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How the promise of alternative housing in Damascus’ Marota and Basilia Cities turned from a ‘blessing into a curse’ for those eligible

After years of waiting, hundreds of evicted residents of informal neighborhoods of Damascus learned in November that they received alternative housing. But the estimated value of each unit went up, and “most of the people allocated housing can’t make the down payment.”

25 January 2023

DAMASCUS — In late November 2022, the Syrian government’s General Housing Establishment issued Announcement No. 16114, which stated that 522 homes would be allocated to those registered for the alternative housing project in Damascus province. 

Alternative housing is granted to Syrians whose informal or unregistered homes have been seized or demolished by the state. In the capital Damascus, two major development projects—Marota City and Basilia City—have been underway since 2012, and evicted residents of the former informal neighborhoods where they are being built have been waiting for alternative housing for years.

Under Announcement No. 16114, the homes would be allocated within the second development zone, Basilia City, starting from December 14, 2022, conditional upon a down payment of 30 percent of the home’s estimated value within a month of the allocation. Failing that, the allocation would be cancelled and housing postponed.

For less than 10 percent of the 6,000 people eligible for alternative housing in Marota City and Basilia City, the November announcement ended a long wait. But the “joy” among the lucky recipients quickly dissipated, according to Yassin Salhani, one of those included in the announcement. 

Salhani told Syria Direct he was shocked at an increase in the price per square meter from SYP 550,000 in 2020 (around $458 according to the black market exchange rate at the time of SYP 1,200 to the dollar) to almost SYP 3,500,000 ($526 according to the current parallel exchange rate of SYP 6,650 to the dollar) today. 

At first glance, the estimated value between 2020 and 2022 increased only slightly in US dollars. However, over this period, the Syrian pound lost more than six times its value, while average monthly salaries less than doubled. The average salary in 2020 was around SYP 51,000 ($42 at the time), while today it stands at SYP 93,000 ($14). 

“Most of the people allocated housing can’t make the down payment, which is almost SYP 126,000,000 ($18,947) for a house of 120 square meters,” Salhani said.

The two development zones in Damascus city were established by Legislative Decree No. 66 of 2012, “as part of Damascus city’s general plans for the development of areas of unauthorized and informal housing.” The first development zone, Marota City, is located southeast of Mezzeh in the two real estate zones of Mezzeh and Kfar Sousseh. The second, Basilia City, lies south of the southern ring road of the real estate areas of Mezzeh, Kafar Souseh, Qanawat Basateen, Darayya, and al-Qadam.

A map of the Marota City (in orange) and Basilia City (projects) in Damascus (Syria Direct)

Salhani, who vacated his house in Basateen al-Razi in 2017, is among those objecting to Announcement No. 16114 as he cannot afford the estimated value of the allocated housing, let alone meet the one-month time limit specified for paying the 30 percent down payment.

In response to the objections, the General Housing Establishment issued an amendment to the announcement on January 9, allowing those allocated housing to pay the amount required in three equal installments over the course of three months from the date of the allocation, rather than within the first month. 

However, the body did not adjust the estimated value of the housing, and noted in the amendment  that “in the event that a registered person does not pay for the allocation in full within the stated period (three months), the allocation shall be cancelled and they shall lose their right to priority status.” Furthermore, not complying with the requirement to pay monthly installments would put them at risk of having their registration cancelled, according to Resolution 1249 of 2020 and its amendments.

Speaking to Syria Direct, real estate expert and lawyer Jumaa al-Hallaq denounced the “exorbitant” costs imposed on housing beneficiaries, accusing Damascus province of “seizing more land than the decree stipulates, as it has seized 67 plots in Marota City, which are worth more than SYP 1 trillion [$150.3 million], and mismanaging funds.” Rather than replenishing the alternative housing fund with this money, in his words, “they resorted to taking money from the downtrodden housing beneficiaries.”

Article 21 of Decree 66 stipulates: 

A. All land required for the completion and implementation of the following shall be appropriated free of charge, in accordance with the general development plan and the detailed development plan: 

  • Roads, squares, parks, parking lots and public amenities, including “centers for public bodies, schools, police stations, hospitals, clinics, health centers, fire stations, places of worship (mosques and churches), public libraries, cultural centers, places prepared for public monuments, sports stadiums, social care centers, electrical transmission centers, sewage treatment plants, drinking water pumping stations and community support centers. The land required shall be handed over to the public authorities without compensation.” 
  • The portions of land allocated to Damascus province for the construction of buildings for those given notice of demolition, those with limited incomes, those in social housing and to cover the costs of Article 19.

