Explained: Alternative Housing
The alternative housing – which is housing granted as compensation for a demolished or expropriated home that was built informally or unregistered in the real estate records – is one of the confusing concepts in the Syrian laws. Because there is no clear definition for alternative housing and who it is meant to benefit, different laws have addressed the concept in various ways.
Syrian laws have usually ignored the rights of people who own built housing in informal neighbourhoods, especially homes built on publicly owned property, land expropriated by the state, or land categorised as agricultural, i.e. land on which homes are not legally permitted to be built.
The first mention of “compensatory housing” appeared in a presidential recommendation issued by former president Hafez Al-Assad in 1975. The recommendation stipulated that informal homes built of cement, i.e. reinforced concrete, may not be demolished without providing compensatory housing. The occasion and context of this recommendation remain unclear, as does its standing among existing laws and decrees. Still, the recommendation has an important function, as rights holders often use it to defend themselves against the expropriation or demolition of their properties.
Expropriation Law No. 20 of 1983 completely overlooked the rights of Syrians who own homes in informal neighbourhoods and failed to provide them with any compensation. The law did not even address the issue of compensation through alternative housing, even for owners of legally constructed housing that are targeted for expropriation (with the exception of homes that are expropriated in order to build public housing).
Real Estate Development and Investment Law No. 15 of 2008 mentions alternative housing multiple times, albeit with contradictions. Though the concept appears multiple times within the law, there is no clear definition or description of who stands to benefit from alternative housing. This lack of clarity makes the application of the law difficult, especially given that even the executive instructions fail to define the concept.
Article 11 of Law No. 15 stipulates that real estate developers must secure alternative housing either within or outside the real estate development zone, or pay a cash compensation to occupants who are slated to lose their housing. However, Article 11 refers only to properties owned by the real estate developer and to properties whose original owners subject the properties to the provisions of Law No. 15, in agreement with the developer. This only highlights the law’s ambiguity towards the meaning of alternative housing.
Article 14 of Law No. 15 gives the priority in real estate development to projects that aim to provide alternative housing to people whose homes are slated for demolition and to provide housing projects for people affected by natural disasters. Article 20 states that, as part of real estate development projects in informal housing neighbourhoods, the developer must provide alternative and appropriate housing for occupants of the development zone. The developer must either hand over the alternative housing to the relevant administrative authority or give monetary compensation to occupants who prefer to receive a cash allowance instead. After handing over the alternative housing, the local administrative unit must then evict occupants from their former homes and pass the emptied project site over to the real estate developer.
The concept of alternative housing took a more defined shape in a series of laws issued after 2011, and can be summarised as follows: alternative housing is housing that owners of homes within informal neighbourhoods may buy at their own expense in the event that their original homes are expropriated or demolished, or the areas in which they live are re-zoned. In practice, however, not all homeowners in informal neighbourhoods are entitled to an alternative house.
Legislative Decree No. 66 of 2012, which establishes two development zones within the general master plan for the city of Damascus, and its subsequent amendment, Law No. 10 of 2018, are among the most detailed laws on the subject of alternative housing. According to Decree No. 66, alternative housing is housing that someone, who was evicted from the home that they owned or lived in within the zone, may obtain. Beneficiaries must pay for their alternative housing; its cost is measured based on the estimated construction cost, through a series of interest-bearing instalments.
Decree No. 66 lists the two types of owners who are entitled to obtain alternative housing. According to the decree, people who built their homes on state property will receive a rental allowance for a maximum of two years, and can receive alternative housing only in the case that the local administrative unit where the zone is built still owns some homes after other beneficiaries received theirs. Also, people who owned agricultural land within the zones delineated by Decree No. 66 and built residential or commercial properties on it are entitled to an annual rental allowance until they are given alternative housing, again only in the case that alternative housing is available.
Other types of homeowners, for instance those whose housing was built with a proper licence on private property on which construction is permitted, benefit from shares in the new real estate developments, which they can trade or use to own a home.
Decision No. 112 of 2015, issued by the Minister of Housing, specifies the conditions for beneficiaries to alternative housing. The demolished home must have existed and have been inhabited prior to the issuance of Decree No. 66. The occupant of that home must be an owner or tenant, and the primary breadwinner of the family should be residing with them. Inventory and description committees are required to verify any document proving home ownership, such as a title deed, a temporary registry statement, notarised proof of sale via power of attorney, a notarised lease contract, judicial rulings of the final degree, and any other official documents issued by legally authorised bodies.
It is important to highlight that the other main law that regulates the zoning of real estate areas makes no mention of alternative housing. Article 51 of the Planning and Urban Development Law No. 23 of 2015 explicitly states that people who constructed property atop publicly or privately owned land without a building licence, as well as those who purchased such properties, are entitled to take the rubble of their buildings. These homeowners may only be allocated alternative housing if the administrative unit has a housing surplus and, again, at a cost.