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    The politics of urban reconstruction in Syria

    By Edwar Hanna, on 2 July 2018

    In April 2018 the Syrian government modified and extended an earlier Damascus-only urban reconstruction decree (Decree 66), to now be applied nationwide in Syria. This new law (Law 10) allows the Syrian government to award contracts for reconstruction to national and international investors, and to compensate citizens in the form of shares in regulatory zones.

    The earlier Decree 66 demonstrated the politicization of urban renewal policies. It had named two informal zones in southwest Damascus to be reconstructed following the new 2012 master plan of the city; it also increased the percentage of informal settlements on the list to be demolished from 40% to 60%. However, these were not areas that were devastated by conflict, the conflict was in the redevelopment. Unlike most Syrian cities, Damascus, has not been under urban destruction due to the ongoing armed conflict. Yet, it has experienced different manifestations of urban contestation. This contestation has been clearly manifested by the so called ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ which has started – despite its name – during the conflict in 2012 and caused exclusion and eviction to many residents.

    The history of Degree 66 is highly pertinent to the present context of Law 10, as it is the same strategy being manifest, but now on an even larger and more detrimental scale.  In 2018 the Syrian government proposes through Law 10 to do what was done in the one Damascus zone five years earlier on a national scale; removing people from their homes, inadequately compensating people, disposing of property rights, advancing the agenda of external ‘developers’ and in many other ways leveraging urban reconstruction as another weapon of conflict.

    Figure 1: the new master plan of Damascus 2012

     

    What happened before and what does this tell us about what is going to happen now?

    • Government positioning of such reconstruction as progress: The government worked tirelessly on circulating decree 66 through media channels, radio, and the national newsletter as the pilot project towards modern post-conflict Syria. As the Damascus Governor noted at the time “Three main principles have been fundamentally taken into account in this project. These are; Social Justice; The high performance of implementation; and financial returns for Damascus governorate which allow sustaining services provision and initiating new projects”.
    • The areas for redevelopment were largely areas of opposition to the government, hence reconstruction and removal of people can be seen as politicized: The decision of implementation took place only in the first Zone that hosted frequent demonstrations between 2012 and 2013. Moreover, this zone is very close to the most international organizations, embassies, ministries, and one of the presidential palaces. This gives the quarter a strategic standing in Damascus.
    • Many informal residents did not receive equitable compensation and rehousing: The Decree 66 has dealt with the entire zone as a collective ownership among its residents and despite the many different types of property’s ownership and the specific context of informal unites, people got rehousing in the yet to be built compensation units based on their shares. Therefore, many informal residents who used to live in small informal houses were not able to get the smallest apartment in the compensation units due to the variation of scale.
    • Many residents were driven from their homes: Some residents had their properties seized due to their political stance they had, and others due to lack of equitable shares. As part of the whole ‘reconstruction’ implementation many residents were forcibly evicted from their homes with their possessions. Sometimes not even with this dignity. As one soldier expresses during one of the demolitions, “They were among the lucky ones. Not everyone is being allowed in to take their possessions”.

    Figure 2. The first and the second implementation phases of reconstruction defined by the Decree.NO. 66

    In April 2018, while the Degree 66 project is still under construction, the Syrian government modified the Decree 66 to be applied nationwide in Syria, whether formal or informal areas and issued Law 10.  So now citizens – whether in the country or outside the country – are faced with a situation of not knowing what is the basis of their property rights. There is an enormous amount of confusion and significant potential problems; these include the challenge of lack of property documentation, lack of access for registration of ownership and many other challenges that do not even begin to touch on the political scenarios.

