Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

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

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

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

Article excerpt

Sitting tenants under rent control in Lebanon between 1940 and 1992 constituted a political force that defended the right of low and middle-income social groups to affordable housing. By 2014, however, tenants' position with regard to state authority and private development had changed drastically. At the level of legislation, changes introduced to rent laws, building laws, and exceptions to zoning regulations had enabled a particular construction process to emerge. This process serves the economic elite and its interest to invest in real estate. New developers are an extension of Lebanon's political elite that devises economic and urban policies to continuously boost the country's real estate sector.1 They build alienating urban forms and create prohibitive housing markets. In addition, real estate companies' advertising represents these neighborhoods through images of luxurious new lifestyles and excludes the existing long-term residents. Moreover, speculation and an uncurbed property tax system are causing land prices to skyrocket.2 This process has transformed the value of land in Lebanon from a social one to what David Harvey terms a "pure financial asset."3

This tendency has given rise to contradictions in the rent control system, which has in turn affected the lives of communities living in Beirut. Vast differences between rent values, tied to the minimum wage, and rapidly increasing land values have led landlords to imagine their buildings as "hidden treasures," ready to be dumped at a profit, as one landlord explained the decision to bulldoze the historic house he lives in. On another level, a substantial shiftin land ownership, as of 1992, from small landlords to large real estate companies has enabled market-led evictions. In 2014, "a mass eviction law," as the Committee to Defend Tenants' Rights described it, positioned old tenants as external to the market, thus justifying changes to rent law. In the past, landlords used court cases and/or private negotiations over a fee to evict tenants. However, the 2014 law redefined the conditions of eviction. This change caught tenants offguard, creating a growing sense of insecurity and a feeling of betrayal in the face of the state's violation of a seventy-three-year-old social contract. A close reading of the historical development of rent control in Lebanon reveals the conditions that led to tenants' loss of agency on multiple levels. Yet despite this loss, and even in the midst of a persistent and unprecedented media campaign as well as the lobbying of the newly-formed Syndicate of Owners, tenants and their representatives continue to challenge the legitimacy of the new law.

This article analyzes the redefinition of the state-citizen relationship that the "market-driven" liberalization of rental contracts, which pave the way for the end of rent control, flagrantly embodies. Rent control was previously tied to addressing the wider social concern for an affordable housing policy. This affordable housing was poorly conceived and never fully materialized. Today elite forces are ransacking the social pact between citizens and the state, which older tenants strongly symbolize. In the process, the concept of a sovereign state is shifting from positing the state as a provider of basic rights to casting the state as an enabler of the market. A prevailing narrative of the "weak state" has legitimized this shiftin the Lebanese context. However, such a reconfiguration of sovereignty masks the workings of a strong state behind a new emerging sovereignty of eviction.

Although in law rent control is still in effect, landowners and speculators are using extralegal measures and contradictory politics to remove tenants. The state's bureaucrats and governing institutions veer from leniency on landlord accountability to acting as enablers of the eviction process. Tenants face the threat of eviction long before its execution, with the process sometimes spanning a decade. Shifting owner negotiation strategies, swindling activities, intimidation, threats, and official notices together pressure residents to leave their homes. …

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