Syria’s housing crisis widens social gap

As a result of more than 6 million citizens being internally displaced, Syria has seen rampant increases in rental prices, leading wealthy real estate owners to take advantage of the poor.

al-monitor A man stands on an empty street near a burning building hit by a mortar shell fired by Syrian army soldiers, in the Zamalka neighborhood of Damascus, Feb. 6, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.

Topics covered

syria, real estate, poverty, housing market, exploitation, displacement

Mar 8, 2015

There are no job opportunities in Syria today, and the unemployment rate has exceeded 70%. Government employees receive meager salaries and are paid in Syrian pounds, a currency collapsing at a very fast pace. The recent increase in government salaries was minimal compared to the enormous rise in prices seen recently and government employees are better off than others. Day laborers working in construction — as well as those working in health supplies and electricity provision — are paid less as a result of exploitation by employers and workshop owners.

No other sources of income exist aside from some remittances sent by expatriates to their families inside the country. Yet these remittances benefit only a very small number of Syrians, and the banks loot a large percentage of the sums. Citizens are forced to receive this money in Syrian pounds, with foreign currency priced at up to 15% less than its actual value. A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report issued in March 2014 noted that the number of displaced Syrians had reached 9 million — 6.5 million of whom are internally displaced. The latter have sought refuge in areas controlled by the regime, as they are safer, yet the government has not provided them with shelter, forcing them to rent homes.

This has put great pressure on rental demand in areas of the capital and its suburbs, as well as in the safe areas of Aleppo, in Tartous and Sweida, and even in rural areas far from cities. Rental rates have risen as a result of the growing demand, and they continue to rise amid a general inflation in prices and a decline in value of the Syrian pound. Rental rates increased by between 30% and 50% during the month of January 2015 alone.

The monthly rent for a small one-bedroom house with a salon in Damascus is now 20,000-25,000 Syrian pounds ($85-$100), which may house two families with children, most of whom fled from the Ghouta and southern areas of the capital. The rent for a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen is 15,000-20,000 Syrian pounds ($65-$85), perhaps housing a five-member family. Meanwhile, a two-bedroom apartment rents for about 25,000-30,000 Syrian pounds ($100-$125), and could house three families with children, where the males sleep in one bedroom and the females in the other. As for a private room with a shared bathroom and kitchen, this rents for about 10,000-12,000 Syrian pounds ($50). These rooms are often rented by students, with one or two people per room.

Often, in the regions of Jaramana and al-Daweila in the Damascus countryside, one will find the shells of houses — apartments without finishings, windows or doors — which rent for about 20,000-30,000 Syrian pounds ($85-125). It has become a familiar sight in Syria to see these houses inhabited by families, after they seal the open windows and doors with nylon and cloth curtains. Many of the houses rented out are not suitable for living — some have no windows or ventilation, while others are not equipped with kitchens or other necessities. Many are not connected to the water supply, forcing residents to buy water at a price of 1,500-2,000 Syrian pounds ($6-$8) per cubic meter. Power outages occur constantly, and malfunctions are only repaired after a week or more. Many of these apartments are in areas lacking services, with dirt roads and no streetlights.

In the face of rising prices for fuel, which is often unavailable and subject to the unrestrained control of black-market traders, many residents who have already been displaced from their homes have been subjected to further suffering, especially following a brutal winter.

Additional suffering is caused by the landlords, who are able to control the tenants. The latter face the prospect of eviction each month, since most rental contracts are monthly. The tenant will have to pay a fee equivalent to half the monthly rent to the real estate broker, as well as costs for registering the contract with the municipality. Security forces have forced renters to renew contracts every year, after obtaining security permits. Failure to do so means the tenant could face harassment by the security services. It seems that the reason for this is not only to aid in the search for wanted persons, but to also force renters to pay taxes when they renew the contracts. These taxes range between 2,000-2,500 Syrian pounds ($8-$10), and in most cases the renter bears the costs.

This rampant and disorderly exploitation of the displaced persons crisis prompted many of those who have frozen funds, including middle class citizens and above, to invest in real estate. One real estate broker in the Damascus countryside said that the recent rise in the value of the US dollar and gold has made many of his proprietors think about buying real estate and renting it out, taking advantage of the increasing rental prices. The price of a low-quality, one-bedroom apartment with a salon in an under-serviced region of the Damascus countryside has surpassed a million Syrian pounds ($8,500), and this price is subject to increase with the rising value of the US dollar. The figures increase substantially when it comes to better areas and larger apartments.

Huda is one of many who have taken advantage of the bitter reality to sustain their livelihoods. She annexed a room of her two-bedroom house and haphazardly added a separate entrance, a small bathroom and a sink. She rents this room to a family of four for 17,000 pounds ($72) per month.

Of course, these issues primarily impact rural areas far from the capital. Real estate and rent prices in the capital itself are dreadful, and can only be afforded by big businessmen and those with a lot of money.

This chaos and exploitation of the displacement crisis, as well as the insane rise in prices, has benefited property owners at the expense of the displaced and the poor. The former grow richer while the latter grow poorer. This has widened the social gap, making life harder for the poor, who now account for 75% of the population.

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