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Last month's building collapse in Beirut, which killed 27 and injured 12, has sparked a rental-law discussion in Lebanon and sent government officials looking to redress building regulations.
The six-story-residential structure on Bishop Atallah Street in Fassouh Ashrafieh reportedly collapsed on January 15th because it had not been repaired since it was built in the 1960s. Owners Michel and Claude Saada have since been detained on charges of criminal negligence.
Some observers, however, are asking whether it is fair to charge the building owners who are legally barred from raising rent, and thus prevented from acquiring funds to repair properties.
"The government should legislate an up-to-date and fair rental law," said MP Samir al-Jissir.
The former justice minister told Al-Shorfa that the matter had actually been raised in the government two years earlier, but no decision had been reached yet.
"Today, there is a strong conviction that leasing contracts should be issued according to a calculated plan whereby a landlord is allowed to raise the rent, or request that the property be vacated in exchange for compensation to the tenant," he said.
The president of the Rental Property Association, Joseph Zghaib, agrees.
"The reason why old buildings are in the state they are in is because there is a legal vacuum," he said.
Zghaib told Al-Shorfa rental laws need to be modified so that landlords can take responsibility for their buildings' restoration and maintenance, preventing catastrophes such as last month's collapse.
Zghaib said the law stipulates that the landlord is only allowed to conduct major repairs after obtaining permission from the tenant.
"The landlord cannot take any risks and the tenant is constantly trying to dodge the situation so how could the owner carry out such repairs when they are very costly and the annual rent does not exceed $10,000?," he asked.
On January 15th, the Lebanese cabinet held an urgent meeting to discuss building safety, and law number 13 was issued.
Article number three of that law states: "All municipalities -- especially those in Beirut -- must conduct immediate investigations to check the safety of residential buildings and to take all necessary precautions to guarantee that such a tragedy does not reoccur."
Earlier on December 17th, the minister of interior and municipalities issued an order requesting that all mayors and deputies conduct technical and comprehensive surveys of unstable buildings in their jurisdictions.
According to Zghaib, there are no precise figures on older buildings, but there are about 81,000 tenants in all of Lebanon, including 13,000 of a working class background, and 68,000 landlords who benefit from rentals on old properties.
The head of the Municipality of Beirut, Bilal Hamad, said the government has found a company to conduct a preliminary survey of all the older structures in order to create a database of safe buildings and those in need of restoration or demolition.
One key issue, however, remains: "There has to be legislation that specifies who will be responsible for restoration costs," Hamad said.
The incident in Beirut was not the first. A building in the Mizhar complex in the Naimeh area in southern part of the capital collapsed in November 2000. That disaster led to panic among residents of older structures throughout Lebanon and subsequent demands that municipalities conduct inspections. As a result, several residences were evacuated in Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli.
Lebanon's venerated buildings have attracted the attention of conservationists since the 1990s. Cultural heritage foundations and landlord-tenant rights associations have also been aware of the older blocks alongside the modern ones, some of which date back to the 1970s and some to the 1930s.
During Lebanon's civil war, many buildings were bombed and fell into disrepair. But with the start of the reconstruction in central Beirut in 1993, the government did not conduct surveys of the structures, and no laws were applied requiring their restoration or assuring that safety standards were implemented under existing laws.