Access to affordable and adequate housing is fundamental to enjoying all other human rights. And as more and more landlords charge rent in US dollars, it can be difficult for residents of Beirut to find new rental properties, and, in some cases, stay in their current houses.
But when is raising rent legally enforceable and when is it not?
Paying rent in Lebanese pounds
Walid, a Lebanese freelancer in Beirut, has an income that fluctuates from month to month. He has used this as a bargaining point when he insists on paying his rent in Lebanese lira. He reasons that even when he does have access to dollars, his salary is unstable and he should not be expected to pay rent in dollars at a fixed rate.
He has paid in lira up until today, but believes it is only a matter of time before his landlord asks him once again to pay in dollars.
Carla, a Lebanese Armenian woman in her forties, also pays LBP to rent space for a shop in Achrafieh that she has operated for over 20 years. When the landlord insisted she pay in dollars, she refused.
Eventually one of the Armenian clubs intervened on behalf of her and other residents to make it clear that no one would be paying in dollars simply by being asked.
Carla and most other residents near her were eligible for a freeze in rental prices up to a year after their current contracts expired since their properties were damaged during the Beirut blast.
Carla said she doesn’t know exactly what the negotiations consisted of, but feels that the more people refuse to pay in dollars, the less landlords will expect this of them. But not all residents have access to such collective bargaining.
Some said that, even though they were aware of their rights to stay in a property without paying in USD, they would rather leave than be continually harassed by a landlord to pay more.
The legality of charging rent in dollars
But what rights do landlords have to change or set the price of rent?
Charging residents for rent in dollars at the beginning of a contract is not illegal. However, refusing to accept payment of rent in Lebanese lira after a contract has already been signed is illegal, according to Lebanese law article 192 of the Code of Money and Credit.
If a tenant agrees to pay in USD at the beginning of their contract, then becomes unable to continue rent payments in dollars, they can continue to pay rent in LBP and the landlord is legally obligated to accept payments. Even if tenants pay at the official LBP 1,500 per 1 USD rate and deposit payments at a notary public, the tenant cannot be evicted on grounds of nonpayment.
Most residents are unaware that Article 319 of the Penal Code stipulates a fine and/or jail time to landlords if they refuse to accept payments in Lebanese liras. Instead, they assume that a landlord can change the rent to dollars and evict them immediately without any grounds.
Most of the people Beirut Today interviewed were already paying in LBP but had been asked by their landlord for more rent, either in USD or in LBP, within the last six months.
If residents already had a contract in LBP they tended to refuse a change in rent and remained on their property. They also reported that the landlord eventually stopped asking for more rent, but they were wary of what would happen once their current rental contract expired.
What if I don’t have a contract?
Most residents of both Achrafieh and Karantina, however, had no contract at all and said that landlords refused to give contracts (or receipts) for rental payment. Only one person out of the 10 interviewed in Karantina had ever had a rental contract. They had been renting their shop since the 1970s.
Similarly, only one third of the 21 Achrafieh residents interviewed had any official rental contract.
Maya Saba Ayon, a representative from the nonprofit Housing Monitor, provided a helpful perspective on the above regulations from the Lebanon legal code. She also said that a tenant may prove payment of rent using any receipt issued to them by a landlord.
Ayon says that this documentation is not limited to papers.
“Just the fact that you have a key and that you’re staying in this place—perhaps even your neighbors can testify for you—this is enough in court,” to help substantiate claims of an oral contract between the renter and the landlord.
If threatened with eviction, a tenant could continue to live in their residence until the landlord came with a court-approved eviction notice.
In short, many residents who do not have a contract leave their housing thinking that they are legally obligated to leave when the opposite is true. The burden of proof is on the landlord to prove that a tenant does not have a right to stay.
And the tenant always has the right to stay in their residence until an official court-ordered eviction notice is issued and delivered to them.
Despite extensive legal provisions existing on paper to protect residents from eviction, most residents and many landlords of Beirut do not know the legal underpinnings behind eviction, rental agreements, and what to do in situations where rent is set or changed and no contract exists.
Most vacating of property, forced or voluntary, does not come in the face of an official legal eviction notice— meaning that the eviction itself is not obligatory from a legal perspective.
That being said, other legal concerns, besides knowing housing law, impact tenants’ decisions to yield to a forced eviction rather than forcing due legal process.
People whose residency papers have expired might run the risk of being deported or paying large fines if their legal residency status is discovered during an eviction proceeding.
These residents are more likely to leave when threatened with eviction without there ever being a legal eviction notice, because they have more to lose than a landlord does from staying on the property and forcing an official legal investigation.
