BEIRUT: The crumbling facade of the once-elegant Hasbini Building in Zarif mirrors the eroding foothold of longtime tenants in the capital and across the country, following the passing of the new rent law.
The law, passed in April but under constitutional review after a challenge by former President Michel Sleiman, would affect thousands of families and individuals. It has pitted old tenants and activists against landlords, and, on a broader ideological level, social welfare advocates against free market liberals for the future of the city.
The landlord of the Hasbini Building, Samir Hasbini, blames its dilapidated state on the lack of income from longtime renters. If the new rent law goes into effect, he says he would be able to invest in the building, although he admits that he would prefer to sell the land.
Samir Hasbini’s father, Mohammad Hasbini, built the five-story building around 90 years ago as a newly married man with a young family. The Hasbini building boasts embellished columns, intricate balustrades and tall ceilings, but years of neglect have taken a toll.
At the time it was built, it was one of many fine buildings in the area that borders Zoqaq al-Blat, home to some of Beirut’s outstanding architectural gems. Today, many of the historical buildings have been torn down or are in such disrepair that residents consider it only a matter of time before they too become casualties of the construction boom.
Hasbani, 70, explains that he owns the building with eight of his sublings, “and each of us gets not more than LL200,000 ($132) a year. That apartment across the street was rented for $1,200 a month ... [as an] investment.”
“If one of my apartments were emptied, I could get a minimum of $500,000 for it,” he says.
The law in its current form would raise rents gradually over six years to 5 percent of the unit’s market value, which would be decided by court-approved appraisers. However, after nine years, landlords could evict longtime tenants, even if they are paying the higher rent. Tenants who qualify as poor would have 12 years before they could be evicted, during which time the increase in their rent would be covered by a special fund.
Hasbini, who also lives in the building, says his support for the law has not affected his relationships with his neighbors and tenants, which he describe as “good.”
Reda Hamdan, a tenant who has lived in the building for 35 years, is fatalistic, declining to give an opinion on the new law.
“Whether it’s good or not good, it’s the state’s decision,” he says. “If they raise the rent, we will pay, if they don’t, we won’t.”
Around the corner at a nearby mechanic shop, Mohammad Jamal, 55, speaks bluntly of his opposition to the law.
“Three of my children are studying to be doctors and two more are also studying medicine, and I work night and day to educate them,” says Jamal, who pays LL1,000,000 ($662) a year for a home in Corniche al-Mazraa. “If they kick me out and I need to rent a new house, I won’t be able to.”
Jamal estimates that he has paid half the value of the apartment since he moved in, and called for the state to come up with more affordable housing options.
“How can I afford a house for $1,000 a month?” he says. “There is no housing, no nothing. Should I go live in the streets? ... Of course I am against [the new law].”
Urban researcher and activist Nadine Bekdache sees the new law as a means of emptying old buildings over the next few years for the benefit of real estate investors, exacerbating the displacement of lower and middle-income families from Beirut.
“There was already a development boom before this rent control law that is replacing rent controlled buildings with new constructions, affecting the history and social context of each neighborhood,” she said.
Bekdache says small landlords will not be able to sell or renovate immediately, but that large developers, on the other hand, can afford to wait until the nine- or 12-year mark passes and then snap up the empty properties without having to compensate the tenants.
“Everything we know of Beirut is tied to the old rent law,” she says. “There should be a proper survey, and a proper debate. [The law is] a chance to talk about housing policy in the city, how it’s being emptied of low- and middle-income people.”
Joseph Zoghaib, president of the Landlords’ Association, insists the law has been misrepresented to the public by rich tenants and the Communist Party.
“We are in a free economic society and we value this very much,” says Zoghaib, who argues that freeing up old rent apartments will actually bring down the inflated rent prices in Beirut. “Who said the free market doesn’t respect the right to housing? ... I would never like to see my compatriots living in the streets.”
Zoghaib says that when landlords are able to make a decent income off their properties, they will have less incentive to sell to large developers.
“Poor people have nothing to fear; they get compensation and they have the next 12 years [before they can be evicted],” he says. “If they are old, 12 years is more than enough, and if they are not old, let them come up with a plan and move their butts a little. Not everyone should throw themselves on the state.”
The rent law law was passed in early April and published in the Official Gazette on May 8. Sleiman, backed by 10 lawmakers, questioned its constitutionality and referred it to the Constitutional Council. Although it has been passed and published, the law cannot be implemented until the review is completed.