For around three months, Ahmad has spent two hours each day looking for a house or room to rent in almost every neighbourhood of the Syrian capital Damascus. It seems like “mission impossible.”
From the city’s east to its west, Ahmad, who works in a private sector company, has checked dozens of houses, but none of them are suitable for him. They are too small, too old, or too expensive. He needs to move to a new place, as the owner of his current apartment wants to sell it.
“Real estate brokers are offering me very bad choices, saying they are the only available ones, as the city it too crowded now,” the 33-year-old said, describing those choices as a very small room with no windows at all, a basement with very unhealthy conditions, a house that is still under construction and needs windows and doors, and a very distant room that requires no less than 30 minutes walking, as it is located in a mountainous area.
The other problem Ahmad mentioned is the very high prices of those uninhabitable places. There is no way to find a room to rent for less than SYP 50,000 (around $75) per month. In a country where the average monthly salary does not exceed $200, the equation seems infuriating.
During the eight years of conflict that Syria has been living since 2011, many parts of Damascus and its suburbs have stayed, to some extent, far from the violent incidents that other areas of the country have experienced. As a result, hundreds of thousands of families displaced from other cities and towns travelled to Damascus looking for a safer place to stay. Some official figures estimate that the number of Damascus residents has increased from around five million to eight million, and one of the main dilemmas for this influx has been housing.
Year after year, families and persons coming to Damascus, either fleeing the war or looking for a job or better education, started to encounter a real problem while searching for a house to rent. In the past two or three years, the situation became “intolerable,” according to Souha from the city Aleppo.
The 35-year-old woman relocated to Damascus three years ago with her two children, fleeing the intense battles in her home city after her husband passed away. They stayed for few months with some relatives and then moved to a small apartment in Dayhet Qudsaya, a suburb to the west of Damascus.
Five months ago, the owner of her home wanted to raise the rent from SYP 60,000 to SYP 100,000. This is when Souha started to search for another place. “Wherever we try to look, we get the same answer: “sorry, no places for rent, the area is full, and you need to go to another neighbourhood.”
She described feeling completely helpless due to her situation over the past few months. Some houses could be found, but for very high rents that can reach $300 or even $500, which is an unrealistic solution for Souha, who works in a clothes shop in the centre of Damascus and is the sole person responsible for her family.
Hundreds of families are experiencing the same problem due to the continuous drop in value of the Syrian pound against the dollar and the rising prices of almost everything in the country. It now takes SYP 680 to equal a dollar, compared to SYP 500 last year and SYP 50 in 2011.
The final resort for Souha would be to move back to Aleppo, rehabilitate the family house that is damaged from mortar bombs, and try to find a new job there. “At least we won’t be forced to spend days and nights searching for a roof to shield us,” she added with dismay.
Even if someone is lucky and able to find a good place to rent in Damascus, whether a healthy house with some basic furniture or a small room in a central neighbourhood, other types of problems could still be faced.
For example, the majority of rental owners want an advance payment of at least six months, and sometimes even a whole year. This places an additional burden on the tenants, who need to secure a huge amount of money that they do not necessarily possess. Yet another burden could be faced if the owner asks for the payment in US dollars, which happens sometimes due to the continuously changing exchange rate for the Syrian pound, even though dealing with any foreign currency is totally prohibited in Syria.
Apart from the high prices and poor conditions of the houses, some owners do not accept families with children, while others want only girls or married couples and do not lease to single young men. All of this makes it harder and harder each day to find a place in the war torn country’s biggest city.
“There are a lot of rules and at the same time there are no rules at all, and no surveillance from any public authority on the housing sector that needs strict control” is a phrase that can be heard all around the city from thousands of families who are searching daily for a very basic right: a decent and proper place to live in.