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New Texts Out Now: Nadine Bekdache, Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon's Housing Tenants from Citizens to Obstacles

[Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015] [Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015]

Nadine Bekdache, “Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon's Housing Tenants from Citizens to Obstacles,” in Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015: 320-51.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Nadine Bekdache (NB): I started by researching the urban transformation of ‘Ain al Mraysseh, the seaside neighborhood in which I grew up, and mapping the demolition of old buildings, as well as buildings awaiting demolition whose residents live in a state of uncertainty and are constantly expecting eviction. Prime land-—a label that haunts almost all built and un-built land in Municipal Beirut-—is subsequently made available for real estate investment. I looked for answers on how to confront this tragic loss of the historical urban fabric, and I found in previous efforts to save heritage buildings a total disregard for old time residents. Instead of mapping historical buildings, I decided to locate these old time residents in the neighborhood. These old residents were either old tenants or old landlords living together or separately in buildings built roughly between 1930 and 1975, which was when the civil war started and building activity halted. This was an opportunity to save the urban fabric of a neighborhood by confronting spatial injustice and by stressing the right of the residents to remain in place and take part in shaping the future of their neighborhoods, though it was an everyday battle for many households. But this opportunity had never been claimed by heritage activists, either on the scale of the neighborhood or the city.

It is here that I started researching rent control laws, made effective between 1940 and 1992 for all rental contracts, as both a manifestation of a changing social contract between the state and its citizens and an urban question. I was looking for answers to what enabled dwellers to become long-term residents, despite their lack of land or home ownership, in a city like Beirut where the political economy relies heavily on investment in real estate. Before 1992, rent control can be considered the only durable housing policy that allowed low and middle-income, dwellers to secure housing in the city near their workplaces. Before the civil war, when tenancy amounted to eighty-five percent of Beirut’s dwellers, the social fabric of neighborhoods reflected diversity in sect, income, town of origin, and nationality. These were residents/citizens who defended their right to a fair rent cap, held periodic protests, and were active in unions that constantly proposed housing policies that would make more affordable housing available. Their active engagement in the future of their city was taken away from them when, in 1992, rent control as a means to access new housing was abolished—instead of revisited—while their contracts, signed before 1992, remained cautiously effective. By then, old tenants were conceptualized as “problematic” and an obstacle to private property rights and real estate investment. The state used time to exercise its power over space and intentionally subjected urban clusters to decline. 

As of 1992, old tenants represented an exception to a prohibitive housing market and an obstruction to landlords’ opportunities to profit from their skyrocketing land prices. In fact, the mere continuous presence of old tenants in inner Beirut’s neighborhoods poses what might be considered the only substantial challenge to the real estate growth machine tirelessly transforming our city into enclaves for the rich, normalizing eviction, and pushing low and middle income families to the peripheries. Nonetheless, by shifting the tenants’ legal and social position from a rights-based one to an exception in the new spatial order, their legitimacy is being actively damaged, making them vulnerable in securing their housing rights and consequently jeopardizing housing rights for all. Despite all these forces that absent the experiences of old tenants, it is their claims and stories that pose alternative notions of property and the social production of space that stem from local needs, aspirations, and visions—alternatives that could eventually become instruments to spur more justice in the city.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

NB: The article provides a reading of the historical development of rent control in Lebanon that led to tenants’ loss of agency as a collective force. By reflecting on this process, the article understands the Lebanese state as shifting from provider of basic rights to enabler of the market. This is significant, since the Lebanese state is widely conceptualized as a weak one with a purely laissez faire ethos since its formation, masking its role as an evicting sovereignty. In contrast, the article highlights the difference between the state in the seventies with it in and the nineties by taking rent control as a case study, and it posits the post civil war manufactured vulnerability of tenants as both the cause and the effect of a strong state. The exuberant rise in land prices, coupled with a complete absence of land policy and public intervention to curb real estate profit and produce affordable housing, the private sector is providing housing that around 80%eighty percent of Lebanese households cannot access. Under these conditions, jeopardizing existing tenure security is rendered an act of violence. 

