Research and writing Maya Sabeh Ayun
Hours after the port explosion devastated Beirut, the governor, Judge Marwan Abboud, appeared tearfully on television, declaring that about 300,000 people had become homeless in the Lebanese capital. With this news, individuals, organizations, and associations rushed to offer their homes and headquarters to receive the victims. As for the relevant authorities, however, they showed little haste in mobilizing, but rather seemed to rely almost completely on the initiatives of volunteers and survivors. Was The Economist honest when it claimed, "the Lebanese government has left its people to fend for themselves,"1 or did the state have a role the media failed to report?
In this article, we want to shed light on the most prominent resolutions issued by the Lebanese authorities during the first weeks after the explosion, and to comment on how effective their support was during the developing housing crisis.
1. In terms of declaring a state of emergency (and handing over the task of crisis management to the military)
On August 5, 2020, the day after the explosion, the Parliament convened in an extraordinary session2. A partial state of emergency in the city of Beirut was declared, and powers were handed over to the army. The plenary of the Cabinet convened in its general assembly on August 13, 2020, to ratify the decree declaring a state of emergency. We will not go into the legal circumstances surrounding the declaration and approval of the state of emergency. Rather, we are interested in commenting on the necessity of making this decision.
There was no need to declare a state of emergency until August 30 2020, in order to set in motion a state of public mobilization. Under the state of emergency, the government is granted exceptional prerogatives, empowering it to mobilize all state resources and confiscate private property to deal with the repercussions of the port explosion: for example, allocating empty buildings to accommodate the afflicted. There is no justification for resorting to the militarization of power, and the declaration of the military zone, in the absence of a security risk threatening the country. The nature of the disaster did not require tightening security and restricting freedoms. Its repercussions went well beyond the security dimension and were related to social, economic, developmental and housing issues. This should have necessitated consolidating efforts between the various competent authorities to keep abreast of and integrate all these aspects of the crisis.
The Army Command – Directorate of Orientation launched an "advanced emergency room". It cooperated with various official bodies, such as the Beirut Municipality, Civil Defense, the High Relief Commission and the Ministries of Social Affairs, Communications, Energy and Public Works. Despite that, the army was unable to secure assistance in line with the demands of the crisis and relied mostly on the assistance of NGOs and associations, as well as individual and international initiatives.
Therefore, it would have made more sense to keep crisis management in the hands of the government. Instead of handing that responsibility to the army, the government could have allocated tasks to its ministries, each according to its competencies. At this point, we wonder if it is not time that a special ministry for urban planning and housing is formed, to lay down a serious vision of how to use land as a source of livelihood, to meet people's needs for housing, public spaces and vital facilities, and to curb the fatal tendency to convert land into a commodity that is invested at the expense of people's rights in a healthy and nurturing environment.
2. In terms of surveying damages and securing alternative housing
The day after the explosion, all officials headed to the stricken areas to inspect the damage. Soon, foreign aid began to flow, and officials had to assign bodies that would conduct surveys and assess the damage. As for individuals, they did not receive the same attention; officials did not rush to inspect their conditions and evacuate the afflicted.
The High Relief Commission announced in a statement that it “will, together with the damage survey and assessment committee of the Lebanese Army, examine all the damages resulting from the Beirut Port explosion.” It asked citizens to "organize a statement of status and damages" by "documenting [it]... via photography or video..." and to submit it to the local mayor.
Despite its mandate to “provide shelter for families whose homes are no longer habitable...” by the government in the resolution of the August 5 session, the High Relief Commission failed to secure alternative housing for the victims, given that its being tasked with such an assignment was unrealistic in the first place. It has neither the powers nor the capabilities that would enable it to secure and allocate buildings to accommodate the affected people. Consequently, it should have contacted the relevant ministries or sought the assistance of various public and private departments and institutions. Nonetheless, it was content to merely assist the “advanced emergency room” in coordinating the process of securing temporary alternative housing for citizens whose homes were damaged by the explosion in the Beirut Port. It relied almost entirely on the Red Cross and individual initiatives to secure the alternative housing.
That session’s resolutions had also recommended to “…communicate with the Ministry of Education to open schools to receive these families and with the Minister of Tourism to use hotels for this purpose or for any purpose related to relief operations.” So, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education – General Directorate of Vocational and Technical Education, issued a resolution on August 8, 2020, to open the doors of the Bir Hasan Technical and Technological Complex and the Dekwaneh Vocational Complex, to receive the affected families and secure temporary shelters for them.
As for the Minister of Tourism, he did not issue any such decision, and it became clear that the hotels that opened their doors to receive the victims did so based on their individual initiative.