    • Problem I – the burden of proof for refugees as well as IDPs: Law 10 has specific procedures to claim ownership of the property which is exclusionary and not feasible to more than 6 million refugees living abroad. Refugees who fled the country either lost their ownership documents or they do not have access to the embassies to certify the needed proofs. Which put them under the threat of losing their rights since the Law 10 seizes properties for those who are unable to prove their rights within specific period of time. Germany as the country with the lion’s share of refugee in Europe recently expressed concern about this context;  ‘’Law 10 is designed to expropriate refugees,” a senior German government official
    • Problem II – the danger to heritage and culture: Law 10 neglects all the social and cultural aspects that are integral to the Syrian cities by stating the targeted area of reconstruction depends only on the economic turnovers of the projects in this area. It might turn Syrian cities into new Solidere, the Beirut downtown project that ended up empty of people during the daytime because people don’t feel it belongs to their city.
    • Problems III – lack of capacity on Local Administration levels: on a very practical level the new Law places a significant administrative burden on local government at a time of continuing crisis, and there is a strong concern that this will make it even more of a crisis. The Law says citizens are to be compensated in the form of shares in regulatory zones – but only where such regulatory zones are defined following a feasibility study of the area provided by the local administration unit and approved by the Ministry of Local Administration. This law centralises all decisions in the hand of local administration units, which don’t have the capacities, experiences or resources for these large-scale projects.

    Bearing all this in mind and learning from the recent past in Syrian urban politics it is clear that Law 10 simply cannot be ignored as just an internal Syrian minor urban issue. It is an international issue. Thus, international organisations, government officials in the EU and elsewhere, Syrian lawyers and urbanists amongst others, have recently expressed their concerns against this legislation and successfully managed to get the issue onto the U.N. Security Council’s agenda to follow up.

    Figure 3. The options citizens have according to law 10

    As part of this movement ‘Syrbanism’ – which is a Syrian-led platform focuses on investigating the political, social and economic aspects of the urban discourses in Syria – has initiated an awareness-raising campaign about the Law. “Syrbanism aims at simplifying the technical language of urban policies to become understandable for all non-expert citizens”, notes Nour Harastani, Syrbanism co-Founder, “It starts by raising awareness in order to mobilise knowledge-based actions’’. The organisation has created two short informational videos, one in English and one in Arabic, to clearly and simply present the facts about the Law 10 process. The videos explain in detail the procedures and options citizens need to know about their property rights. The videos can be accessed via Youtube and the Syrbanism site. They are designed to provide information and as such are for use by all Syrians; so that everyone understands the situation and therefore can advance better solutions. The videos have been shared not only by refugees and opponents, but also by supporters to the government – because they are about potentially unworkable and damaging legal processes that are not just untenable on many local levels but also detrimental to most ordinary people.  It is hoped that by all parties understanding the negative impacts of this law, that it can be reconsidered.

    Syrbanism aims to continue its awareness-raising work now in the next steps to reach out to more Syria-related organisations to bolder mobilisation and impact on advocacy within the EU to make an effective pressure on the Syrian government. Syrbanism believes that any reconstruction agenda, besides being negotiable and accountable, should consider the rebuilding ‘lives’ other that just ‘houses’. Otherwise, the Syrian conflict would definitely be shifted to another, more complex and longer-term one.

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    Edwar Hanna is a recent graduate of the MSc In Building and Urban Design in Development. Trained as architect, he now works in international development and is co-Founder of the Syrbanism initiative.

    If Habitat III wants to uphold the right to housing, it needs to address financialization

    By Rafaella Simas Lima, on 11 May 2016

    At the start of April, a number of civil society groups, members of NGOs and activists from across Europe met in Barcelona for the European meeting of the Global Platform for the Right to the City. This was in part to complement the Habitat III meeting on Public Space that was to take place later that week. Habitat III will be the third installment of the UN conference on human settlements, held every 20 years. At this Global Platform meeting in Barcelona, priorities relating to the ‘Right to the City’ in Europe and strategic aims for Habitat III, to take place in Quito this October, were discussed.

    Global Platform for the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

    Global Platform of the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

    One of the main issues that emerged in the Global Platform meeting was the financialization of real estate. Financialization can be defined as a “pattern of accumulation in which profit-making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production” (Aalbers 2009, p. 284). The financialization of housing refers specifically to the linking of housing markets with finance markets, where housing is viewed primarily as a financial good. This is what allows banks to speculate on land and housing, which causes house prices to rise far beyond what most people can afford. The linking of mortgages with financial products, especially in the United States, was a central factor in the 2008 economic crisis that had catastrophic effects across the globe.

    In a working group on the topic, participants exchanged experiences of how financialization has manifested in their respective countries. A member of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for people affected by mortgages) in Barcelona summarized the particularly dire situation in Spain, where over 400,000 evictions have taken place since 2008. While each European country has its own unique context, many common themes emerged, such as speculation, inflated housing prices, empty homes, the selling off of social housing, and an increase in evictions and displacement. These phenomena were linked to a systematic eroding of regulations that have allowed the financial sector to exploit housing for profit.

