In April 2017, the evacuation of Abu-Mahmoud from his house was executed under “Decree 66” that aimed to construct an integrated urban area. Seven years later, Abu-Mahmoud’s sons still have not received alternative housing.
Three months after his forced evacuation, and the subsequent demolition of his house at the Khalaf al-Razi district in Damascus, Abu-Mahmoud died of a brain stroke. He was 45 years old.
Abu-Mahmoud used to own four houses in the neighborhood, in which he lived with his children. Then three of his sons left Syria because of the war while he remained there with his daughter.
The decree stipulates providing “alternative housing” within four years from its issuance. But the property of Abu-Mahmoud’s sons was confiscated when they were abroad, and they could not prove their ownership upon evacuation.
Abu-Mahmoud’s family and another 150, 000residents in Mazzeh and Kafr Soussa are now homeless, still awaiting alternative housing.
Most evacuated families did not receive proper leases or compensation to secure a shelter during the execution period.
The issue became more complicated when the Damascus Governorate set high prices for alternative homes which are not yet ready, which evicted families, already going through financial hardships, cannot afford.
Our six-month investigation revealed that the Damascus Governorate violated clauses of “Decree 66,” most significantly in its lack of commitment to provide “alternative housing” within the set terms, its demand for high prices, and its failure to provide rent money to evicted families for the duration of the time between eviction and the delivery of their new home.
Alternative housing is given to residents who had illegally constructed homes in the area delineated in the decree. New homes should have been available within four years from the issuance of the decree, but law no. 10 has been amended to instead stipulate that new homes be delivered 4 years from the evacuation date.
Regulatory instructions for alternative housing for entitled beneficiaries were issued only in 2015, three years after the decree was issued, in Ministry of Housing decree no. 112 which left the evacuees homeless during all that time.
Also the residents who were absent during house evaluations lost their entitlements and could not register their houses to receive rent allowances and alternative housing. This was confirmed by law expert Gomaa Al-Hallaq, and three other residents.
No Ownership Rights
Mahmoud the elder son said, “four eviction notices, one notice for each house, were issued. The Damascus Governorate checked my family’s house in the presence of my father, so they were aware the house is inhabited. When the second appraisal was to be conducted, my father and brother were away in Turkey, but my sister was in the house. The appraisers photographed the house, and listed it as “abandoned.” They didn’t acknowledge our ownership of the house.” They uprooted people out of the district.
Four Eviction Notices (exclusive to “Daraj”)
Jamal Youssef, the former officer responsible for implementing Decree 66, said: “We notified property owners of the checking and registration processes. 8200 people have declared their entitlement. In cooperation with honest judges, we have matched the entitlements with real estate authorities, which resulted in 5500 property registration, and 2700 cases where ownership could not be proven.
Verifying the non-entitlement of those people, council member Ghaleb Eniz said “when Beshr al-Sabban was governor, he instructed property owners, who sought to register their homes, to submit a travel/departure statement to confirm their presence in the country. The order was meant to prevent citizens abroad from registering their properties and consequently not being able to prove their ownership of houses inside the urbanized area, knowing that this procedure is not stated in decree no. 112 but it was attached to Decree 66 to regulate alternative housing.
“Therefore, around 2700 families were deprived of alternative housing; most of them were out of the state and could not submit the required statement proving their presence in the country”.
Clause “d” of the decision states that “an alternative housing beneficiary shall submit a proof for entitlement of their house over the period from the decree issuance date until evacuation date” but did not mention people who are out of the country.
Decision 112 (exclusive)
Eniz noted that some houses were listed as foreclosed for the mere reason that owners were not in at the time of appraisal, even though they were present in Syria. And only 100 of those who appealed were granted entitlement.
Al-Youssef justified that by the circumstances inside Syria. Work was not allowed upon issuing the decree. Only when it was allowed to enter Khalaf Al-Razi district in 2013, did work commence.
According to al-Youssef, the number of alternative housing entitlements reached 5500 out of 6500 citizens who applied, indicating that 1000 citizens were deprived from alternative housing.
“We announced receiving appeals, 550 objectors applied, and a committee was formed to look into the applicants’ documents, like proof of residence, and compliance with army reserve admission. Out of 550 appeals, only 119 were examined after submitting the required documents,” said Al-Youssef.
Alternative Housing or Expropriation?
Although more than three years have passed, Abu-Yasser and his five children, who were evicted from their home in Khalaf al-Razi region, on May 16, 2015, are still waiting for alternative housing. Abu-Yasser had to sell more than half his shares in the project, about 37 million Syrian liras ( USD37,000) in the Marsoum region, to buy a house in Rural Damascus, thanks to the “rent allowance” from the Damascus governorate.
Abu-Yasser said he could not adapt to life in the countryside: “I couldn’t move my factory from Khalaf al-Razi to where I live now. The fast eviction left me unemployed”.
Abu-Yasser described what happened as expropriation: he was forced to sell more than half of his shares in the project, move to Rural Damascus and lose his source of income. He explained that the Damascus governorate “cut off the power and water supply in his region, to force people to move out”.
