Housing as a Right: Contesting the Constitutionality of Lebanon’s Rent Law
It appears that the long and arduous passage of the [new] rent law through the framework of Lebanese institutions is nearing its end. After parliament voted in favour of the law on April 1, 2014, the president decided not to send it back for further discussion as its publication in the Official Gazette would have permitted him to do so. However, the president, along with ten members of Parliament, opted instead to challenge the law before the Constitutional Council.
Their challenges are based on the law’s violation of a number of articles and principles enshrined in the Lebanese Constitution, the foremost of which are equality among citizens and a citizen’s right to judicial appeal. In addition to these two justifications, a third one has been put forward: the “right to housing”. Those who question the rent law’s constitutionality are asserting that the law would deprive tenants from this right, which they consider to be constitutionally protected.
The right to housing has only been recently introduced into Lebanon’s legal and political discourse. Before the uproar which was provoked by the rent law, it had largely failed to capture considerable attention. The recent emergence of the right to housing is not limited to the Lebanese legal framework, it only appeared in Western legislation at the beginning of the 1980s. Since its enshrinement as a right, it has embodied a socially-oriented approach within legislation.
Classical rights -first and foremost, rights related to property and debts- aim to encourage commerce, investment, and the exchange of capital. They view the citizen not as a member of society with particular needs, but as a merchant and investor in a capitalist system of exchange. The right to housing, however, belongs to a different kind of logic. Rather than aiming for the benefit of an economic agent with no regard for their personal characteristics, it takes into account the citizen’s daily sufferings and particular aspirations. Indeed, the most notable characteristic of the right to housing is its “personifying” of rights on the basis of social considerations.
The right to housing is the right of every person to suitable and independent housing, and is ensured by the state. We might expand upon this general definition by resorting to the first article of a French law issued on May 31, 1990. The latter enshrined the right to housing through the following definition: “every person or family suffering from severe difficulties, due to lack of adequate resources or livelihood, has the right to state assistance in obtaining appropriate and independent housing, or to remain in such housing, according to the conditions determined by this law”.
As for the Lebanese rent law, those who challenge its constitutionality believe that the law should be nullified given that the Lebanese Constitution enshrines the right to housing, and that the rent law deprives tenants of it. Their challenge raises two questions. The first is regarding the extent to which the Lebanese Constitution enshrines the right to housing; the second is the extent to which the rent law itself respects that right.
A cursory reading of the Constitution’s provisions might suggest that it does not enshrine the right to housing: it contains no article guaranteeing the right to citizens in an explicit way. This does not necessarily mean that such a right does not enjoy constitutional protection. The absence of a textual reference to the right is one thing, but the interpretation of that text in relation to the right is something else. The French Constitutional Council, for instance, confirmed that the implementation of the right to housing “enjoys constitutional stature”, without the French Constitution explicitly specifying respect for this right.
As for the Lebanese Constitution, those who are challenging the constitutionality of the rent law have put forth very interesting arguments for establishing the constitutional character of the right to housing. In the first place, they cite international charters, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which the Lebanese Constitution obligates Lebanon to abide by it in section (b) of its preamble), as guaranteeing this right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates the right of “every person to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing...and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights specifies that “States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and shelter...States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right”.
In the second place -and herein lies the essential significance of the challenge- those challenging the law are focusing on the texts of the preamble of the Constitution to support their arguments, starting with sections (c) and (i). The first section affirms that “Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic based on respect for public liberties, especially the freedom of opinion and belief, and respect for social justice”. The second states that “Lebanese territory is one for all Lebanese. Every Lebanese shall have the right to live in any part thereof and to enjoy the rule of law wherever he resides. There shall be no segregation of the people on the basis of any type of belonging, and no fragmentation, partition, or settlement of non-Lebanese [persons] in Lebanon”.
Given that the Lebanese Constitution explicitly specifies that “the economic system is free and ensures private initiative and the right of private property” (section (f) of the preamble to the Constitution), calling on the Constitutional Council to nullify the rent law by relying on these texts is noteworthy for deeming “social justice” of constitutional stature and the object of legislative activity. In return for upholding freedoms of contracts, property, and the exchange of capital, there must also be an emphasis on the need to respect the requirements of social peace. The rule of capital and of the markets has limits, and those limits are drawn by human dignity.