Many landlords never create a contract with residents to avoid needing to document the agreement and pay taxes on the income earned through renting their property. Ayon says that these fees are rarely collected by the municipality unless the landlord self-reports his rental agreements.
Forcing a legal eviction might result in a landlord’s tax-evasion being caught. If so, they need to pay the fees for as many months or years that they avoided doing so in addition to a court-ordered fine.
Landlords in this position are less likely to order a legal eviction and will consequently rely on illegal eviction notices and threats to encourage tenants to leave their properties.
While tenants with a legal residency in Lebanon are in a much better position to force a landlord to pursue a legal eviction than those with an expired residency, most of the thirty individuals interviewed, regardless of their nationality or residency status, had never done this.
The only three who had both refused to leave or pay more in rent were Lebanese citizens who knew their legal right to stay on the properties, and, after verbally disagreeing with their respective landlords, a court-ordered eviction notice had still not been issued.
Paying in USD
Walid said he understands why landlords want dollars, since the Lebanese lira lost more than 90 percent of its purchasing power in the past two years and is not worth as much as it used to be in the global market. He thinks if landlords want to charge more for rent, though, they should pitch in with maintenance.
“Nine years and he has never offered to fix anything that was broken. I paid for it myself,” he said, speaking of his landlord. “Even after the blast he didn’t even check in on the flat.”
In contrast, his neighbors from Europe agreed to pay $300 for a three-bedroom flat upon moving in four months ago and said that the same landlord is very involved in apartment maintenance and upkeep.
The European neighbors said that they do not know how much the owners of the other flats in the building are paying but assume that their neighbors are paying in Lebanese lira because most of them are Lebanese.
Seemingly unbeknownst to them, ever since they moved in, the building owner has been making rounds to almost all the other residents asking them to pay rent in dollars regardless of their nationality.
Gentrification, ignorance, and opportunity
The disconnect between Western foreigners’ perception of the housing market in Lebanon and the actual housing market is often stark and partly perpetuated by linguistic barriers.
Some non-Arab foreigners do not feel they have time to look for houses offered in LBP and many listings for houses in USD can be easily found on Facebook or OLX.
Convenience— and the difficulty of communicating with property owners and neighbors in Arabic—compels such renters to continue to seek out living situations in USD, often with little negotiation to pay in LBP and little understanding of how their oral or written rental agreements affect the neighbors around them.
Furthermore, Europeans and North Americans coming to work in Beirut on a contract basis have different investments in the neighborhoods they live in than someone who has lived in the neighborhood for a long period of time.
Most residents of Achrafieh interviewed for example, regardless of their nationality, said that the proximity of their home to work and social spaces was important to them, as well as the safety of their home. The quality of social life for most foreigners, however, seemed less closely connected to their location of residence than that of neighborhoods’ long-term residents.
A landlord’s perspective
Sako, a property owner in Achrafieh, feels it is right for landlords to ask for rent in USD as the Lebanese lira’s purchasing power is rapidly decreasing. He said that he no longer rents any of his flats in LBP and only takes payments in USD.
Sako reports that more than half of his flats are rented despite the rental market being nowhere near as strong as it used to be. When asked if he would consider renting flats in LBP rather than USD, he was adamant.
“Everyone has access to dollars,” he said. “If not from their job, from people working outside of Lebanon.”
Hyperbolic or not, the statement does not reflect the reality of many public service workers in Lebanon whose salaries are still in Lebanese lira and may or may not work a second job or receive monetary assistance in order to pay for rent.
Unless such residents successfully registered for Lebanese government ration cards before January 31, their prospects for consistent access to dollars can be slim.
One retired member of the military in his 50s said that his monthly allowance of $30 has averaged since December to around LBP 750,000 a month, depending on the dollar exchange rate.
He reported that part of it went to rent a small apartment at an old rental rate and the rest went to basic necessities which were supplemented by assistance from local community-based organizations.
Without means to pay for a generator, he had adapted to the nationwide electricity shortage by using electricity offered by his neighbors and running a wire down from their flat to his apartment. This was enough to power a small electric bulb or charge his phone.
He used intermittent government electricity to heat water, and on the days that it did not come, he showered cold.
Having a contract at an old rental rate of 1.2 million lira a year, he could stay in his residence for a long period of time without legal eviction. Nevertheless, he was continually harassed by the building owner to pay more or leave.
When asked about what he knew about his legal right to stay in the apartment, he said that he was studying the matter with legal aid but was also tired of the constant fighting. He would seriously consider moving to another city rather than endure consistent friction over payment of rent.
