Has Syrian regime government contributed to creating informal housing areas in Damascus?
Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri
After Rifaat al-Assad, the younger brother of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, established the “Defense Brigades” based in Mezzeh Jabal 86; he allowed some of his elements to build small rooms of mudbricks and metal for accommodation.
Over time, the elements brought their families from their coastal villages, turning the area into a residential area of a military nature, according to the “Deutsche Welle (DW)” website.
The area of Mezzeh Jabal 86 was all bushes, rocks, and farmlands owned by the people of Mezzeh (Damascus residents from outside the fence) before the seventies of the last century.
While the top of the mountain, extending up to the Qasioun mountain range and adjacent land, belongs to the Syrian Ministry of Defense.
The area is bordered by Mezzeh Highway to the south, Mazzeh Villas to the west, Qasioun mountain to the north, and al-Sheikh Saad to the east.
The area of Mezzeh Jabal 86 is administratively affiliated to Damascus city. It is one of dozens of slum neighborhoods in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in particular, and in Syria in general, which the Syrian regime government allowed their building and supplied them with public utilities and services of water, electricity, and telephone networks.
The internal migration from small towns and rural areas to large cities is one of the most direct causes of the phenomenon of informal housing in and around major cities. In addition to the internal migration that started by the concentration of economic, commercial, industrial, cultural, and educational activity in major cities, the phenomenon’s immediate causes include the high rate of natural population growth.
The problem of informal housing in Syria has been exacerbated during the last ten years due to systematic shelling by the Syrian regime forces against civilian homes, internal migration, and forced displacement.
The government contributed to the emergence of slums
An informed jurist spoke to Enab Baladi about the reasons that contributed to the emergence of slum areas in Damascus in particular.
The jurist attributed these reasons to poor construction and urban master planning systems, the high cost of building permits and bureaucracy in obtaining them, the absence of new regulated areas, and high land prices.
He added to the previous reasons the “failure” of association and housing systems, organized by the Syrian regime’s government, to secure housing and their inability to cover people’s needs.
The jurist said that allowing the slums to emerge was “intentional,” as most residents of the slums in Damascus, such as the Ish al-Warwar neighborhood and Mezzeh 86 are people who came from the countryside to the city, specifically from the countryside of the coastal areas and Homs.
He added that the regime aimed to change the region demographically, away from the housing crisis argument, because the people there had houses in the countryside areas from which they had come.
It is believed that the regime government has moved toward building a belt around Damascus city, and that is why it provided the slums with public utilities, paved roads, water, electricity, sanitation, and telephone networks, despite being areas of violation of state property.
The government itself has thus violated laws and legalized slum areas, the jurist said.
The regime supported the phenomenon
Syrian judge Anwar Majni talked to Enab Baladi previously about the reasons for the emergence of slums. He indicated that the reasons are many and accumulated over time, starting from the political reasons, as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Golan Heights caused a wave of displacement that led to the establishment of camps, some of which later turned into informal housing communities.
According to Majni, there are population-related reasons, including the significant population increase in Syria, and economic and social reasons, including the migration from rural areas to the cities due to unbalanced development policies.
Majni also talked about legislative and technical reasons, the most important of which are the inadequacy of many laws to real estate reality in Syria, which have exacerbated the problem of informal housing instead of solving it. The judge mentioned other factors such as the slow procedures of land surveying and registration, the late issuance of regulatory and detailed plans for urban expansion areas.
In addition to these factors, there is also the problem of joint ownership, which complicated the real-estate problem.
Judge Majni said that citizens needed housing, especially in the major cities’ centers, and regular housing was no longer sufficient to meet their needs.
Legal and administrative complexities also prevented legal construction, particularly the late issuance of regulatory and detailed organizational plans, giving rise to a “parasite” social class associated with the regime called “building offenses traders.”
The building offenses traders took advantage of people’s need for housing, and while laws prohibit and penalize building without a permit, this class of people had a strong network of relations that protected them from accountability and prosecution.
Legislations and government decisions were in favor of this class and protected it by systematically obstructing legal construction, making it the only side capable of building, at a lower cost, given that it does not need to pay taxes or adhere to construction laws.
Majni added that the phenomenon of informal housing was carried out under the auspices of the regime and, with its acceptance, to create certain balances and demographic changes by allowing people associated with it to build belts around the cities.
Majni gave an example to a whole area of slums named “Mezzeh Jabal 86.” This area was named after the Defense Brigades (Brigade 86), where its members were allowed to build illegally in this area that later became a residential neighborhood.
What is informal housing?
On an overall average level, the informal settlement areas constitute 15 to 20 percent of all Syrian (rural-urban) areas and 25 to 30 percent in city centers. This ratio rises to more than 30 to 40 percent of slums in main city centers.
The number of dwellings in informal housing areas is estimated at about 500 thousand houses, equivalent to a real estate value of 300 to 400 billion Syrian pounds (SYP = 106,007,067 to 141,342,756 USD).
These areas’ total population is estimated at 2.5 million persons, with an average population density rate of 450 persons per hectare. The spaces occupied by these areas can be estimated at 5,555 hectares (55550000 square meters).
Through the age indicator of informal houses, it can be concluded that 55 percent of these dwellings were built between 1965 and 1990, compared to 37 percent built after 1990.
These numbers indicate the rapid expansion of these areas in the absence of serious or alternative solutions, according to research entitled “The Real Estate Issue and Its Implications for Syrian Property Rights” issued by “The Day After” organization in June 2019.
The informal housing areas are large areas of land with illegally built houses outside the boundaries of the urban organization of central cities in Syria, as a result of housing needs for fast-built, low-cost housing.
This problem was represented by the urban sprawl toward agricultural land, which had been done over stages for some 60 years. However, it had increased since 1981, according to research by professor Qassem al-Rabdawi at the University of Damascus, entitled “Population Growth and the Problem of Informal Housing in Central Cities in Syrian Governorates Between 1981 and 2010.”
Informal housing is illegal housing that violates construction laws and is erected outside the boundaries of urban planning. Informal housing is built with simple basic building materials and often lacks the requirements for structural integrity.
Damascus’s random housing areas included several districts, and the land occupied by informal housing was 2,000 hectares (20,000,000 square meters) until 2010, compared with 3,000 hectares (30000000 square meters) of regulated housing.
The slum areas formed an urban belt around Damascus, and informal housing forms part of them in many areas, such as the Mezzeh Jabal 86, a part of Darayya lands and the outskirts of Sahnaya, Sbeineh, Hujira, Sayyidah Zaynab area, Nahir Aisha, Jaramana, the outskirts of al-Qaboun, Ish al-Warwar, the outskirts of Barzeh, a part of Rukn al-Din neighborhood on the slopes of Qasioun Mountain.
These slum areas, according to al-Rabdawi, are estimated at about 23.22 percent of the land area in Damascus, and they represent protection zones for the regulatory plan and an orderly random residential expansion.
In 2010, the number of people living in these areas was estimated to be 1.2 million persons. While in the cities of Rif Dimashq province and around the city of Douma, the governorate’s center, some 245,169 people live in illegal housing areas, at the expense of 4,000 hectares (40,000,000 square meters) of agricultural land.
These slum areas are not inside the city but outside its borders, and represent a protection zone for the regulatory plan, in order to be a field for the future urban expansion, as in the case of Eastern and Western Ghouta in Damascus, according to al-Rabdawi.
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