IDLIB — Finding housing has become a nightmare for the 2.7 million residents of Idlib province in northwest Syria, including around 1.7 million internally displaced Syrians who found refuge in the last opposition-held territory.
Large-scale displacement continues to feed a severe housing crisis across the overcrowded province. Many families settled in informal camps in olive groves or in former schools turned into collective shelters. Luckier ones – around half of displaced households in northwest Syria, according to a nationwide humanitarian assessment – live in houses or apartments, most often rented.
Despite the relative comfort of living in a proper building, tenants are plagued by poor living conditions, the risk of eviction, and legal and economic vulnerability in the real estate market.
“Landlords and rental offices exploited me for my situation as a widow and a displaced mother,” Alaa al-Ahmad, 30, who was displaced from the countryside of Hama and lived in eleven houses over the course of a single year, told Syria Direct. “Knowing that I receive aid from NGOs and charities led them to ask for more money in rent and fees,” she added.
A highly unstable market
Like al-Ahmad, many women suffer from the economic, psychological and health effects of Idlib’s highly unstable rental market. Few people manage to live in the same home for an entire year.
“Most real estate offices refuse to sign long-term leases in order to get a new commission every three months, and sometimes every month if the tenant has to leave the house,” Soraya al-Omar (a pseudonym), 37, displaced from the countryside of Hama, told Syria Direct. “This happened to me once. I had to pay a fee three times over a few months.”
Al-Omar lived in three homes over the course of two months. “Every time I moved, I lost money due to the real estate office’s commission, which is worth half of the value of the rent,” she added. The commission is due as soon as the contract is signed, even if the tenant does not stay for the duration of the lease. Al-Omar paid $38 in agency fees and $75 in rent for her first lease, but only stayed in the house for three weeks.
Manal al-Sayed, 30, a displaced homemaker from the countryside of Hama and mother of four, paid around $100 in agency fees over the course of six months. The agency refused to draft a half-year contract, providing instead a renewable three-month contract.
En estimated 5% of displaced families in northwest Syria experienced eviction from their home in the past twelve months
Mustafa Al-Ali (a pseudonym), the owner of a real estate office in Idlib city, denied that the offices were setting excessively short leases in order to benefit from commissions. “The contract length is determined by an agreement between the tenant and the owner, and the real estate office is an intermediary between the two,” al-Ali told Syria Direct, adding that contracts are signed for six months on average. The office commission is normally worth half of the monthly rent, an amount that was determined by the Salvation Government in Idlib city.
In addition to the commission of the real estate office, tenants pay a deposit with every change of house. The deposit serves as a guarantee for the landlord in case of damage to the house or furniture.
A scarcity of housing options
The length of leases mean that families are almost constantly looking for a new home, and can be evicted at short notice from their current shelter.
When al-Sayed managed to find a house in Idlib city, the landowner refused a third renewal of the contract and expelled her from the house with her children in the middle of winter.
“Living there was very dangerous, especially for my youngest children”
A recent humanitarian assessment thus determined that 5% of displaced families in northwest Syria experienced eviction from their home in the past twelve months. Evictions were slightly more likely to target female-headed households, 8% of whom reported a case of eviction in the past year.
In addition, affordable homes are rare and often unsuitable. Around 20% of displaced people living outside displacement camps reside in damaged buildings, despite the risks they pose and a lack of privacy. This was the case of al-Ahmad, who ended up moving into a damaged building.
“Living there was very dangerous, especially for my youngest children. I was afraid because the walls were cracked, and worried that people would sneak in from the holes in the ceiling caused by the regime’s bombs,” al-Ahmad said.
Despite these dire conditions, the landlord did request a deposit for the house and fixed a contract through a real estate office, incurring new office fees for each renewal of the contract.
The toll on women
The impact of the housing crisis is particularly severe on women, who represent a majority of adults in Idlib and head a significant proportion of households, following the death, impairment or disappearance of men during the conflict.
“As soon as I adapt to a place, I am forced to leave.”
The women who spoke to Syria Direct felt psychologically burdened by their living conditions, and had all experienced nervous breakdowns, fatigue or depression.
Struggling with the mental and emotional load of frequent moves, al-Omar was forced to quit her job in a humanitarian organization to focus on her search for a home. Meanwhile, Rasha al-Suwaid (a pseudonym), a displaced woman from Hama, said she gets depressed after each move. “As soon as I adapt to a place, I am forced to leave,” she lamented.
Children also struggle to cope with the regular uprooting, which adds to the trauma of displacement. Halima al-Sheikh, now aged 20, was in secondary school when she lost contact with all her friends following a change of home, and she became shy and introverted. The frequent moves send children further away from school, sometimes even forcing them to drop out.
“A lot of villages don’t have any secondary schools, so the children need to travel from one village to another to attend school,” Hani Babelli, Education Program Coordinator at the local NGO Takaful-al Sham, told Syria Direct. “It is not possible for those who don’t have enough money to [commute every day]. This is one of the challenges faced by children when they think about further education.”
For girls of school-going age, this represents a real threat to their education, as many families are reluctant to allow girls to travel unaccompanied.
A lack of perspectives
Ten years into the war, there are no long-term housing solutions in sight for those displaced to Idlib.
Funding for reconstruction projects that could have a major impact on housing in the province is slow to accrue, in part because the region is still a conflict zone under the control of a terrorist-designated entity, the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Still, a few humanitarian initiatives have emerged in recent years. Through Turkish NGOs, Turkey built thousands of permanent houses in formerly tented camps, partly out of desire to stabilize the province and counter the emigration of Syrian refugees to its territory.
“There is real estate development, there are high buildings going up. But this is not to the benefit of the displaced”
Several NGOs also run shelter rehabilitation projects targeting existing buildings, but they struggle to protect the tenants from evictions after the rehabilitation. Usually, shelter rehabilitations are conditioned on the signature of agreements with the owner, under the auspices of the local councils, with guarantees not to increase the rent or evict tenants in the months or year following the rehabilitations.
Reconstruction and rehabilitation are limited by a myriad of housing, land and property issues. Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) stay on properties whose owners are themselves displaced, or were seized illegally by armed militias during the conflict. Under the principle of do no harm, including by entrenching forced demographic change and illegal property seizures, most humanitarian NGOs follow guidelines that forbid them from carrying out long-term rehabilitations there.
Despite this, Idlib is going through a house building spree led by people trying to improve their own temporary shelters, and by private investors. These projects however remain out of reach for the most vulnerable.
“There is real estate development, there are high buildings going up,” Rasha al-Suwaid said. “But this is not to the benefit of the displaced, because the prices are insanely high, especially because Idlib has become [coveted as the city] at the center of all services.”