On another level, the article focuses on a neighborhood in Beirut to analyze the processes of eviction and the coordination between state and non-state actors in enabling eviction. These include measures that verge on the limits of extra-legal activities, including shifting legal parameters of negotiations with tenants, swindling, intimidation, threats, and the employment of official notices to speed up eviction. Also significant are the counter-narratives and contentiousness that challenge the seemingly normalized process of eviction and positing alternative perspectives to private property, and citizenship beyond confessionalism. The work of Nicholas Blomley in “Unsettling the City: Urban Land and the Politics of property” was particularly useful in spotting defiant claims in tenants’ personal narratives. They remain nonetheless absented from pubic debate, by a carefully orchestrated narrative of economic growth, the real estate dream, the demonizing of rent control, and the weak state.

The article also analyzes the difference between the case-by-case market led eviction of old tenants and the newly issued new rent law to evict en masse old tenants by increasing rents to market level over the span of six years. By taking the tragic fall of a building in Beirut which killed twenty-seven residents as an excuse to renounce the old rent law, the state capitalized on this tragedy to successfully issue the new law. This in turn lead to a reawakening–though contained by a consolidated propaganda and systematic impoverishing policies since early nineties–of tenants political struggle for both the right to housing and for the right to their city.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NB: My first engagements with urban issues happened through my final year university graphic design project where I researched an informal neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut through the experiences of three teenagers. The relationship between the formal and the informal city and the antagonism that arises was a main aspect of the project. Later on, I was experiencing in my “formal” neighborhood, processes producing what can be compared to informality on many levels. Old tenants, out of time and space, are subjected to threats of exclusion without possessing the tools to legitimize their existence as “informal” neighborhoods might have. For they have “legitimately” had access to their spaces and “legitimately” are being evicted from them. This led me to focusing, in my Masters thesis, on the urban history and transformation of ‘Ayn al Mraysseh, where tenants’ grey existence became my main concern. I followed up, later, the struggle of the ‘Committee to Defend the Rights of Tenants’, and the Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS) New Paradigms Factory fellowship became my first chance to research rent control history in Lebanon in depth.

In parallel, I was employing other tools of research, such as mapping, representational imagery and filmmaking, to investigate the relationship of old tenants with the changing built environment. I co-directed the short documentary Mapping Place Narratives: Beyhum Street, where an image of a futuristic representation of a neighborhood is employed to instigate conversations with the current residents. Furthermore, the film maps the social and ownership history of a cluster in the neighborhood that have razed and replaced with a 35 floors building, referred to as the ‘building higher than Burj el Murr’.

I worked later, as part of Public Works, on researching rent controlled neighborhoods through the triangulation of the fields of activism, academic research and community engagement. We devised and conducted a workshops program, and started with Bachoura as a pilot research project. The direct outcome was a collectively produced publication. The project developed to include more neighborhoods, under the title Mapping Beirut Through its tenants’ stories, with the intention to create a city scale reading while bringing out the nuances of neighborhood specific experiences.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NB: The public debate that has been aroused over the recently issued rent law was able to scale down the urban and social consequences of eviction in favor of conflicting rights between landlords and tenants. Limiting the discussion, or perhaps shifting it, allowed for the law to be issued in the first place after successive failed attempt since 1992. More importantly, it had direct consequences on two things. First, it left city dwellers that do not belong to either group (old tenants and landlords) out of a discussion over processes that have great effects over their every day life in the city. Second, the public image of old tenants was slandered to the point of criminalization, and rent control as a viable state intervention in the production of affordable housing of old tenants is commonly underestimated.

Redirecting the debate towards the right to housing and the city, with the active participation of all city dwellers who are either being pushed out of their long life neighborhoods, whose security of tenure is being threatened, and/ or who have no access to stable and affordable housing is ultimately the motive behind writing this article. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NB: Sadly the right to housing is almost absented from public debate. Nonetheless, through the efforts of the Committee to Defend Tenants’ Rights, formed since 1952, and by challenging the newly issued rent law at the Constitutional Council, the right to housing was confirmed as a constitutional right for the first time in Lebanon. Accordingly, a group of lawyers, economists and urbanists took the initiative to launch a working process towards a Right to Housing law, where the old rent law would be addressed within a larger framework of a comprehensive housing policy.

Departing from this initiative, Abir Saksouk-Sasso and I, as part of Public Works Studio, began research that focuses on rent as a viable mean to access affordable housing in Beirut, an alternative to home ownership, and a manifestation of claims to the city beyond private property, This project is specifically significant when urban policies are being drafted without surveys and studies of the socio-economical and cultural conditions they target.

