Housing Crisis for Syrians in Lebanon Amid Lira Collapse

With Lebanon’s economy in freefall, Syrian families and other undocumented foreigners are suffering an “unseen” housing crisis, unable to keep up with rent and often facing one unlawful eviction after the other.

In the past year, as Lebanon’s lira fell into an unprecedented spiral, the covid pandemic paralysed business and the Beirut port explosion ripped through several neighbourhoods, Syrian refugee families have been left largely on their own to navigate a deepening housing crisis.

Adding to economic woes, Lebanon’s currency fell to its lowest value ever last month, plummeting to about LL15,000 to the dollar on the black market. The official rate remains LL1,500 per dollar, with banks exchanging at LL3,900.

“Many tenants are now unable to pay their rents,” says Nadine Bekdache, a housing rights activist and co-founder of the Lebanese research and advocacy platform Public Works Studio.

Evictions are on the rise, and many landlords are choosing to keep their properties vacant rather than leasing in a turbulent market. “Around 20 percent of units in the city are empty because of speculation,” says Bekdache, citing data from the Public Works Studio and the American University of Beirut’s Beirut Urban Lab.

However, in properties that are still leased to residents, landlords are increasingly turning to threatening measures, such as raising rents to keep up with the fallng lira, refusing to pay for repairs or simply evicting tenants, according to recent data collected by the Public Works Studio’s Housing Monitor platform, which gathers testimonies on evictions and other housing issues.

And though evicted families usually find new  housing afterwards, often in buildings with poor living conditions, many people are still unable to cover rent, says Bekdache. “We are seeing a pattern of people getting evicted several times over, not just once. It’s just as bad as homelessness. This phenomenon has increased in recent months, and not having visible homelessness makes this housing crisis go largely unseen.”

Though such patterns can be difficult to track precisely, UN data from 2020 showed a sharp rise in evictions. In the first half of 2020, 2,236 Syrians were evicted from their homes in Beirut and Mount Lebanon governorates alone, according to a UN report. The report notes the actual numbers of evictions were likely much higher, as many go unreported.

Syrians living in Lebanon, many of them without proper documentation or legal status, are often left with few options. Miasar Al-Suleiman is a Syrian father in his 40s. He and his wife live with their seven children in an apartment in Burj Hammoud, a largely low-income suburb just outside Beirut. The apartment they lived in previously, in the nearby neighbourhood of Karantina, was destroyed in the port explosion last August.

Al-Suleiman, a worker, pays LL600,000 in rent per month. It used to be LL450,000 but he says his landlord increased rent last month due to the lira’s sharply decreasing value. It has been difficult for him to keep up, and he is already in debt for past months. He is still late on April’s rental payment, he says, and fears potential eviction.

According to Bekdache, the problem is widespread. Many landlords refuse to be paid in Lebanese liras, opting instead for dollars. However, few people, including Lebanese, can afford such measures as banks set withdrawal limits and bar customers from accessing their dollars in cash. And those who are still paid in liras have seen their income lose much of its worth.

“There is the dilemma of what currency to pay rent in, and at what exchange rate,” says Bekdache. “Do you pay at 1,500 [per USD] or 4,000 or the market rate? All the lawyers confer that as long as the official exchange rate is still 1,500, you pay at that rate. Also landlords cannot refuse to be paid in lira.”

Still, authorities are not enforcing that policy, says Bekdache. “Landlords can basically say ‘pay me in dollars or get out’. This is an issue that has impacted all tenants.”

Marwan, a 41-year-old construction worker, also lives in the Burj Hammoud neighbourhood. Though Marwan’s landlady has not yet requested rent payments in dollars, he still worries he may have to leave his flat in the near future. Originally from Homs, Marwan (not his real name) shares a flat with his brother and a friend. He mostly relies on money from friends abroad to pay rent.

Though his monthly rent is LL750,000, Marwan says his landlady has threatened to raise it to LL1,200,000. Luckily, she has not asked for dollars. “If she raised the rent, I’d have to leave the apartment, I can’t cover that cost,” says Marwan. He has few other options; there simply are not enough construction jobs lately for him to afford the increased rate in addition to sharply rising food and utility prices.

Lebanon’s government is simply not doing enough to protect people against evictions, especially amid the covid pandemic, says Bekdache.

“There need to be regulations that put taxes on vacant apartments and instill a fair rent regime,” she says, “while enforcing a zero eviction policy during the crisis.”