Abu-Yasser received the first rent allowance in November 2018, two years after they were evicted, and the second rent installment came five months later. “If I had to rely on that rent money, my family and I would have been homeless.” Due to the delay, he received a third of his allowance which was 652,000 liras per year (USD 650.)
Rent allowance is paid every year in the form of monthly bills of 50’000 liras each. Rents in Damascus start from 100’000 liras, according to a broker in the city.
Changing Housing Locations
The Damascus governorate changed alternative housing location from the first area (Marota City) to the second (Basilia City), according to the statement of Bilal Na’al, board member of “Damascus Holding” which participates in the project, during the ordinary session of Damascus municipality on October 11, 2019. That means residence will be moved from an economically active region to a place far from the city center.
Legal expert Jum’aa Hallaq said, “The organizational plan was changed more than once, although the alternative housing buildings should be within Marota City, according to decree no. 66, articles 19 and 20.”
So the alternative housing will not be delivered until Basilia city is finished and ready. Until now, the organizational plans have not been set, and the inhabitants of the area have not been evicted, which means delivering alternative housing units will further be delayed.
Estimation Committees Waste Owners’ Rights
Article 7 of Decree 66 states the formation of legal and real estate committees to estimate the value of rent allowance and the areas of prospective alternative housing units.
The committee consists of a judge, appointed by the Minister of Justice to be the committee president, two real estate evaluation experts, appointed by the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, in addition to two experts representing owners.
But these committees failed to evaluate many properties accurately, and wasted owners’ rights, according to owners’ statements who believe their properties have been “undervalued”.
Fahd, 30 years, who was a resident of Khalaf al-Razi, said, “The committee measured the area of my house, but cheated in its description, like the type of bricks and marble, thus depreciating its value.”
When he objected, the architect in charge said, “For us that makes no difference.”
Ghalib Onayz thinks that the committees are not infallible, and that they have made mistakes that have not been corrected. Evaluation and description records were not published, which would have enabled citizens to object and demand their rights.
Reporters tried to know the reason why the evaluation and description records were not published, through asking the directorate responsible for executing decree 66, which keeps the records, but the directorate refused to comment.
The bigger problem was when the Damascus governorate employees registered Um-Khaled’s house in the name of another woman, who has nothing to do with the house.
Um-Khaled said, “It is my property, but I had one of my friends stay over who was displaced from Jobar and when the employee came from the governorate, his name was Mudar, he asked my friend: Who are you? She said: A guest from Jobar. Yet he took her ID and her husband’s ID, and registered their data, and later it turned out that my own house was registered in my friend’s name in front of my eyes”.
Um-Khaled filed a complaint, but to no avail, because the reassessment process needs a court order, as the responsible committee is judicial, which makes the correction difficult. She said, “I lost my house in a moment due to this injustice”.
Jamal al-Yusuf, the director of execution of decree no. 66, replied that “the committees did not commit any mistakes, and those who complained could not produce any authentic document to prove their claims,” adding that “the work is done through an automated institutional mentality”.
The unpleasant surprise for Hala (56 years) and her family was when they got evicted from their 3-storey home on March 27, 2017.
She said that security officials summoned her and told her that they should move out of their home within 15 days, although other home owners had received notice months before her and have yet to be evicted.
Hala did not even have time to sell her furniture.
Six other residents of the same area shared similar stories. They said evictions were not implemented correctly, and that there was violence and ill-treatment of civilians.
Legal expert Jum’a Hallaq explained that Damascus governorate totally evicted the area of Khalaf al-Razi in 2017, in a clear violation of article 40 of the decree, which states: “Damascus governorate shall be responsible for delivering the land of the divisions empty to the owners within a maximum of 90 days from the date they obtained the construction permits, as the governorate has cleared the area before issuing the permits.” This means that issuing construction permits should take place before the eviction process.
By searching the governorate’s archives, we discovered that the first eviction notice was issued in September 2015, while the first construction permit was issued in 2019.
Hala told stories of some residents who were evicted during the school year, which resulted in interrupting the educational process for most of the region’s children.
Within one week Fahd was evicted from his home in Khalaf al-Razi along with his furniture. He and his family stayed homeless for two months.
Fahd said, “I was living on my own property which I had built on my father’s land. It was 90 square meters, and I didn’t have to pay rent. Now I’m living in a single room in an old house in Sheikh Sa’d district, with 5 members of my family”.
However, Fahd still hopes to receive alternative housing, even if he has to wait for a little while, because his house’s area is 90 square meters, and only 40% of it is roofed. He does not get a separate house in the new project, according to article no. 3 of resolution 112. And if more than one family lives in the apartment, they get a new house with the same size as the old.
Al-Hallaq believes that this article prompted the public to sell their shares, to be able to carry on, explaining that these people won’t be able to buy anything in the area stated in the Decree.
Alternative Housing that is Beyond its Residents’ Affordability
Alternative housing was supposed to be ready by the year 2016, four years after the decree was issued.
But when Damascus failed to secure alternative housing during such a period, the well-known “Law No.10” stated in article no. 25 that the period of alternative housing delivery is four years from the date of home evacuation, instead of 4 years from the date of the issuance of Decree 66.