    An open letter to the Habitat III Secretariat signed by members of the Global Platform points to the connection between the 2008 financial crisis and its context of housing financialization, a topic which it says is strikingly absent from Habitat III documents thus far. The letter asserts that land and housing must be treated as goods for people and not for profit. In this vein, the signatories call for a new Habitat III policy unit to be set up that focuses on the global financialization of real estate, to provide recommendations for the social and political regulation of real estate markets and actors.

    But at the moment, as the letter states, Habitat III documents do not seem to be dealing with the issue. The Policy Paper on Housing Policies, an official input into Habitat III, states that “Housing stands at the center of the New Urban Agenda”. It re-affirms UN Member states’ commitment to the right to housing, which it says must be adequate and affordable, with security of tenure. Yet in the 74 pages of the document, financialization is not once mentioned. In a section on affordable housing, there is reference to the financial crisis, and to the increase in mortgage debt and repossession of homes, especially in Europe (p.10). The global estimate that 330 million households are currently financially stretched by housing costs is also provided. But this section concludes with “Nearly half of the housing deficit in urban areas is attributable to the high cost of homes, and to the lack of access to financing” (p. 10).

    In this sense, rising house prices are presented as a natural and uncontestable process, with the core problem simply being that many people do not have access to housing finance. There is no questioning of why house prices are allowed to rise at such a rate in the first place, nor is there acknowledgement of the role of the financial sector in inflating real estate values. The report mentions how vulnerable groups are traditionally excluded from home ownership and rental markets, implying that the solution to the housing deficit is to get more people in on this market. (The paper seems to ignore the phenomenon of sub-prime or predatory lending integral to the 2008 crisis, where vulnerable groups were not excluded, but explicitly targeted for mortgage loans.) Overall, the focus is on the individual requirements needed to access housing, and not on structural factors and the institutions responsible for shaping access to housing.

    Given the very limited diagnosis analysis of the situation, the paper’s proposed policy solutions largely miss the point. The report states that to “To provide affordable housing, the private sector requires incentives (adequate capital and financial returns) and an enabling environment (development process and public policy)” (pp. 22-23). In other words, the financial institutions and private developers who are largely responsible for the massive housing crisis do not need to re-examine any of their practices; rather, the public needs to provide incentives for them to build “affordable” housing because the relentless profit motive of private developers and financial institutions cannot be challenged. In addition, the public sector must provide an “enabling environment” for the private sector to do its work, as if it has not already been doing so by implementing neoliberal policies to slash regulation of lending and speculation.

    To address the assumed core problem of people with limited or no access to credit for housing, the policy paper states “housing finance and microfinance should be integrated into the broader financial system in order to mobilize more resources, both domestically and internationally”(p. 21). This statement ignores the extent to which housing finance has already been integrated into the financial system, and what disastrous effects this has had. If anything, the paper seems to be suggesting an increase in financialization, rather than a re-thinking of this phenomenon that has been a major factor in the housing deficit.

    The housing paper does mention that policies are needed to reduce property speculation and even mentions the “social regulation of real estate”, and that these can be strengthened if “municipalities adopt inclusive housing ordinances and appropriate property taxation policies” (p. 17). This is a start, but it is not enough for a global urban agenda. The details of these policy proposals are not explored in any meaningful way in the current policy paper, nor are they linked to address the current embedding of real estate within the financial sector. Furthermore, this is not just a local problem for municipalities to deal with; both national and international institutions hold responsibility for our current situation, and need to be targeted as entry points for intervention.

    There are many forms of regulation that would at the very least be a step in the right direction in terms of housing affordability. But we need to address the now assumed linkage between real estate and the financial sector if we want to get to the root of the problem. For a conference aiming to come up with a “new urban agenda”, and that has previously agreed on such rights such as the right to adequate housing, the issue of financialization, which has put housing that much more out of reach for millions of people, needs to be addressed at Habitat III.

    References:

    Aalbers, M. B. (2009) “The sociology and geography of mortgage markets: Reflections on the financial crisis”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(2), 281–290.