B. All land required for the completion and implementation of the following shall be appropriated free of charge, in accordance with the general development plan and the detailed development plan: 

  • The appropriation of land mentioned in the previous two clauses (Clauses 1 and 2 of this Article) must not allow the percentage of the area allocated to the owners of the development zone to be less than 80 percent per square meter of land, and the Damascus province  may increase its investment to achieve this ratio. 
Alternative housing turned into savings housing?

Article 45 of Decree 66 guarantees that “alternative housing shall be provided for occupants eligible for alternative housing within a period not exceeding four years from the date of issue of this Legislative Decree.” This refers to the residents of the first and second development zones, Marota City and Basilia City, provided that their homes are not built on state-owned or private land, in which case they may be allocated alternative housing if the province happens to have a surplus.

However, this article was amended by Article 25 of Law 10 of 2018, which stipulates that “alternative housing shall be provided for occupants entitled to alternative housing within a period not exceeding four years from the date of eviction,” rather than the date of issue of Decree 66. 

In Salhani’s case—and many other similar cases—Damascus province has nevertheless exceeded the time limit stipulated within the law. He was supposed to receive his alternative housing in 2021. 

Instead, Salhani receives an annual rent allowance pursuant to Article 44 of Decree 66, under which “those eligible for alternative housing shall be granted compensation in the form of an annual rental allowance until they receive the alternative housing. This shall be paid annually from the [development zone]  fund and paid within a month of the date of the eviction notice.” 

However, Salhani said that the amount of his annual allowance is less than the cost of his rent for one month. He pays SYP 950,000 ($143) a month to rent his apartment, which is located in a neighbourhood of Damascus, and he is paid SYP 850,000 ($127) a year by the province.

Earlier this month, on January 8, Salhani met Governor of Damascus Muhammad Tariq Krishati, at a meeting attended by 125 people eligible for alternative housing. At the meeting, the governor said “anyone who does not pay the required amounts will not get a home,” according to Salhani. 

Instead of compensating the “distressed beneficiaries,” the province has burdened them with expenses and fees for alternative housing, as well as with demolition and eviction, while paying rent allowances that “do not cover a single month,”  Ghalib Anez, a member of Damascus Provincial Council who is also among the people affected,told Syria Direct

He believes that the task of building alternative housing being given to the General Housing Establishment means they have implemented “a savings scheme that is not in line with this section,” referring to Law 38 of 1978 (the Savings Housing Law).

Law 38 requires savers’ payments to amount to half the average value declared for the housing category they have selected, as a necessary condition for the saver to receive their own home in the savings area, lawyer Nadir Khadro said. In such cases, the “building is complete, not just on paper,” unlike the two alternative housing projects in the development zones, “which are not even half complete.” 

Nevertheless, the General Housing Establishment has required those allocated housing under Announcement No. 16114 to “pay 30 percent of the estimated value, at a time when 96 percent of them cannot make this payment,” Khadro said.

Damascus province took a 10 percent advance from those eligible for alternative housing in 2020, estimated at the time to be worth SYP 550,000 ($458), Anez said. “Yet after repeated delays and abuses of citizens’ rights, they raised the value to almost SYP 3,500,000 [$526], and demanded that anyone agreeing to the allocation pay 30 percent of the estimated value. This goes against the laws and regulations.”

Furthermore, Yaseen Salhani said that the cost per square meter before the alternative housing ledgers were issued in 2020 was around SYP 150,000 ($125), but when the ledgers were issued by the General Housing Establishment, a square meter was valued at SYP 550,000 ($458). At that time “people did not object, because the figure was acceptable,” he said.

However, “it is unfair that today we are being forced to pay a made-up amount at a time when we are experiencing dire economic conditions, or else lose the housing that we are entitled to according to Decree 66,” Hadi (a pseudonym), who is also eligible for alternative housing, told Syria Direct. “Alternative housing is our compensation for the housing that was removed at the province’s request in return for paying the cost price.”

Furthermore, Article 44 of Decree 66 sets the compensation in the form of the annual rental allowance for those eligible for alternative housing at “five percent of the estimated value of the housing unit to be vacated,” he added, which is meager in comparison to the high rents in Damascus, which have doubled in price from the time of appraisal.

Hadi said that he vacated his house in Basateen al-Razi in 2017, and now receives an annual rental allowance of SYP 420,000 ($63). But the rent for his house in the Sheikh Saad neighbourhood is SYP 3,000,000 ($451) a year.

“Adjusting the price per square meter based on new estimates may be logical, but it is illegal in the context of alternative housing,” real estate expert and lawyer al-Hallaq said. “Alternative housing is compensation for the housing that was removed at the province’s request in return for alternative housing at cost.”

In a comment below the General Housing Establishment’s announcement of the housing allocation on its official Facebook page, one objector asked it to “issue a decree exempting those behind on payments from paying due to the country’s circumstances. ” The commenter also criticized the “reimbursements to late payers whose ledgers were cancelled at the same [original] value,” while raising  “the value of the payments due” in line with market prices.