The challenge to the law also calls for an interesting reading of section (i) of the Constitution’s preamble. This section, as we have mentioned, affirms the right of every Lebanese person to reside wherever they wish within Lebanese territory. This text, along with other sections of the preamble, was added after the end of the [Lebanese] Civil War, and its chief and clear aim is to prevent segregation of people along sectarian lines. This is evident from the paragraph that ends with a text forbidding any “segregation of the people on the basis of any type of belonging”, and rejects “fragmentation,” “partition,” and “settlement”.
The text also allows for a reading beyond its primary intended meaning of rejecting residential segregation on a sectarian basis to include segregation on social and economic bases as well. While the citizen does belong to a particular sect, they also constitute a member of a given social class, and is subject to the necessities of life and those of their religious beliefs, such as professional activities and financial resources. The challenge put forward to the Constitutional Council presents a historical opportunity to enshrine a renewed institutional vision of the Lebanese citizen that resembles the reality of their daily life, moving beyond sectarian affiliation. It is therefore possible, through a bold reading of constitutional articles, for the Constitutional Council to enshrine the right to housing as a principle that enjoys constitutional stature.
What are the consequences of enshrining this right when it comes to the rent law? Does it follow that a consideration of the right to housing as a constitutional right necessitates the nullification of the rent law on the basis that it is unconstitutional? The challengers’ response is yes. They consider that incumbent increases of rents through the freeing of contracts, as specified in the rent law, would make it impossible for tenants to remain in their homes, and that given current prices in the rental market, it would also make it extremely difficult for them to find other housing.
This response prompts a number of observations. The goal of the increases in old rent rates is that they be equal to current market prices. On that basis, the challenge to this increase in rates simultaneously represents an appeal to establish rent rates that are applied to all citizens. It is not legally sound for the legislature to maintain previous rates of rent increases, linked to the minimum wage and the cost of living when it comes to old rents, while at the same time other rent contracts are subject to established free market prices.
This logic contradicts the principle of equality, because it leads to the division of citizens into two camps: old renters who benefit from moderate housing rates, and new renters who are burdened with exorbitant rates. The only way out of this framework lies in a reconsideration of all rent laws, in order to set a legal ceiling that rent rates cannot exceed, regardless of the date the rent contract was concluded.
Moreover, establishing the right to housing does not grant any citizen who is unable to find suitable housing the right to resort to the state insurance mechanism to secure appropriate housing. This is not the primary task of the public sector, nor is the budget of any state in the world capable of bearing such a burden, either on a material or a logistical level.
The right to housing represents a guarantee in cases of the greatest need. In France, a law passed on March 5, 2007 restricted the potential benefits of the right to housing to certain citizens and not others, taking into consideration their health, social, or economic status. It follows that if the Lebanese Constitutional Council enshrined the right to housing, it would be necessary for the legislature to limit exemptions from planned rent increases to certain older renters who would be threatened with homelessness - as it would be the responsibility of the public sector to deal with the consequences of such exemptions, whether they affected renters or owners.
However, the establishment of the right to housing has consequences that reach far beyond the rent law. The Constitutional Council’s enshrining of this right will compel the legislature to rely upon a new approach when enacting any law that touches upon citizens’ housing. Members of Parliament must now consider the needs and capabilities of citizens, instead of being blindly subject to the dictates of supply and demand. Housing is not just a commodity. It is a personal need, and a family shelter. Its protection constitutes the binding force of social life.
 The law was published in the Official Gazette on May 8, 2014 .
 See: Adeeb Zakhour’s, “A Lawyer’s Case Against the New Rent Law: Unlawful and Unconstitutional”, published in The Legal Agenda. French Constitutional Council, ruling issued on January 19, 1995, No. 359-95: Le Droit au Logement est “Un Objectif à Valeur Constitutionnelle”.