I am also working on other collaborative research projects, including The Communal Making of Neighborhood Football Fields. The research develops a piece from Practicing the Public, a recently issued co-edited publication.

Excerpts from “Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon's Housing Tenants from Citizens to Obstacles”

In January 2012, the collapse of a building in the Fasuh neighborhood in the Ashrafiyya area spurred a shift in public opinion on rent control. The dominant reaction framed rent control laws as unjust and unconstitutional; as causing the degeneration of the urban fabric and the confiscation of private property; as paralyzing the rental market; and finally as transferring the responsibility for securing housing from the state to individual landlords. The building’s collapse, which resulted in twenty-seven deaths, led to this heightened discourse of blame, which verged on criminalizing the residents by disregarding other factors that might have led to the building’s fall. This rhetoric, that landlords and state officials alike adopted, portrayed the tenant as an “illegitimate occupier,” “one who has a second house in his village of origin,” and even as one who is “richer than the landlord.” The Association of Landlords formed in 2006 after a surge in property prices with registration number 155. With discursive support from policymakers and legal representatives in recent years, the association has mobilized to declare landlords’ collective lack of responsibility for future fallen buildings. It has also pushed for an immediate liberalization of rental contracts by periodically issuing official statements, performing demonstrations, holding press conferences, participating in TV programs, and employing phone messages and social media platforms. The following quotation from the Association of Landlords’ Facebook page illustrates the association’s relentless efforts to delegitimize any claims put forth by tenants:

Expats, Investors Beware No. 1 property and investment looting country worldwide. 70 years ago, we built this country…0.00% return in 40 years. Ever since our properties are under legalized camouflaged nationalization (mafia word for looting).

These statements criminalize rent control tenants by claiming that they have taken advantage of an unconstitutional situation over the span of eighty years, depriving landlords of their fair share. Landlords in the association have labeled themselves victims of the old rent law, while alleging that old tenants stole their house with a rental contract. The landlords frame the state as interfering in their property rights, declaring that their assigned role as housing providers is unconstitutional since it is the state that should provide housing.

This campaign has succeeded in influencing public opinion on new rent laws. On 1 April 2014, the Lebanese parliament unexpectedly voted to liberalize rental contracts, after considering the issue for only thirteen minutes. The Administration and Justice Parliamentary Committee, which has drafted multiple rent law reforms since 1992, proposed the law.

Individual moral struggles have become the primary arena for challenging prevailing narratives of property. These struggles challenge the discourses of the sanctity of private property, the dominance of the Tenants’ claims to remain in place are rooted in local histories and in social movements dating to the 1950s. These claims have taken shape as a counternarrative of property. This counternarrative is the only substantial discursive challenge to the real estate sector’s increasing domination, which is erasing communities and producing a new spatial order of political differences.

One such individual struggle is that of Larisse, who has rented both an apartment and a mini-market in the same building in Hamra, located in the religiously mixed area of Ras Beirut, since 1968. She has created a public installation outside her store to denounce a court ruling evicting her in return for absurdly low compensation. She not only felt “betrayed by the state,” but she also made claims about the neighborhood: “My husband was abducted in 1978 on the demarcation line between ‘Ayn al-Rummana and Shiyyah, and I have since managed this store alone to raise my two sons…I have stayed here during the war, and have built, over the years, good relations with the residents of Makdisi Street and Hamra, who intentionally visit my store, since they find goods not available in other stores nearby. The neighbors and passersby have shown their solidarity and supported my decision to resist eviction. That is all I have, I am no one and know no one [influential]….I have always been a legitimate citizen of the state and part of the local history of this community. I cannot accept being ruined by the Lebanese state itself.

A Historical Geography of Collective Entitlement

Between 1940 and 1992, the state regulated the private rental market through a series of “extraordinary emergency laws” that limited the maximum yearly rent increases landlords could enforce. Historical rent control strategies in Lebanon harnessed social justice ideals to clientelist strategies through which newly formed postcolonial states sought to establish their sovereign legitimacy.

