do so of their own accord due to family pressures and the incentives of the real estate market. Despite the strong connection that some of them have to their houses and the residential neighborhoods in which they grew up, they ultimately follow the course of action that suits their interests and that gives them a peace of mind, and mitigates their concerns about destitution, disability, and sickness. The same applied to some of the old tenants prior to the latest amendment to the rent law. In their case, the compensation paid for eviction (which in some cases reached 40% of the rented property’s sale value) was an opportunity to obtain liquidity to ease their circumstances. Some of them even helped their landlords find new tenants or capable buyers. After obtaining satisfactory compensation, these tenants left their houses voluntarily to move to less expensive areas.

Based on the above, it can be said that the decisions these people make to leave their homes and areas, although ostensibly voluntary, are for the most part a result of their vulnerability, apprehensions, needs, and aspirations and the continuing absence of adequate guarantees of social protection in Lebanon. Their need for liquidity and desire to find a better future for their children and to inoculate themselves against trials and tribulations, is one of the main factors that explains their readiness to detach from their past and their surroundings and move to other areas. Thus, their geographical relocation is primarily attributable to the existing social policies (the policies on housing, health care, free education, and old age and unemployment benefits) and related policies (the policies on urban planning, development, and taxation), which reinforce their vulnerability, constrict their livelihoods, and force them to negotiate on their geographical location and sell it to the highest bidder.

The issue is not limited to the forced displacement of existing tenants (both old and new) and the voluntary displacement of small property-owners and some old tenants, prompted by material pressures and incentives. The existing policies and the absence of disincentives to stop the ridiculous rise in real estate and building costs also contribute to the exclusionary displacement[4] of the potential low and middle-income earning residents of a given area, i.e., people who want to buy or rent within it but cannot do so because the prices and purchasing easements do not suit their material capabilities and circumstances. Exclusionary displacement forces many people from low and middle-income earning groups to forego the advantage of the location in which they aspire to live. They are sentenced to live in specific areas that suit their material circumstances but are less than ideal, and relatively distant from their workplaces.

Of course, the real estate markets are not the only factor governing people’s housing decisions. Similarly, we cannot draw clear borders between the city’s heart and periphery on a class basis. Sectarian affiliation is certainly an important factor in the reformation of Lebanon’s social and spatial makeup. The policies of manufacturing vulnerability entrench these affiliations via political and popular discourses that reinforce sectarian partisanship and fear of the “other”, and contribute to the decisions many Lebanese make about where to live. The other or “outsider” also features prominently in many Beirut residents’ discussions of the changes that have occurred (or are occurring) in their areas, and that have led to their displacement or prompted their children to emigrate. The identity of the outsiders changes from speaker to speaker such that it may include those who are foreign to Lebanon, to Beirut, to their neighborhood, or to the sects and families that claim precedence in, and entitlement to, the places they inhabit or have been “expelled” from.[5]

Another trend in the discussion about displacement is the insistence of many Lebanese on linking the policies of manufacturing vulnerability to the policies of voluntary and forced emigration. While discussing the displacement that has resulted from the construction boom and the rise in real estate and rent prices, some people notably resort to comparing Lebanon’s social realities to those of “developed countries”. They proceed to discuss their relatives who emigrated to one such country and, having obtained “foreign citizenship”, gained access to all of the social security they need for a decent standard of living. On the other hand, the lack of social safety, the inequality, and the general frustration that result from the scarcity of work, the rampant corruption in public departments, and the control of a small elite over the state’s resources prompts many Lebanese to believe in the existence of a conspiracy to collectively drive them out of the country.

Emigration in its various forms -both legal and illegal- is without any doubt one of the consequences of the policies that manufacture vulnerability in Lebanon. It is a dream and obsession for many Lebanese, especially youth. Among them are those who have not hesitated to take the “death boats” to escape a painful reality, and search for a better future. Is their emigration, displacement, and estrangement the solution?

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.



[1] See: Nizar Saghieh’s, “Beyond Sectarianism: Whom Does the Lebanese State Serve? (I)”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 32, October 27, 2015; reference is made to the first two sections of this article.

[2] See: “Right to Housing Law Instead of the Rent Liberalization Law”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 26, March 2015.

[3] See: Nizar Saghieh’s, “Manufacturing Vulnerability in Lebanon: Legal Policies as Efficient Tools of Discrimination”, The Legal Agenda, March 19, 2015.

[4] The term ‘exclusionary displacement’ is based on the work of Marcuse Peter.
[5] Mona Khechen, “The Remaking of Ras Beirut: Displacement beyond Gentrification” (forthcoming).

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