Some Beirut residents, now with shattered homes, are being asked by their landlords to front the costs of repairs following the deadly explosion at the port in Lebanon’s capital.
The Beirut port explosion left tens of thousands of apartments damaged and potentially hundreds of thousands of residents at least temporarily displaced.
With some 47,000 apartments damaged or destroyed in the Aug. 4 blast, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the immediate concern of many was to find a place to stay.
But now, as residents assess the damage and look to rebuild or patch damages, questions have turned to how the damages will be paid for. The country’s ongoing economic crisis has meant many, including landlords, are unable to pay for repairs to the buildings.
In theory, the cost of repairs will be reimbursed by the Higher Relief Council, a government body tasked with dealing with emergencies. But many homeowners don’t have the cash to pay up front and, in any case, many do not trust that they will be paid back in the end.
As a result, some tenants said they had been pressured by their landlords to pay to replace broken doors and shattered windows.
Estefania Hanna was renting an apartment in the Hamra neighborhood, where she works at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. The blast shattered windows in her living room and damaged the building façade, leaving the broken windows hanging precariously over the street.
“I called the landlord – he didn’t call me, I called him,” she said. “I told him, ‘I’m safe, but the windows broke, and the windows are going to fall.’ But he was screaming that it’s my responsibility and that he can’t do anything.”
Hanna said she had already told her landlord that she planned to leave the apartment when her contract ended this month, but after that exchange, she decided to leave immediately and go to stay with her parents in the town of Jbeil until she could find a new apartment in Beirut.
“It was really too much for him to blame me for the windows that shattered because of an explosion,” she said.
Pauline Maloum, a freelance videographer who was at the apartment she rents in Geitawi when the blast happened, fell to the floor and covered her head with a laptop bag when the building began to shake. The bag saved her from potentially serious injury when the windows shattered moments later. Immediately after the explosion, shaken, she went to stay with her parents outside of Beirut.
Upon her return three days later, someone came to assess the damages to fix the windows and door that were damaged, which amount to $270, or around 2 million Lebanese lira at the black market exchange rate.
“So, I called [the landlady] and I told her that he said this and she was like, ‘No, it’s too expensive, and anyway, Pauline, it’s on you – it’s not on me,’” Maloum said.
Maloum said her landlady had offered to waive the month’s rent if she paid for the repairs but noted that the cost of the repairs is about twice her monthly rent. And because she and her roommate rent the apartment without a contract, she fears that she would not be able to claim reimbursement afterward.
“I told her…I’m not taking it with me – why would I have to pay for it?” she said. “…It is her house, not mine.”
Landlords legally obligated
Karim Nammour, an attorney and board member with the Legal Agenda organization, told Al Arabiya English that it is legally the landlords’ responsibility to pay for repairs, which should then be eligible for reimbursement by the state.
“The repairs of the destruction must be paid by landlords according to the law, because the destruction was not caused by tenants’ use of the property, therefore tenants are neither liable vis-à-vis the damages nor should they pay for the repairs,” he said.
He added that in case the property is so damaged as to be unlivable, tenants are released from their obligation to pay rent.
In some cases, tenants were simply left to their own devices.
Dina Suweir, who has lived all her life as a tenant in the impoverished and heavily damaged neighborhood of Karantina, said she and her husband and children had been sleeping on the streets since their building was destroyed and had heard nothing from their landlord.
“He disappeared. Maybe he was killed in the explosion. I don’t know,” she said.
Meanwhile, some landlords are themselves in dire circumstances.
Landlords can’t afford repairs
Suweir’s neighbor, Zahra al Ali, owns her house – the family home where she grew up – and lives on the ground floor with her daughter while she has renters upstairs. Her house is still standing, but all the windows are broken. An NGO came and replaced windows on the bottom floor, but windows on the top floor, where her tenants live, are simply covered in plastic.
“I don’t have a single franc,” Ali said. “We can’t fix it.”
The post-explosion housing issues go deeper than the problem of repairs.
Nadine Bekdache, co-founder of Public Works Studio, which has been doing field visits and monitoring eviction threats, said in some cases, landlords have used the damages as an excuse to pressure tenants to leave, or tenants who left temporarily because of the damages fear that they will not be allowed to return.
“There’s one tenant, for instance, who every day – she took her stuff out because she’s scared the building might fall, even though we assured her that it will not – but she comes every day and stays in front of the house from the morning to the evening to claim it saying that, ‘I’m still here, I didn’t leave. I’m leaving because now I cannot live in it, but I’m here – I want to come back,’” Bekdache said.
In the coming weeks, she said, the state must safeguard tenants’ right to return to their houses.
“It’s the responsibility of the state to make sure to give assurance to all residents that their rights to their houses will not change because of a seven-second explosion,” she said.
Dounia Salame, a researcher at the Beirut Urban Lab, which tracks land use issues in the city, noted that displaced tenants will face a tight market as they search for new housing, even though Beirut has a high housing vacancy rate. Because building owners do not pay municipal taxes on empty apartments, many landlords prefer to sit on vacant apartments rather than rent at a low rate.
In other cases, they rent without a contract, in order to avoid paying taxes, which leaves tenants with little protection from eviction. Salame said she expects to see that practice increase with the surge of people looking for temporary housing while they wait for their old homes to be rehabilitated.
Salame said to protect both tenants and landlords, “It would be good for the municipalities to adopt, for instance, temporary short-term rental contracts instead of people getting stuck in a whole year- or three-year contract, they can take a three-month or six-month contract without the landlord paying municipal taxes.”
She continued, “so at the same time the person is incentivized to rent their empty place and, on the other hand, the person renting the place doesn’t feel that they are stuck there or that they’re at risk of the whims of a landlord.”
Such a mechanism would also allow tenants who want to return to come back quickly to their old houses, Salame said.
“We do not want longer term displacement for people who are attached to the neighborhood, which is the majority of the people,” she said.