The massive explosions which devastated the Beirut Port in Lebanon’s capital city have left around 200 people dead, and a wake of devastation in its tracks with 70,000 homes damaged or destroyed – affecting more than 300,000 people. The shelter response remains focused on providing temporary shelter to displaced families, cleaning and sorting rubble from the streets, and repairing houses ahead of the forthcoming winter season.
However, Lebanon’s housing crisis does not start and end with the Beirut Port explosion. In the last decade, Beirut’s land and property market has not met the realistic needs of the people it is meant to serve. Housing is largely unaffordable for the majority of the population and disadvantaged neighbourhoods are facing the brunt of this as the supply of affordable housing does not match the demand. With Lebanon being the country in the world with the highest number of refugees per capita, and as there are few formal camps, most displaced Syrians rent inadequate shelters – apartments, garages, sheds – from private individuals.
Many of the neighbourhoods heavily damaged by the Beirut Port explosion are located in historic areas of Beirut, which are also high in land value. However, due to pre-existing rental conditions, these neighbourhoods accommodated residents of all income levels and demographic backgrounds.
Many of the city’s residents already lived in precarious conditions prior to the explosions, both from a housing and socioeconomic perspective. Surveys have found that the number of female-headed households were high in the areas most affected by the blast. The affected areas were also host to many migrant workers and several LGBTQI organisations, which are now even more exposed to gender-based violence and other protection issues.
With the onslaught of these multidimensional challenges, the housing, land and property rights of the city’s population are at risk of degradation. The problems facing damage inflicted areas include pre-existing tenure disputes, unresolved inheritance issues, missing rights holders, and a lack of tenure documentation. These have been exacerbated post-blast. Affected residents include large numbers of “old tenants” holding rental agreements dating prior to 1992. These tenants have been at a risk of eviction since the amendments to Lebanon’s Rent Control Law in 2014 and 2017.
Structural unsoundness has in the past been used as a pretext to demolish old, and sometimes heritage buildings, to make way for new lucrative projects and could be used during the future reconstruction of Beirut. The historic strip in Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael and Medawar that has been severely damaged (652 out of 755 heritage buildings) is also an area characterized by unresolved land and property disputes. Although the demolition works have been stopped, in the absence of a legal framework for the rehabilitation process, there will be a need to develop a clear Housing, Land and Property guidance framework for these areas before proceeding with any intervention
The post-disaster reconstruction process should ensure an inclusive build-back-better approach protecting residents’ housing and tenure rights and preserving the city’s social fabric and its urban and cultural heritage, an important cornerstone of the city’s identity and economy. The wider humanitarian community, including UN-Habitat, is advocating to ensure attention to such complexities are mainstreamed across the response. Measures will need to address existing and emerging housing, land and property disputes witnessed in comparable large-scale urban renewal contexts. There needs to be protection along the full spectrum of tenure rights, regardless of their degree of formality, so that housing, land and property issues do not serve as a pretext for illegally evicting or displacing residents.
Assessing the risk of buildings collapsing and taking the necessary protective measures is extremely urgent. The assessment needs proactive coordination and a clear referral mechanism including the cooperation of residents with aid providers.
Transitional housing solutions need to be provided urgently to adequately shelter those left homeless until they can return to their homes, with a particular focus supporting those most marginalised and at risk; female headed households, disabled people, the elderly, refugees, migrant workers and LGBTQI individuals. These solutions include subsidies, modalities to occupy vacant units, expanding the rental market, and mitigating the potential inflation of rents in some areas. In parallel, thousands of housing units will need rehabilitation to make them habitable using local materials, manufacturing, and labour.
Ultimately, a vision to rebuild the city with clear goals to preserve socioeconomic diversity, equality and cultural heritage is needed. Building back better and creating new livelihood opportunities would ensure an inclusive and sustainable urban recovery. This vision, in the form of a national strategy, should also address, among others, the underlying tenure insecurity that characterizes Lebanon’s housing and land sectors, and the pre-existing inequalities in accessing housing and livelihood opportunities.