On Thursday 26 June 2014, a number of activists from the Civic Campaign for the Preservation of Dalieh infiltrated a live broadcasting of an episode of LBC’s Kalam al-Nas in Downtown Biel’s “Dream Real Estate Expo.” The particular episode tackled the topic of real estate development in Lebanon, and aired live from from Downtown Biel’s “Dream Real Estate Expo.”
This special episode brought together a number of real-estate developers who participated in the Expo, showcasing their high-end large-apartment-type projects. These guests also included a current member of parliament, a former minister, and the event organizers. One of the key assumptions behind the organization of this episode (and the Expo, more generally) is that home ownership is the actual dream of all Lebanese people. Furthermore, the episode attempted to present the real estate sector as the foundation of the Lebanese economy, the engine of job creation in the country, and the solution to the current housing crisis. The episode also shed light on the newly established Federation of Real Estate Developers (Jam‘iyyat al-Muttawireen al ‘Iqariyyeen), lobbying for policy change to further attract investors, clients, and developers.
The guests presented a common vision of real estate development as the one guaranty for the realization of the dreams of the entire Lebanese population. But the question stands: What truly are the dreams of the Lebanese? Can one fathom that a handful of capital holders and real estate developers outline the dreams “of the Lebanese” and articulate a framework to achieve them? Or was this in fact a promotion for “dreams” that sustain this handful of developers and their political supporters; a justification for the withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities toward making sustainable policies that would eventually achieve citizens’ aspirations, and an excuse for increasingly providing financial and technical facilities for investors in this sector?
Hence the campaign’s intervention on the episode aimed at contesting the real estate dream. The activists broke onto the stage with three banners, the first of which was snatched away from them before making it on air. The intervention aimed to tackle three topics for discussion that had not been posed during the episode.
Why Represent Private Property As Everyone’s Dream?
To begin with, we contest the idea that the general (Lebanese) public, when dreaming of an ideal sphere for their day-to-day lives, picture exclusively, or even essentially, private property as the means of happiness. By representing individual and private home ownership as the ultimate aspiration and the only solution to housing, developers confound private ownership with housing provision, and hence, they justify all the exceptions and subsidies they obtain. Furthermore, such a vision has clear negative repercussions, for its imposition to the exclusion of any other view is likely to shackle the common interest and thus, its social potential, transforming the active force that is society into a group of isolated individuals who define themselves in terms of how much they can afford to consume.
Making the City
The portrayal of private property ownership as the sole solution only serves the benefit of real estate developers, while disregarding other crucial needs which are only noticeable when tackled collectively–these needs include public spaces that enhance the environment’s health and social cohesion.
Handing real estate developers the ultimate responsibility of housing is a gateway for the commodification of the housing policy to support the real estate sector though housing loans and credits. Worsening this situation is the clear correlation between the group of developers and a portion of the political class that attempts to manipulate the laws of urban planning, building, lease, and ownership. This is done in order to support the interests of this particular group, rather than producing much needed public spaces, which the average citizen has been longing for, and a comprehensive housing policy compatible with the needs of the population.
The closure of public places, the threat against communal spaces, and the attempt to evict the capital’s middle and low income residents and tenants are in fact the result of the current practice of real estate development and its illusion of development for the public good.
Consequently, a large portion of the Lebanese coast has been transformed into beach resorts, exclusive hotels, and other private enterprises that only serve a small minority of the population. Additionally, the real estate sector is threatening public socialized spaces such as the Dalieh of Raouche, the Ramlet el Baida sandy beach (particularly its southern tip). These spaces deserve the protection of authorities whom have instead been shying away from the real estate sector’s advantage. This process has been happening despite the fact that the production of public spaces is essential and vital to secure and promote healthy cohesive living and urban growth for generations to come.
On another level, the “Real Estate Dream” translates into the possibility of evicting existing residents from their neighborhoods and stripping them from their memories and relationship to their city, while claiming that it is only natural and inevitable that those of low/middle income cannot dwell within the city borders. This portrayal conceals an important fact that developers/politicians are the ones who designed this very rule that organizes the market and produces this “default” situation.
Furthermore, the housing loan is suggested to resolve the housing crisis, though studies prove that it has failed to do so; numbers show that the “housing right” (in the form of a loan) does not apply to eighty percent of the Lebanese population. Our experience has only supported the argument that the real estate and banking sector does not have an eligible solution for this crisis. The sector is best legitimized to produce a city that achieves its locals’ dreams when speculation toward it is toned down and through instilling a proper tax system that would organize it.
Supporting the Country’s Economy
Lebanon attracts real estate developers because it caters to their interests. Subsidized interest rates support demand, while very low tax rates on property ownership relieve the contractor from the pressure of selling in the event of a recession. As a result, prices are supported and developers are less likely to suffer losses–an advantage to the real estate sector that is unmatched worldwide. And to justify government support for this sector, which benefits these financial beneficiaries and their partners in government at the expense of other economic sectors, we are led to believe that the real estate sector alone can lift up our economy. These were the ideas that guests of this episode of Kalam al-Nas put forth.
In reality, agriculture and industry equally constitute economic value added, stimulate tangential sectors, create job opportunities, and produce tax revenue if they receive the government support that the real estate sector is receiving today. In terms of comprehensive economic planning, it is only logical to seek to diversify the sources of GDP, so that slowdown in one sector would not paralyze the entire economy. If the real estate sector does in fact constitute the largest share of GDP, then we should support other sectors. Supporting small-scale industry and agriculture transforms a larger portion of the general public into producers and then into savers, whereas current policies supporting the real estate sector by reducing interest rates turns the general public into debtors–as evidenced by the latest crisis that shook the United States and Europe. The subprime crisis did not extend to Lebanon because of the Lebanese citizen’s caution at borrowing and incurring debt. Guests prompted the public to abandon that same caution in favor of what they called “the culture of ownership” and “the Western mentality.”
Though it is worth taking into account the lessons learned from developed countries. When it comes to application, we just cannot blindly depend on these lessons. One of the guests of the episode deliberately promoted this blind dependency by likening the state of the real estate sector in Paris to our current real estate situation in Beirut. This is dangerously misleading for it is common knowledge that this analogy is completely unrealistic and deeply inaccurate.
The case of the Raouche’s Dalieh and the case of the salary scale are similar: every time a Lebanese voice rises in the name of the public and the common interest, affecting in any way the profits of the owners of capital, we are threatened with capital flight, unemployment, and recession. But the truth is that the accumulation of profits does not actually contribute to the creation of jobs unless coupled with an increase in consumption. Only then does the demand increase and motivate profit-seeking company owners to employ. Growth is secured by creating a middle class that constitutes constant local consumption, which the slightest regional turmoil does not affect, and which constitutes a solid backing of our production sectors, including the real estate sector. Additionally, securing equal opportunities and reducing social inequality would both contribute to stability.
[To read this statement in Arabic, click here.]
 The slogans on the banners were: “The dream of the 3% are producing nightmares for 90% of the people”, “80% of the Lebanese households don’t even earn the minimum required salary to access a subsidized bank loan”, and “The dream of our city does not lie in real estate development, rather in public spaces and open access to the sea.”