Taking into consideration the presence of owners who evacuated their homes in 2015, the amendment that was stipulated in Law No. 10 was also not complied with, as they evacuated their homes five years ago, and were supposed to have received their alternative apartments within 2019.
Al-Youssef estimates the square meter’s price of an apartment in the alternative housing project at somewhere between 270 and 300 thousand SYP (USD 300) as a real cost for construction only, excluding the value of land, street & lighting expenses. Payments are made in installments over 25 years, with 10% interest rate, and 10% down payment.
Al-Youssef considers this fair, “as those living in illegal or informal buildings, weren’t paying any fees or taxes, and the state was offering them free services, that’s why it is time for things to change.”
He believes that citizens benefited from the project. Once the entitlement of the alternative housing is allocated, they can sell it and gain profits. He urged those who cannot pay for alternative housing to “find a way” to do so, either by making a good use of their resources and assets, or by taking loans. Al-Youssed noted that Damascus cannot issue a law that suits everyone’s circumstances.
In economic terms, 30 million SYP―about 30,000 USD―is the price of a 100-square-meter home. Add 10% interest, it becomes 33.5 million SYP, a price that those entitled to alternative housing cannot afford. Ghalib Unaiz, a councilmember of Damascus Governorate, said this opens the door wide for major real estate traders.
Futile Rental Allowances
Article 44 stipulates that those who are not entitled to alternative housing are granted rental compensation for two years. Those who are entitled, receive annual rent during the wait period. Payments are made within one month from the day of evacuation.
Today, Hala pays 125,000 SYP in rent for two small rooms in Damascus. Her rent allowance was estimated at 750,000 SYP.
“This allowance doesn’t cover half of what I pay. Rent is high, and so is demand. It is difficult to find a house,” she said. Hala was forced to sell some of her shares in the regulated area to cover rent.
On the other hand, Fahd pays 75,000 SYP a month for one room, excluding utilities. Not only is his rent allowance not enough, but “Damascus doesn’t give us the allowance money on time,” he said.
“Insufficient rental allowances prompted the public to sell their shares in the project, and to date, the allowance isn’t paid on time and demolition dates are postponed,”Jomaa al-Hallaq said.
Now, 2500 out of 8500 families are not entitled to alternative housing. Those are granted a rental allowance for only two years from the date of evacuation. After that, their fate remains unknown.
Unaiz believes this is unfair: “Those 2,500 families had a stable and peaceful life. Now they are homeless.” He asserted that: “The state is obligated, under the constitution, to provide housing for its citizens.”
Even though Um Muhammad had been living for about 50 years in Khalaf al-Razi, she could not prove that she was a tenant, because back in the days no lease was signed. Now she is deprived of alternative housing and rent allowance.
She complained to the Decree 66 Implementation Directorate three times, but the staff blamed her, and asked her to go to court to object.
Despite the fact that renters who had been living in the area before 2000 get 30% of residential real estate shares and 40% of commercial shares, according to article no 44 of Decree 66.
Jamal al-Youssef considers the rent allowance a “state contribution” to support citizens until alternative housing is ready. He admits that there has been a delay in payments due to the “general circumstances” in the country, noting that the governorate paid almost 8 billion SYP in rent allowance.
Al-Youssef agrees that the rent allowance is not enough, and many complaints were filed in that regard, but the specification of rental allowance was conducted by judicial committees and issued with a final judicial decision. It can only be amended by changing the law, which would require another judicial decision.
Al-Youssef expects the alternative housing will be ready in 18 months: “We cannot continue to pay rent allowances, it’s a heavy burden on us,” he said.
A Stumbled Beginning for Reconstruction
Decree 66 and its implementation gaps represent a ‘stumbled beginning’ for the reconstruction of Syria, which became an international media sensation. So far, eight years into the Decree, no actual reconstruction operation has been carried out. Since their evacuation, residents have remained homeless.
The project consists of two regulated areas: “Marota City” (sovereignty in Aramaic,) and “Basilia City” (Paradise).
Marota City covers an area of 2, 149,000 square meters in Khalaf al-Razi, and includes 12,000 apartments distributed in 168 towers, ranging between 11 and 22 floors each.
Basilia is a 9 million square meters on the southern ring-road between al-Qadam and Yarmouk Camp, with 4,000 apartments.
Both Marota and Basilia were presented as Syria’s first “three dimensional” smart cities, with luxurious infrastructures, automated services, remote traffic control, educational, cultural, entertainment and tourism centers, to attract investors to Syria and create a new “Dubai” in Damascus.
However, this luxury did not do Mahmoud any good. After the evacuation led to his father’s death, he lost his right to its ownership.
Such a luxury means nothing to hundreds of displaced families with nothing to rely on other than an insufficient rental allowance that hardly pays for a small room in Damascus. They are left waiting for an open-ended date for their return to their new houses.
This investigation was carried out under the supervision and support of the “Syrian Investigative Journalist Unit – SIRAJ”, and our colleague Ahmad Haj Hamdo.
This investigation was carried out under the supervision and support of the “Syrian investigative journalist unit – SIRAJ”, and the supervision of our colleague Ahmad Haj Hamdo.