    Habitat III Policy Paper 10 – Housing Policies, 29 February 2016, available at: https://www.habitat3.org/bitcache/3fa49d554e10b9ea6391b6e3980d2a32ce979ce9?vid=572979&disposition=inline&op=view

    Possible tags: Habitat III, Financialization, Housing policy, Right to the City, Right to Adequate Housing, Barcelona, Europe


     

    Rafaella Lima is an alumna of the the DPU and currently works as a graduate teaching assistant for the MSc Urban Development Planning. She has been involved in research looking at civil society engagement with Habitat III processes in various countries.

    Mexico: Where does hope reside? (Part II)

    By Étienne von Bertrab, on 10 February 2015

    Just one week on

    To understand the depth of the socio-political crisis in Mexico it might be illustrative to go through events that occurred since Part I was posted a week ago: a mayor in the State of Mexico authorised police to shoot those who protest against the dispossession of their communal water system; a newspaper editor in Matamoros was abducted, beaten and left with a death threat: “no more reporting on violence along the border”; and as if it was a horror film, 61 bodies were found in an abandoned crematory in the outskirts of Acapulco, a famous tourist destination in the State of Guerrero (where the disappearance of the 43 teacher training students took place four months ago).

    No caption needed. Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

    Much to the disappointment of those in power, what happens in Mexico can no longer be kept within the country’s borders. The prestigious Hay Festival, which would take place later this year in Xalapa, was cancelled after hundreds of Mexican writers and journalists signed a petition in protest. “We recognise that the killing of Moisés Sánchez, the 15th journalist to have been murdered or disappeared in Veracruz since 2010, has caused unbearable pain and rage” – reads the organisers’ official statement.

    In Geneva – in the same week – the UN Committee of Enforced Disappearances (CED) identified ‘prominent discrepancy between words and deeds’ while for Amnesty International the hearings evidenced the failure of the Mexican State in its international responsibilities. Furthermore, The New York Times revealed over the weekend that amongst the secret buyers using shell companies to grab the most expensive real estate in New York is an ex-governor of Oaxaca and father of the current director of INFONAVIT – Mexico’s social housing agency.

    Elections: opportunity or distraction?

    While it is almost a consensus that the party system is rotten beyond repair, what to do during the elections is always a divisive issue: to back the least worst party or candidates, or to boycott the elections altogether? As a result of a recent political reform it will now be possible – for the first time in Mexican history – for citizens to be elected without affiliation to a political party. For many this is a double-edged sword, but there are glimpses of hope: Wikipolítica, a group of young student-activists, could give Jalisco its first independent legislator – without using any public resources but rather dozens of creative and enthusiastic volunteers.

    Intentions of a long journey Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

    Beyond these more localised opportunities there is an increasing recognition that our social contract has been broken: the Mexican Constitution of 1917 (often referred to as the most progressive of the early 20th century) has been subject to almost 500 reforms, mostly to facilitate capital accumulation in detriment of rights and communal and public ownership of natural resources.

    A call for the formation of a constitutional assembly with the aim of refunding the State is gaining traction, reinvigorated by the very circumstances and by the vocal support of progressive and highly respectable public figures such as bishop Raúl Vera, the last prominent priest of the Theology of Liberation in Mexico, who since the Zapatista uprising has made his cause the voices of the poor. His mission: “to listen to everyone’s feelings and aspirations, particularly those of the poor and marginalised”. However, it is undoubtedly a long-term social and democratic endeavour that no living Mexican has ever experienced. For many, including myself, it might be the only way to avoid a violent revolution.

    In this emotive video, Omar García, survivor of the attack, expresses how the case of Ayotzinapa has awaken millions throughout the country.

     

    Part III on the role of journalism and new media, and on why it’s important to focus on the (non-urban) territory and those who defend it, will be published next week.

    All images are courtesy of Colectivo Lapiztola, a street art collective that emerged in the suppressed social movement in Oaxaca in 2006. Part of their work is exhibited in Rich Mix, London, until 28 February.

    Opening the wings. Image: Colectivo Lapiztola

    Étienne von Bertrab is a Teaching Fellow at the DPU and a guest lecturer in universities in Mexico. He also works as a consultant in the UK and in Mexico, where he has been a social activist for ten years. Twitter: @etiennista