However, the province “has refused to respond to beneficiaries’ objections on the estimated cost per square meter,” Salhani said. He accused the governor and officials of being “businessmen,” saying “the governor is not a state governor, but a businessman and entrepreneur.”

Al-Hallaq stressed that “beneficiaries of alternative housing should not be asked for any payment or increase in the price per square meter prior to construction and delivery,” noting that Decree 66 “did not obligate beneficiaries of alternative housing to pay fees or expenses until after they receive it,” in contrast to what the province is requesting today.

Infographic | Laws Governing Alternative Housing in Marota City and Basilia City, Damascus Province (Syria Direct)

Manipulation and theft from owners

Salhani called on Damascus to comply with the implementation of Decree 66 and its provisions, especially Article 45, saying “ I am one of the rights-holders whose homes were demolished in order to redesign and rebuild the area, and I am not registered for savings housing.”

Alternative housing differs from savings housing or youth housing in that it involves residents of the region providing their land to the province, which in turn must offer them alternative housing at cost, “unlike savings housing, for which the price can be based on market prices,” according to real estate expert and lawyer al-Hallaq.

Salhani called the province’s actions “manipulation and injustice.” He said that if it does not back down on the price and rate imposed on the beneficiaries of the allocation, he “will turn to the administrative court to obtain my rights and reject the new estimated price.”

In 2020, Salhani paid 10 percent of the estimated price for his alternative housing which had an area of 120 square meters: SYP 6,600,000 ($5,500 at the time). In other words, at the time and under the old estimate, his house was valued at SYP 66,000,000 ($55,000). However, based on the estimated value today, his house is priced at SYP 420,000,000 ($63,157).

Furthermore, with the allocation announcement made in November 2022, Damascus province did not count the 10 percent payment made in 2020 towards the 30 percent stipulated, as lawyer Khadro explained, in yet another violation of the rights of those entitled to alternative housing.

Consequently, people are losing their property, several sources told Syria Direct. Those unable to pay the required amounts are forced to “sell their own alternative housing ledgers,” Salhani said.

A Facebook post by a person offering to sell their alternative housing ledger for allocated housing within Basilia City, Damascus (Facebook)

“The province has been behind on rent allowance payments for those eligible for alternative housing for more than six months, and then comes and charges people by the hour,” lawyer Khadro said, despite having “no right to place obligations on a beneficiary of the allocation who has not inspected their house on the ground, and currently, the houses allocated still only exist on paper.” What’s more, the province and the Housing Establishment “have mixed up several laws and obliged people to comply with them.”

Beneficiaries facing extortion

According to Decree 66 and its amendments in Law No. 10 of 2018, “alternative housing is financed from the development zone fund, in which the value of the shares sold by the province are deposited after deducting the owners’ shares, and which must finance infrastructure, the payment of rent allowances and other forms of compensation, in addition to alternative housing,” said lawyer Anez, who is among those eligible for alternative housing but was not allocated housing under the November 22 announcement.

Aniz called the province’s actions “legally inappropriate. They deprive us of our right to alternative housing, while giving businesspeople and financiers power over us and the ability to extort money from us, even though our rights are guaranteed in the constitution and legislation.” 

He accused Damascus province of being “in violation of Decree 66” and having “invested the money in other projects.” Inflation and the drop in the value of the Syrian pound have compounded the suffering of those eligible for alternative housing, “and those who have vacated their homes have lost their rights,” he said.

Anez also accused Damascus Cham Holding Company, which was launched by Damascus province in 2016 to manage and invest in the first development zone, of “getting sidetracked in its work and starting to sell before completing its tasks, as the Military Construction Establishment was tasked with infrastructure and the Housing Establishment with alternative housing.”

The crisis in the first and second development zones in Damascus has created a reality that serves “financiers and businesspeople who are able to buy alternative housing at much cheaper prices as they are able to make large payments, unlike the locals eligible for alternative housing,” Anez said. He called for “an investigation at all levels to hold accountable those who brought people here and deprived them of their right to housing, which is guaranteed in the Constitution and in law.”

However, appealing to the courts for accountability may clash with the provisions of Decree 66, which limits dispute resolution to committees whose formation was stipulated in Articles 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. 

This itself contradicts the text of the Syrian Constitution, which states in Article 51 that “the right to conduct litigation and remedies, review, and the defense before the judiciary shall be protected by the law, and the state shall guarantee legal aid to those who are incapable of doing so, in accordance with the law.” The same Article states that “any provision of the law shall prohibit the immunity of any act or administrative decision from judicial review.” 

“Local people and original residents have lost everything,” Anez concluded. “The Marota City project has changed from a blessing into a curse.”

This report was originally published in Arabic.

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