BEIRUT: Vera Akl decided to stay after a nearby apartment collapsed and killed 27 people one year ago in the Fassouh area of Beirut’s Ashrafieh district.
Akl stayed when an engineer determined her balcony might likewise collapse. She stayed when another said her whole building could fall. And when her grandchildren moved and all but two of her neighbors left, Akl still stayed.
“When the building fell, I didn’t want to leave,” said an elderly Akl, sitting in her enormous, drafty living room. “Where would I put all of these things? I can’t pay the rent for some place new ... my daughters can’t afford for me to live with them.”
Akl is just one of scores of tenants who have refused to leave despite unsafe building conditions.
In the year since the Fassouh building collapsed, inspections in Beirut alone have condemned at least 25 buildings – none of which have evacuated completely. In general, the Fassouh tragedy put pressure on citizens and lawmakers to take seriously the threat of failing buildings. Government officials have increased inspection efforts, planned for building surveys and passed a new construction law.
But tenants’ ability to stay in their condemned apartments without liability underscores the amount of work lawmakers face in preventing another fatal collapse.
In November, the Interior Ministry announced a new public safety decree, in part, requiring building owners to obtain a safety report from a commission of inspectors.
The law ensures the proper construction of future buildings and clarifies accountability, but it leaves the dilemma of already condemned buildings unsolved.
A year ago, lawmakers immediately responded by asking residents of old buildings to check for suspicious-looking marks or damage, and report them to the municipality.
Beirut alone received about 500 such calls following the Fassouh collapse, Mayor Bilal Hamad said. Many buildings received government warnings calling for general maintenance repairs, and inspectors deemed about 5 percent of them uninhabitable.
But few tenants, if any, have left.
“Not a single building was evacuated,” the mayor said. “Where would they go?”
In addition to individual inspections, pressure on lawmakers to begin an exhaustive survey of the country’s buildings has built up from within their ranks and from outside.
Hamad himself holds a doctorate in engineering. He pushed to commission regional construction giant Khatib & Alami to do a survey of Beirut.
On a national scale, the Syndicate of Engineers and Architects has met periodically over the past year with Prime Minister Najib Mikati to plan – among other recommendations – a survey of the country’s buildings, said Elie Bsaibes, syndicate president.
Both projects are moving slowly. The plan to survey Beirut municipality awaits final approval. And the national survey remains in the planning stages.
Such assessments are necessary, but Akl and scores of other stubborn residents showed that simply the knowledge of grave danger won’t be enough to save lives.
Many families choose to stay in decrepit apartments because they have more to lose by leaving.
Long after her neighbors left, a second inspection ultimately determined Akl’s building would not fall, she said. But her situation exemplifies the typical reasons why tenants stay: She has spent a lifetime in her home, she and her family lack the resources to move her elsewhere, and her rent had remained at pre-Civil War levels, a pittance, up until recently, she said.
Legally these renters hold no responsibility for building repairs and they won’t be liable if the building falls apart or injures people – so they stay.
But building owners are as incapable of paying for repairs as their tenants when some rents remain at controlled, pre-Civil War levels of as little as LL25,000 per month.
In order to ensure public safety, lawmakers have two critical problems to solve: How to pay for life-saving repairs and who to hold accountable in case of disaster.
“You have to amend the rent law,” Bsaibes said. “The renters cannot make the repairs and the owners cannot afford it.
“In this situation, if a building is showing signs of collapse, the responsibility is not for the owner. It will have to go to the municipality to resolve,” he added.
Hamad suggested the creation of an organization similar to the U.S.’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, created specifically for emergencies like natural disasters. Hamad counted the prevalence of unsafe structures among such national emergencies.
The Higher Relief Council has over time taken on a general disaster-relief role. However, this organization is insufficient, and general disaster relief was not its intended purpose, Hamad said.
In terms of accountability, the mayor suggested a law by which residents who refuse to leave unsafe buildings must buy their flat via special government loans, thus taking on liability for injury or damage. He believes holding tenants legally accountable for any dangers would motivate them to leave or make the necessary repairs.
Whatever the final laws look like, both agreed some sort of public fund will have to be set up to address the issue of the country’s dangerous buildings.
“If we have earthquakes, some of these buildings could get severe damage,” Bsaibes said. “We don’t have any public fund to repair, if in the future we have a catastrophe like an earthquake.”
But as long as the law remains unchanged, Akl plans to stay:
“I’ve lived here for 60 years. This life is from God, what can I do?”