Housing program brings refugees brief relief: study

Source: The Daily Star on September 3, 2019​​, written by ​Abby Sewell



A program that offers Lebanese landlords cash to rehabilitate their properties in exchange for housing refugees rent-free has helped struggling Syrian families get by, at least in the short term, and created a stock of more affordable housing in the long term, experts have said. Researchers with the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, along with the NGO Save the Children, surveyed 1,284 refugees who were receiving shelter through the Occupancy Free of Charge scheme, former beneficiaries of the program and a control group of refugees who had not been involved in it.

The respondents were living in three communities in which the scheme had been implemented: Barr Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Minyeh in north Lebanon and Amayer in Akkar. The program was operated by NGOs including Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Solidarites International.

Under the scheme, which has been running in different iterations since 2013, the NGOs provide modest funding for owners of dilapidated or unfinished houses to upgrade their property to minimum living standards. In exchange, the owners agree to allow a refugee family to live there for 12 months rent-free.

The average payment per property is $1,600, and about 3,200 refugee families have been housed via Save the Children through the scheme to date, said Rayan Hajj, an adviser to the NGO’s shelter programs. The numbers receiving aid through the other participating NGOs were not available.

Because Lebanon has resisted establishing formal camps for Syrian refugees, nearly all must pay for shelter of some sort, whether it is an apartment, space to pitch a tent on a farmer’s land, a garage or a half-finished building.

Allison Zelkowitz, Save the Children’s country director for Lebanon, said the requirement to pay rent was a “significant burden, which refugees in most other host countries do not face.”

Affordable housing was also in short supply in Lebanon long before the arrival of more than 1 million Syrian refugees.

“Lebanon has never had an affordable housing strategy,” said Mona Fawaz, a professor of urban studies and planning at AUB. “When the Syrian refugees arrived in Lebanon, the situation was already dire.”

The survey found that Syrians who received housing through the OFC scheme were able to allocate their limited money to other priorities, such as school and clothing expenses for their children and health care costs.

Those involved in the program were less likely to report having recently taken on debt to buy food.

In Minyeh, for instance, 78 percent of those not in the program had done exactly that, compared to only 40 percent of those housed via the OFC scheme. Program beneficiaries also reported lower rates of child labor in their families.

The researchers found that in all areas surveyed, at least half the former OFC beneficiaries had worked out a deal with their landlord and stayed in the same house after their 12 rent-free months had finished.

However, many families fell back into difficulties once their time in the program ended. In both Minyeh and Barr Elias, former OFC beneficiaries showed even higher rates of debt for food than those who had never been involved in the scheme.

“Despite the positive impact of the [program] in alleviating food and/or health-[related] negative coping mechanisms during the period when households benefitted from this support, survey findings indicated that refugees go back to their pre[program] conditions once the subsidy is removed,” AUB researcher Watfa Najdi said.

As a result, the researchers recommended that the period of free rent be extended beyond the existing 12 months, or that a period of reduced rent should follow the rent-free portion of the program. They also advised that the scheme be combined with food aid and debt-relief measures. “The main thinking was that after one year the beneficiaries will be able to cope themselves and will be able to re-enter the rental market,” Hajj said. “However, the crisis became protracted, and people that had savings had depleted all their savings, and they were not able to cope anymore.”

Despite the program’s limitations, researchers said they saw hopeful signs. In the absence of a national policy on affordable housing, Fawaz said, the OFC scheme was “a fantastic option to respond to a dire need for affordable housing in Lebanon for vulnerable populations. What it is doing in the long run, it is increasing the supply of affordable housing units.”