In parallel, the Governor of Beirut issued a series of decisions, in which he tasked the Beirut Police Command to instruct residents to evacuate approximately 100 buildings that were found to be at risk of collapse or pose a threat to public safety. This was done without comment on the fate of those buildings’ residents or giving them guarantees regarding their right to return to their homes after completing the restoration work. Even when residents refused to implement the eviction decision, they were forced by the municipality police to sign a waiver that exempted the municipality from its responsibility towards all possible harm to the residents and their families as a result of not evicting. Note that in such cases, before starting the eviction, the municipality must secure alternative housing for those lacking it.
The first resolution was made after “conducting scientific field surveys of the buildings that the Beirut Port explosion area...” on August 10, 2020. Oddly, the decision did not specify the body that conducted the survey. In fact, it happens to be issued just two days after the Syndicate of Property Owners and Leased Buildings called upon the Governor of Beirut to evacuate some buildings "that already risked collapse... in Ashrafieh area."
The second resolution was issued after the examination made by the Technical Division of the Engineering Department on August 12, 2020, and it dealt with the buildings that had previously been requested to be vacated in the first resolution. This makes us wonder about the extent of coordination between the bodies in charge of surveying the damages, keeping in mind that the Order of Engineers and Architects had carried out another survey of its own. In its report published on August 25, 2020, the Order specified the locations of the 144 buildings that risk partial or total collapse.
As for the fate of the residents who were subject to eviction, the municipality could play an active role in preserving housing rights, securing alternatives, and launching housing schemes that increase the availability of affordable housing in the affected areas pending the rehabilitation process, and to not merely focus on identifying the damaged buildings. Instead of evacuating residents from its properties and allocating others to collect debris and glass from the affected areas, it can use some of its properties to shelter the residents who were asked to evacuate until alternatives are made available.
3. In terms of issuing laws that alleviate the burdens of the housing crisis
The first time the Parliament convened since the explosion was on August 13, 2020, or nine days after the event. It was not, however, to discuss solutions to the numerous emerging crises, but rather with the aim of holding the government accountable and coercing a government resignation. Nevertheless, the government preemptively submitted its resignation two days before the session. So, having lost its purpose, and upon the insistence of some of the deputies, the session of accountability turned into a legislative one, where a law suspending deadlines, which would “...give citizens and institutions a breather...” was approved.
However, a skim through this law clearly indicates that only a limited group of citizens and institutions benefit from it, especially in terms of the housing crisis:
• Law 1/60/2020 was extended, suspending all legal, judicial and contractual deadlines, in spite of the general and unclear nature of its text. It did not explicitly address the issue of suspending rent payments, nor did it specify a clear mechanism to pay accumulated rents, after the legally specified suspension period expired, which could later on cause problems between landlords and tenants. Nor did it cancel the exclusion of those benefiting from the old rents law, even though they constitute the overwhelming majority of the population affected by the explosion and are most at risk of eviction. Hence, it was expected that a law would be promulgated explicitly prohibiting evictions and outlining the fate of the procedures that began before this law came into effect.
• Home loan repayments were suspended without specifying a clear mechanism to pay accumulated rents, after the legally specified suspension period expires. This could cause problems between landlords and tenants.
• Suspension of legal and judicial procedures was restricted to those which started from July 1, 2020. This exposed those who had defaulted on home loans, against whom judicial procedures were commenced before the announced date of eviction risk. (Note that most borrowers had stopped paying their home loans as of 2018.)
• Residential and nonresidential buildings which were damaged as a result of the Beirut Port explosion were exempted from the built property tax and municipality fees for 2020. These exemptions could have been linked with other incentives to protect residents and ensure the continuity of their residence in rented buildings.
Almost a month after the port explosion, the fate of the displaced residents remains unknown. Despite various officials frequently appearing on media and their assurances of "quick and fair compensation," none of the relevant official bodies contacted the displaced to compensate them, to repair damages, to make available alternative housing, or even to check on their safety.
No law, resolution, or statement was issued guaranteeing their housing rights, preventing random evictions, preserving the tenant’s right (old as well as new) to return to their homes after the completion of the restoration work, and protecting the homeowners from brokers taking advantage of their critical situation by pressuring them to sell their properties at low prices.
Those affected were abandoned. Some took refuge with their relatives; others left Beirut to seek shelter in their villages. Some remained in place, amid the debris that their homes have become, for lack of an alternative, or to ensure that they would remain in the neighborhood.
For all these reasons, we will try to lay down mechanisms that place the entire population at the heart of the recovery process and provide legal and social support to the groups most vulnerable to marginalization.
As part of these efforts, we have launched a socioeconomic survey initiative for neighborhoods and we call upon the affected and the social workers to report damages and threats to housing.