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Ana Maria Luca

Forever rent

One hot July day in Beirut, Nada and Farid Khoury sat in their living room watching TV, unwilling to set foot outside for fear they would melt. Usually nobody disturbs the retired couple’s summer afternoons, but that Wednesday, after 39 years, their landlord came over with a few people who wanted to buy their apartment.

The Khourys rented their apartment after they got married in 1971 and spent their entire lives there. They signed a rent contract with their landlord for an indefinite period of time, as was legal at the time. Their rent has remained unchanged ever since, around $200 a year, as the 1992 Rent Act allowed them to keep their apartment for the same price.

When the Khourys opened the door and found their landlord with the buyers coming to see the apartment, unannounced, they got scared they might end up on the street.
 
“Apparently there is a new law being discussed, and people are very scared,” Mounir Khoury, the couple’s son, told NOW Lebanon about the possibility of a law being passed cancelling the so-called “old rents” many families pay. “Our landlord is tired of owning this building and not making any profit for so many years, so he wants to sell. In the meantime, nobody knows anything about this new law, which might change everything for us.”

According to government statistics, there are 170,000 Lebanese families who are renting on old contracts just like the Khourys and who could be affected by a change of legislation. Meanwhile the landlords who lost millions of dollars in the last 20 years while renting their property for almost nothing are pressuring the government for action.

The new law intending to moderate the 1992 Rent Act is reportedly in discussion by the parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee. But representatives of the Federation of Lebanese Workers’ Unions (Fenasol) say they weren’t consulted yet and that all they have heard are leaks and rumors, while both landlords and tenants are confused and don’t know what to expect.

“What we’ve heard is that all rents will be raised gradually to the present market price, that the tenants will be forced to sign new contracts every three years, “said Osmat Abdel Samad, vice-president of the Committee for the Rights of Tenants, which was established in the 1940s and is part of Fenasol.

“In this case we might see 170,000 families, which is almost 20 percent of Lebanon’s population, asked to leave their apartments. We want the law to be fair to both landlords and tenants,” he said.

The 1992 Rent Act includes two renting systems. Tenants who signed leases before the start of the civil war in 1975 would continue to pay the same rent, regardless of inflation or changes in the real-estate market, while “new tenants” must sign three-year contracts and pay rent according to their landlord’s demands. There have been many attempts to revise the Rent Act, all of which have been left to collect the dust in governmental drawers.

According to Abdel Samad, one draft in 2004 came nearest to being discussed in the parliament. It gave landlords the right to evict tenants by paying them 20 percent of the value of the property and it also discussed a special loan for tenants who wanted to buy the apartments. But the draft was never passed and forgotten about in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The new draft being discussed includes a special loan for tenants who pay pre-civil war rents, according to Antoine Chamoun, former head of the Lebanese Housing Authority. “I attended two of their meetings, and we discussed only this point; nothing else,” he said. NOW Lebanon attempted to contact the Administration and Justice Committee, but its members were unreachable.
 
Abdel Samad believes the sudden rush to change the law flows from the crisis in the Lebanese real-estate market. “We fear that it’s all due to the big real-estate companies pressuring the landlords,” he said. “The real-estate market in Beirut is very limited, and apartments are very expensive. In Ain Mreisseh, the prices are as high as $24,000 per square meter, while in Achrafieh it is estimated at $14,000 per square meter. Big real-estate companies are interested in acquiring the old buildings, demolishing them, and building new towers with apartments that nobody can afford.”

Most building owners interviewed by NOW Lebanon complained about losing money over the two decades since the war ended. “Our buildings are getting old, fixing them takes a lot of money, and the rents we get are very low,” said one landlord in Achrafieh who refused to give his name for fear of igniting anger. “I want to sell the building; it takes a lot of time and effort, and I am not getting younger. But the buyers are not interested in having it in this condition,” he said.

Abdel Samad, meanwhile, says he is disappointed that there has been no public debate on the new law draft, but his union already threatened that in case the law deprives the tenants of their rights, they will be out in the street protesting.

  • Fadi

    Please correct me if I am wrong. I understand if I were to rent an apartment today it would be done with the terms of post 1992 lease agreement. My question is, how are those people managing? And if they are able to do it then I do not understand the fuss that pre 1992 tenants are making. Have our politicians been exposed to the law of demand and supply? What made them think the rental prices are going to sky rocket. Tenants have no choice but to price their rental spaces according to the demand. I strongly believe that everyone is going to be much happier with a new law. It is true it is going to cost more to rent but stop for a minute and think what this could mean to all. To the tenants a better place to live in, to the owners more income which they have to invest a potion of it to up keep their properties and to everyone else that would translate into more and better paid jobs "Tenants need to work, right?", more money in the pocket of our beloved government.

    March 24, 2012

  • joseph

    first i must correct your statistics that only 81500 old tenants exist in lebanon.... and they are divided into subgroups out of which 13000 are foreigners so why do you wana protect foreigners?????? furthermore 55000 tenants are rich tenants so that leaves us with 13000 possible poor tenants... so why should the whole country economy stop because the government doesnt want to take on its responsibilities towards them?????????? is the landlord the ministry of social affairs? second .... if real estate developers want to demolish the old buildings so that means in all cases these tenants have to vacte their houses so let them leave immediately!!!! let them take responsability for themselves....its a shame to live from somebody elses money!!!!!!!!!!!!! its a shame to be rich and ask the landlord to keep you in his properety for free!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 18, 2011

  • Mini

    please Azrak Ya Libnan and trumped join us on Facboolk Al Malikoun Al koudama

    July 22, 2011

  • Eddy

    Thats true only in Lebanon, what is supposed to be the land of the ceders and Paris of the middle east you can find un maintained buildings , very ugly week construction that may topple on the ppls head at anytime since the poor old land lord can not renovate his own property due to very cheap rent he gets from a property he owns ,or was obliged to sell it by force....I mean by force indirectly the oldland lord sold his property cuz he reached a stage were he could not afford to pay for his medication and I have met lots of them in my life here in the Lebanon.

    July 2, 2011

  • Fair and Square

    only in Lebanon would you find such an illogical law. Although i sypathise with the families that cannot afford the new prices, it is unfair to many of the other families, who are also poor and paying regular market value. The landlord is basically asked to bend over and take one for the sake of other families instead of securing his family. i think the 1992 law has to be abolished, and, if the govt cares for the poor man, issue a law with controlled yearly increases. but $200 a year is pathetic.. whats the landlord supposed to do with that? probably cover his toilet papaer expenses.

    August 18, 2010

  • Jackie Wright

    Problem is not all tenants dirt poor and not all building owners are stinking rich. But the rental laws have made some of the owners dirt poor, the rent they get is less than the taxes they pay of the building they own.

    August 18, 2010