BEIRUT: In the decades since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, residential towers have sprung up around Beirut’s Zoqaq al-Blat, casting shadows over the villas that used to dominate the neighborhood.
With luxury apartments driving up prices and the dissolution of rent-controlled housing one of the last protections for low-income tenants in the city activists and academics are trying to reframe the conversation on affordable housing in Beirut.
Public Works Studio, a research and design studio focused on urban issues, last year launched the “Think Housing” competition, inviting professional architects, engineers and students to come up with creative solutions to the chronic lack of affordable housing in the city.
The organization’s office, a 1930s villa in the heart of Zoqaq al-Blat known as the “Mansion,” served as an inspiration: it functions as a community-run space, hosting a number of small studios and residences for artists and designers at affordable rents.
“We are witnessing the issues that we are tackling up front and we feel the repercussions,” PWS co-founder Nadine Bekdache told The Daily Star. “We are at the center of it.”
PWS collaborated with the Order of Engineers and Architects in Beirut and U.N.-Habitat to organize the competition, which drew 27 teams from across Lebanon and around the globe. The teams responded to a brief to design inclusive solutions for one of five case studies buildings across the capital that presented issues related to the affordable housing crisis.
The winning proposal was announced in December.
A team of students from the American University of Beirut placed third with a proposal to turn a building in Tariq al-Jadideh comprised of multiple apartments and diverse occupants into a cooperative.
Through their proposal, the apartments would be bought using a variety of funding sources, including through laws that are no longer used such as now-defunct grants providing funding to such cooperatives and funding from the Beirut Municipality earmarked for charitable causes. According to the team, the total cost of purchasing the 28 apartments would be $1.23 million.
Such a solution “would remove all these housing units from the market” and shield them from pressures from the private sector that may increase rents or threaten the tenancy of vulnerable dwellers, according to team member Omar Abdul Samad.
“The case is quite sophisticated, where we have conflicting ownerships, vulnerable people threatening to be evicted,” he said, adding that the team believes its solution is applicable to numerous similar cases across the city.
But the students conceded that their groundbreaking proposal would struggle to convince stakeholders who may have little knowledge of alternative housing models.
“We tried to talk to the building committee to convince them this is a solution. People are not that open to the idea. They’re used to redevelopment,” said Rania Nouaihed, another team member.
Nevertheless, PWS found an unlikely ally in Rony Lahoud, the general director of the Public Corporation for Housing, an offshoot of the Social Affairs Ministry and the body responsible for public housing in Lebanon.
The official had been a staunch advocate for subsidized loans as a primary solution to providing access to affordable housing, but, having seen some of the detailed research undertaken by Bekdache and PWS, decided to patronize the competition and look into alternative models.
“We should start thinking about what to do with old rental houses and how we can help the people living in these apartments,” Lahoud told The Daily Star, also noting the idea of promoting housing associations to strengthen tenants’ bargaining power as a solution.
He praised the competition for creating dialogue between public institutions on the one hand, and professionals and students working in the field, on the other.
Lahoud’s positive comments echoed the competition’s jury report, which noted that, “the winning schemes re-engaged the government in the discussion on housing.”
PWS’s floor-by-floor research of housing in neighborhoods across the capital was initially driven by its frustration with the 2014 rent law, which was enacted in early 2017 and looked to remove rent caps to bring rents to market value. Parliament estimated that 180,000 properties are under the old agreements rent-controlled contracts that were stipulated prior to 1992.
“It was just a law that wanted to solve the tenant-landowner issue but did not rely on any studies, did not have any vision of how this would affect the city,” Bekdache said.
Tenants and landlords alike felt victimized by the law, said Desiree Feghali, a lawyer who has clients in both groups and sat on the competition’s jury.
In an apparent attempt to soften the blow to tenants, the rent hikes were spread across six years, with protections against eviction lasting between nine to 12 years.
However, Feghali said this could still see tenants paying over 10 times as much annual rent, just three years after the law’s implementation in 2017. “Landlords, on the other hand, are not happy with this rent law because the tenants can continue to stay in the house for nine to 12 years,” she added.
But since the implementation of the law, its application by judges has been inconsistent: "Each judge decides [how to apply it] by themselves," said Feghali.
As a result, the law puts many tenants at direct risk of eviction, Bekdache said. “Pressure to evict tenants is persistent and many tenants do not have the information or access to legal advice to resist the pressures.”
The rent law debate is a symptom of a larger problem: the almost complete lack of public housing in the city. “Rent control is incredibly problematic because what it’s doing is it’s throwing the responsibility of providing affordable housing, which should be the state’s role, on a group of people who happen to have rented out their houses during or before the Civil War,” said Mona Fawaz, a professor of urban studies and planning at AUB, whose students were on the third-placed team.
As a result of the low rents, the affected landlords are “not interested in renovating” their buildings, leaving them in states of disrepair, Feghali noted.
Bekdache said the failure to provide affordable housing is “because the political will does not exist.
“Part of the reason for having this competition is to push for the political will. It’s a starting point, and then it’s what we do to push these proposals to be implemented.”