Q and A: Informal Housing Areas and the Complexity of Homeownership in a Post-war Landscape

Informally built districts--or ashwa’iyat, as they are referred to in Arabic--have long been a complex legal issue in Syria, amid decades of population growth and mass migration to cities without proper existing housing to accommodate newcomers.

The war has only complicated things further. Many such districts have been destroyed over the course of the conflict, usually by regime bombing. And even for former residents whose homes were not flattened, proving ownership of homes that were either illegally constructed is an arduous process.

“Even before the conflict, this was a complex issue, one that would be difficult to solve,” says Anwar Majnni, a former judge who now works as a legal advisor for Syrian advocacy organisation The Day After (TDA). The organisation is soon to release a report on HLP issues in Syria, including informal housing areas.

The Syria Reportspeaks with Majnni about how such districts came to be, and how the Syrian state wasn’t merely a bystander.

On the eve of the war, what were typical informal housing areas like? What kinds of people lived in them and what was the legal status of ownership and construction?

Before the conflict began in Syria, the regime was intentionally ignoring the issue of ashwa’iyat. Still, these informal districts were growing, and kept growing until the outbreak of the revolution. After the revolution, the pace of the ashway’iyat’s growth quickened, as a sort of bonus from the regime to its loyalists, whom it allowed to exploit this opportunity to increase the construction of ashwa’iyat.

The main reason for this, which you see in the study, is that in the case of the ashwa’iyat, it’s not necessarily the people themselves who are building them. Instead, there are people referred to as “traders” of mukhalafat [buildings that are in violation of construction codes]. These traders, who construct ashwa’iyat, have ties to the authorities, who turn a blind eye to these construction code violations. This corruption contributes to the growth of ashwa’iyat.

Of course, living in the ashwa’iyat is cheaper than in legal housing. Because of this, many people turned to themt. In addition, legal housing was unable to withstand population growth, amid migration from the countryside to the city. This puts pressure on the big city centres, particularly Damascus and Aleppo. There was no legal construction to accommodate this. That is why people, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, turned to buying properties in informal housing areas. Legal authorities and local administrative bodies failed to address this. For example, we see land registered as agricultural land, when in reality it contains buildings housing dozens of families. And yet, the property remains registered as agricultural land. So we have differences between the official status listed in the land registry and the actual status of the property, which changed from agricultural land to a built-up property housing dozens or even hundreds of families. And despite all of this, there hasn’t been any problem-solving, either through legislation or through executive actions. The regime intentionally ignored this issue.

Can you explain more about how the regime “intentionally ignored” the growth of informal housing areas?

There was no desire from the Syrian state to work on solving this issue. You have 50 percent of housing in cities such as Damascus and Aleppo that have been built informally, and the state does nothing. In 1982, at the Central Committee Meeting of the Baath Party, it was decided to provide basic utility services to the ashwa’iyat: electricity, water, sewage, despite the fact that this housing does not exist in the real estate records. This was a form of recognizing the problem without actually fixing it.

As we mentioned in the report, one of the reasons for informal housing was that there was a migration from the countryside to the city over the past several decades. Development in the countryside was weaker than development in the cities, and there were no work opportunities. This caused people to want to move to the cities, spurring an internal migration. Throughout this period, the regime did not take any real measures to address this issue. The people who made this migration ended up living in ashwa’iyat.

And while many of these districts were being built, we didn’t see the government take any measures, despite the fact that the law forbids this. There was a desire by the part of the government for this construction to happen.

Speaking now about after the war broke out, how has the regime used informal housing areas to its advantage in areas it has recaptured from the opposition?

The problem is that the real estate laws that were issued since the conflict broke out don’t take this event into account.

For example, when Law No. 10 was issued in 2018, or Law No. 23 in 2015, and before that, Decree No. 66 in 2012, as well as Law No. 3 of 2018, these laws didn’t take into account the population living without proper housing. On the other hand, they also failed to account for the fact that, for many of these people, there was no documentation of their home ownership. Herein lie the dangers: displaced people and refugees are unable to defend their properties. That is because, first, their ownership is not officially listed in the land registry. Second, these laws necessitate that people take measures which displaced people and refugees are unable to do. These people also fear for their own security in regime-held areas of Syria which means they can’t return and defend ownership of their homes. This presents an opportunity for the regime to seize these properties, and perhaps even wage demographic change.

The report argues that informal housing is one of the most complex issues related to the war in Syria. Can you talk more about this point?

Even before the conflict, this was a complex issue, one that would be difficult to solve. Today the issue is the loss of rights. Real estate laws in Syria do not protect the rights of residents. We have protections for those whose properties are listed in the land registry. But for those living in the ashwa’iyat, their rights are not registered. And today, if people wish to return to their neighbourhoods, they will find that the homes they were living in are no longer there. Perhaps they are destroyed, or other people are living in them.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime uses the state administrations and laws as tools, not as means towards justice. They are instead a means for revenge against the regime’s opponents.