“No longer the same”
Long term residents are much less likely to welcome the idea of leaving their neighborhood, for both economic and social reasons.
“There aren’t other places to go,” said Marcelle El-Murr, 46, who runs a shop in Geitawi. “For the places that are available, the building owners are asking for dollars, and I can’t pay in dollars because my work is in Lebanese pounds.”
Until now she has refused to pay more rent than her contract stipulates, but the landlord has not renewed her contract. “We’ll see what will happen,” she said.
Rosette Hakim, 56, is also firmly integrated into her community after living and operating a shop in Achrafieh for over 17 years. She greets each person entering by name.
Regular customers know her shop as a place to charge their phones when the rest of the street has no access to electricity.
When asked how the neighborhood had changed from the last two years until now, Rosette said that it has gotten worse.
“After the blast,” she started, “you can fix the buildings, but you can’t fix people psychologically.”
Rosette welcomed cosmetic renewal efforts for old buildings that needed repair even before the Beirut explosion, and recounted stories of her neighbors stepping in to pull her out of the rubble and clean her shop after the blast hit.
However, she said that psychological healing takes much longer, and that it is next to impossible to reach equilibrium with the economic situation in the country.
Steady inflation and electricity crises make life inescapably difficult. Rising rent prices or long waits for building repairs caused many of her long-term neighbors to leave.
“I feel in the past two years, I’ve aged ten years,” Rosette said.
Another shop owner echoed her sentiment.
Nour, whose name has been altered upon his request, has lived his entire life in Geitawi. Now in his 70s, he still resides in the house he was born in but says that “very few are left” in the neighborhood from the people who grew up with him.
Thanks to both owning his family home and having a contract at an old rent rate that has been fairly stable until now, he is more secure in his shop location than those on contracts that can legally only be extended for a maximum of three years before being subjected to an increase in rent.
Rosette says that her landlord has foreshadowed such an increase and that it could now displace her after years of investing in her business, and more importantly, her neighborhood.
While some of Nour’s neighbors left during the long civil war in Lebanon and others passed away from natural causes, he said that many more left Beirut in the last five years for economic reasons.
Nour’s childhood friend concurred, and recounted how he went to live with family in the States for a few months but disliked it.
“Here we can point to street corners and say ‘Remember so-and-so from school? Remember what we did here when we were kids?’ In another country, we have nothing,” said Fadi, the friend whose name has also been altered.
In Lebanon, he has experienced a different kind of nothing. “Twenty-five years ago, I spent good money renovating the kitchen. I spent $15,000 on the cabinets alone,” he remembered.
After the blast, NGOs gave Fadi $2,000 to repair his house, but “no matter how much it is fixed, nothing is back to the way it was before.”
Nour receives nothing in terms of social security payments, adding to a feeling that he is living at barely a fraction of the standard he would otherwise have expected at his age.
Displacement mirrors that of the civil war
It is common for people still living in the neighborhood of their birth to mention the civil war in Lebanon as a major impetus for the displacement of residents.
Several long-term residents interviewed in Achrafieh said that oftentimes up to half, if not more, of the families they grew up with had members return to their neighborhoods after the civil war—though the texture of the neighborhood changed forever, incorporating new people who had come there to live during the intervening years of conflict.
Adnan Amcha, who operates a small supermarket and a pest control company in Karantina, said that he estimated no more than 15 percent of the neighbors he grew up with before the Lebanese civil war returned to the neighborhood when the conflict subsided.
The past three to five years, however, have resulted in another recognizable upheaval. Many residents have had to travel away again, a result of the Beirut blast coupled with intense economic hardship. A large number of non-Lebanese also now live in Beirut, especially as the eleven-year-long conflict in neighboring Syria drags on.
This time, travel outside of Beirut or Lebanon is not primarily to escape armed conflict, but to protect one’s family from financial ruin and to work in and study professional fields largely left under-resourced and crippled by state supported monopolies and politically-connected autocrats.
While the social benefits of remaining in Lebanon outweigh the financial hardships for Fadi, he freely recognizes what many other Lebanese already feel: A home without shared social life is nothing.
A lack of social cohesion on a larger scale means that basic necessities such as access to savings, consistent access to electricity, and a stable place to live are difficult if not impossible to acquire.
Ignorance of rental laws and other legal vulnerabilities leave residents less likely to advocate for their rights, and empty apartments wait to be taken by relatively wealthy persons rather than be leased at a sustainable price for working class people.
Healthy social connection at a local level is threatened by macro-level fissures—fissures which daily displace residents of Lebanon across class lines without a second armed civil war ever being fought.