Reactions to the explosion of the Port of Beirut have sounded the alarm of permanent displacement, and fingers are already pointing to predatory real-estate developments that could accelerate the process. On September 30, parliament passed measures that it claims will halt the land grabbing of properties owned by residents affected by the blast. But what is fundamentally missing from this seemingly caring narrative is the history of large waves of evictions over many decades in districts such as Geitawi, Mar Mikhael, or Gemmayzeh. Rather than an interruption or a new turn in the occupation of the neighborhoods forming these districts, we argue that the blast should be seen as a disruption that will intensify the effects of the already-in-place mechanisms, pushing away a larger number of those who have worked or lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the port. Therefore, if the architects of Beirut’s recovery are serious about bringing people back, then they must address the structural and institutional forces that triggered trends of displacement well before the blast.
The first waves of displacement (1996-2008) in these affected neighborhoods fall neatly under gentrification trends, which are processes of urban transformation through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.
Pre-Blast Urban Development Trends
The first waves of displacement (1996-2008) in these affected neighborhoods fall neatly under gentrification trends, which are processes of urban transformation through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses. A handful of developers who identified real-estate opportunities in these neighborhoods were the first to trigger gentrification in the early 1990s. Some of these developers were investment companies influenced by the nearby redevelopment of Beirut’s historical district by the real-estate private company Solidere, on the western edge of the blasted neighborhoods. Others were landowners redeveloping their own property. As of 2009, cultural and entertainment classes contributed to a rapid acceleration of development trends, as these classes found in the historical character of the built environment and its walkable scale an ideal setting for nightlife and creative industries. Tensions over the day and night uses of the districts eventually intensified, and while the better-off residents of Gemmayzeh succeeded in tempering loud entertainment activities, those in Mar Mikhael had to either cope with the nuisances or leave. The lucrative profits generated by these businesses and the higher purchasing power of the tenants they attracted produced negative consequences for the residents. They widened the rent gap and further incentivized landlords to terminate old rental protections, which eventually accelerated evictions.
A second, more alarming trigger for evictions and displacement stems from the subjugation of the land market to financial interests. This process is well in line with the current phase of global neoliberalism, sometimes labeled as financialization. By relying on land transactions to attract foreign capital, Lebanese decision-makers have favored the role of the land as a financial asset over its other functions as a shelter or workplace. Our research reveals that between 1999 and 2011, at least a dozen laws were issued to incentivize the flow of capital into the built environment (Figure 1).
A second, more alarming trigger for evictions and displacement stems from the subjugation of the land market to financial interests. This process is well in line with the current phase of global neoliberalism, sometimes labeled as financialization.
Thus, property laws were modified to facilitate its purchase by foreigners and property registration taxes were reduced. In parallel, urban and building regulations were modified to intensify construction and increase profit for developers (Figure 1). In addition, the Central Bank issued multiple circulars to ease its reserve requirements in order to facilitate the provision of housing mortgages, and lifted restrictions that previously prevented banks from investing directly in real-estate (Figure 1). Until 2019, when the financial crisis unfolded, the parliament was still ratifying agreements and expanding the provision of housing loans, targeting additional public sector employees like judges and members of the police force. Despite the alarming signs of the financial crisis and the depletion of the banks’ reserve requirements, therefore the life-savings of the depositors, the Central Bank continued to ratify protocols to expand the number of public institutions subsidizing housing loans (Figure 1). The consequences of these financialization strategies are well known: old buildings were replaced with higher and denser buildings that are mostly vacant, while empty apartments became the equivalent of safety deposit boxes rather than homes for living. This practice further intensified after the October 2019 meltdown, as large depositors began to look for safe assets to park their capital.