Since the 1950s, Beirut faced a continuous housing crisis, as increasing numbers of working-class people migrated to the capital. Housing policies were unable to meet increasing demand because of a number of factors. These included uneven development in the country favoring particular areas and sectarian groups, the neoliberal economic model that channeled resources to the wealthy or toward global capital rather than toward working-class citizens, political conflicts that hampered decision making, administrative mismanagement, and the lack of an overall planning vision for Beirut.

Despite this context, two main forms of life, commerce, and sociality struggled to remain a part of the city. First, an informal housing market expanded, in both the city’s suburbs and its inner quarters, as communities resorted to self-help solutions and created housing developments for the poor. Second, social groups have mobilized through the state, defining state sovereignty by its ability to maintain the system of rent control and fair rents.

Farid Jubran, a parliament member and one of the founders of the Progressive Socialist Party, founded the Committee to Defend Tenants’ Rights in 1952. The Committee called for an affordable housing policy and mobilized workers’ unions, women’s associations, and artisans, as well as public and private employees including teachers, drivers, and factory workers to maintain fair rent policies in Beirut.

A factor sustaining this popular sovereignty was that Beirut had the lowest rate of house ownership of all Arab capitals. Because of this high rate of rent, Beiruti landlords considered apartment construction an investment. Rent was a viable, albeit state-regulated, income. In the 1970s, 125,000 families in Lebanon’s main cities were tenants. This translates to roughly 625,000 people, or eighty-five percent of the urban population. Only ten percent of landlords were estimated to reside at their own property.

After Beirut’s historical central district fell to Solidere, the privatized post-war reconstruction project, the clusters of settlements bordering it became the center of Beirut’s historical, urban, and social fabric. The spatialization of these old tenants does not typically follow old and new demarcation lines produced by religion, sect, class, and political affiliation. Moreover, these spaces maintain particular kinds of livelihood. Artisans, craftsmen, small shops, and a variety of economically viable spaces remain distributed across the city. They remain sustainable primarily because of rent control. These lived geographies are concealed and vulnerable to abrupt and violent changes. However, it is these local histories that subject prevailing property relations to critical scrutiny and expose their contradictions.

Naturalizing Evictions, Depoliticizing Struggles

Before the civil war the concept of rent was at least partly connected to an official recognition of the right to affordable housing, with prices kept at a competitive level in spite of landlords’ claims to higher rents. The postwar recognition of a rent gap in Beirut meant that land prices were no longer tied to what tenants could pay, but to what investors could pay. As the next section will show, developers and other actors in the land and housing markets of Beirut started buying out small landlords and driving old tenants to negotiate and compromise in an effort to evict them. Rather than arising from landlord demands, it was the postwar neoliberal Lebanese state that made the end of rent control possible. Indeed, the state capitalized on its image as “weak” to entirely restructure the housing market to the benefit of large real estate companies.

During this era, the state’s discourses of popular and civic participation hid how “neoliberalism ha[d] imposed itself as a technology of governance over and above ideology, as the most efficient, rational, and pragmatic solution to problems.” Presenting neoliberalism as a problem-solving approach based on scientific truth depoliticized the housing and rent debate. It rendered the displacement of “old tenants” and elderly communities invisible.

In practice, therefore, the Lebanese state extended the sovereignty of nonstate and private-sector interests, along with that of allied local bureaucrats. This process fragmented socio-spatial relations, redefined citizenship, and fortified notions of private property. These factors in turn widened the broader rejection of rent control. Enabled by new political imaginaries, the militantly interventionist “weak” Lebanese state now enacts a new kind of sovereignty grounded in violence. It does this by gradually transforming tenants from citizens who identify themselves as part of the political urban space, to obstacles in the negotiation around fulfilling a newly desired image of the nation and its capital city.

The Sovereignty of Privately Led Evictions

The state’s selective authority at the neighborhood level played a crucial role in setting the stage for the legal developments discussed above. What activists accomplished to maintain rent control until 1992 would be incrementally lost. Rent control was once a recognition of citizens’ entitlement to the city. However, the seventy-three-year-old law has been fragmented and depoliticized. As a result, even though old tenants bear a legal legitimacy to occupy their houses, they are “stripped of their symbolization and humanity” as new property relations, discourses, and representations of the city and its heritage increasingly marginalize them. The next section shows how these instruments of marginalization gain authority in the neighborhood of ‘Ayn al-Muraysa.

The Threat of Displacement in ‘Ayn al-Muraysa: Developers as Agents 

‘Ayn al-Muraysa has become particularly attractive to developers over the past two decades, due to its location on the coastline near downtown and AUB. The increasing value of property in this district has encouraged developers to tolerate extensive negotiations with sitting tenants and divided property owners.

The presence of large new buildings inside small alleyways places current tenants in a state of awaiting their own evacuation. Activists for Beirut’s heritage, on the other hand, have demanded the preservation of the city’s historical urban fabric. This move has paradoxically hastened the eviction of old tenants and the destruction of old houses.

Shift of Ownership and Coercive Negotiations

Negotiations for compensation for eviction are persistent and take new forms depending on the actors and the value of real estate. However, the government’s granting of land ownership as a permanent asset to the landlord as opposed to those holding rental contracts always shapes these negotiations.

The category of rent, once an efficient way to manage the productive needs of society, contradicts the current process that transforms housing into a commodity, which must constantly produce value to sustain a class of landlords and investors.

With the intensified investment in real estate, and under the rent control law, tenants have to settle for monetary compensation in return for their exclusion from the socio-urban space of which they are part.

Because land prices are on the rise, compensation that is not paid instantly is not as valuable the next year. Although landlords drag tenants to courtrooms, tenants are generally able to prolong eviction if they are legally savvy. Having given up on rent as a source of income as a result of the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, small landlords are often unable and unwilling to pay compensation fees, since according to the law, it constitutes a percentage of the value of land in the current real estate market. However, tenants’ only guarantee to housing in the city would be compensation equal to a down payment on a mortgage. The position of landlords has also changed. To be able to evict tenants and develop the land, landlords are mainly obliged to partner with or sell to real estate companies.

The process to evict usually starts with the landlord trying to prove the tenants’ ineligibility for compensation. In more than one instance over a decade, the owners of a building, which was fully rented for decades have tried to evict the tenants in ‘Ayn al-Muraysa by any means necessary. In one case a family was even accused of having squatted in their apartment, even though they had legally rented the space and consistently paid rent. The family resorted to litigation and was able to retain its home. Other stories have more tragic endings.

The Municipality as a Selective Official Authority

Developers and politically connected landlords maneuver between legal and extralegal operations to evict tenants and develop land in Beirut. These entrepreneurs create a status quo that state authorities never intervene to reverse. The municipality acts selectively: It works as legal authority to pressure tenants with notices and it does not hold landlords accountable for illegal practices. In ‘Ayn al-Muraysa, many developers and contractors seized the preoccupation of regulatory bodies and media channels during and after the Israeli aggression against Lebanon in July 2006 as an opportunity to proceed with demolitions without authorities’ supervision or permission. A similar situation arose after the civil disturbances that paralyzed Beirut in May 2008. The fall of the Fasuh building, and the lack of a serious investigation to determine responsibility, encouraged landlords to capitalize on the story, warning tenants of a similar fate. Such destructive claims were rendered credible when the municipality received more than 116 requests to inspect old buildings just after the fall of Fasuh. Landlords are envisioning the fall of their buildings. On one hand they hold the state responsible for killed or injured tenants, or blame the tenants themselves for not heeding warnings to evict. On the other hand, they capitalize on this vision of their buildings’ destruction. However, these public performances of forewarning also suggest deliberate, yet unprosecuted, acts of destruction of old vacant buildings, and bespeak the coercive strategies used by landlords to evict tenants.

Some landlords even resort to inscriptions on the surface of the city’s built landscape, marking their own buildings with signs of decay in order to build their case for evicting residents and creating a new status quo.

 

[Excerpted from “Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon's Housing Tenants from Citizens to Obstacles,” by Nadine Bekdache, in Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015, by permission of the author. © 2015 The Arab Studies Journal. For more information, to view the full issue, or to subscribe to the journal, click here.]

[Nadine Bekdache's “Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon's Housing Tenants from Citizens to Obstacles” was featured in the New Paradigms Factory section of the Fall 2015 issue of the Arab Studies Journal (ASJ). This special section is the fruit of a joint collaboration between the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS) and ASJ. The New Paradigms Factory Program at the ACSS aims at facilitating research and publishing by innovative, critical-thinking, and engaged junior Arab scholars and activists, particularly those facing limited access to mentoring and/or publishing venues.]

 

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