10 Nabrawy Street, in danger again, points to web of interests behind demolitions

The partial collapse of 10 Nabrawy Street and the ensuing struggle between tenants and the West Cairo district in April caused an outcry because it houses the headquarters of Townhouse, an internationally reputed contemporary art space, among its tenants.

This is arguably what has so far saved the building from swift demolition, but now the owner of the building is appealing the decision to restore it.

The ongoing battle for the building is the tip of an iceberg that points to the hundreds of collapses and demolitions each year, including many dilapidated buildings of historical value like the Nabrawy building, which is estimated to date back to 1900. It is also indicative of the agendas, laws and corrupt practices that cause this state of affairs.

Between July 2012 and June 2013, 392 building collapses in Egypt were reported in newspapers, according to a study in the form of a visual website by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the well-respected blog Shadow Ministry of Housing. They left 192 dead, 379 injured and 824 families homeless in a year where there were no major natural disasters. Of these cases, 112 were a direct result of old buildings being left unmaintained for decades.

The 10 Nabrawy Street case

The reason for the collapse of 10 Nabrawy Street’s southwest corner on April 6 is said to be long-term accumulated water damage in one apartment, exacerbated by 5 tons of cement and steel being brought in recently for some construction work in another flat on the third floor. The corner, its walls made of stone and wood like the rest of the building, collapsed as one block.

On April 9, police announced they would begin demolishing the entire building the next day, but refused to show a demolition order. Instead, police, security forces and laborers were sent in to begin a demolition without the required legal procedures.

Tenants reached out to Soheir Hawwas, former director of the governmental National Organization for Urban Harmony (which lists heritage buildings in order to protect them) and current consultant to Cairo’s governor on heritage buildings. Their efforts led to a visit by Cairo Deputy Governor Amin Abdel-Tawab on April 10. He promised that there would be no demolition until a specialized committee assessed the building.

But on April 11, laborers protected by police and armed Central Security Forces personnel started to remove windows and destroy tiled floors to initiate the demolition, though by now the tenants had paperwork halting demolition work until the inspection.

When a specialized committee made of a judge, two syndicated engineers and a district representative did come to the site on April 13, it declared the building safe and approved its restoration. Police and laborers left, having caused significant damage.

Riham Samir, lawyer for the building’s absentee landlord, Kamilia Saleh, points out that this was illegal. The district was obliged to give the owner’s lawyer an official demolition order, which she would have had the right to appeal within 15 days. She says the district and governorate sent her from one office to another, refusing to give her any official documents.

“I wrote an appeal and sent it to them at the district with the post,” she tells Mada Masr. “The postman came back and requested I specify which floor. How is that possible? It’s meant to be delivered to the office of the district head [Yassin Salah Eddin Gamil]. I’m not sending it to his house.”

At the time, Samir claimed that Saleh was not interested in demolishing the building to sell the land. Due to her advanced age, Samir said, it is easiest for Saleh to live off rents paid by Townhouse, who rent four apartments under new rent laws, and another new-law tenant living on the rooftop.

But the rest of the building is let on old rent contracts — three residential flats, two basement flats used for storage, and 11 workshops for mechanics, car-part shops and a carpenter. The old rent laws control rent at the market rate of the time a contract is signed (sometimes as low as LE3 per month) and allow for contracts to be inherited – more on these below.

After the committee declared that 10 Nabrawy Street was safe, Saleh appealed the decision. It became clear that she wanted to demolish the building and had made several failed attempts to do so between 1981 and 1990. Mada Masr has seen official correspondence from 1990 between Saleh’s lawyer at the time and the West Cairo district head, stating the building was at risk of collapse. It refers to various demolition attempts by the owner.

Saleh’s appeal was followed by a counter-appeal from the tenants at the beginning of June, according to Mido Sadek, a former Townhouse employee and a member of the volunteer group supporting tenants in their bid to save the building.

Who can demolish?

Yehia Shawkat, who runs the Shadow Ministry of Housing blog and worked on the building collapses study, explains that to renovate a building, the owner must get a permit from the governorate. Tenants, however, only have power to file a complaint if the owner is not taking action.

He says owners often don’t have enough money to renovate — partly due to old rent laws — but that in many cases renters do. Yet owners, eager to bring an end to old rent contracts, generally prefer to let the building wear itself out — or are even proactive in bringing about its destruction.

“It’s a vicious circle,” Shawkat tells Mada Masr. “But the mechanism to distribute responsibility and stop the phenomenon of building collapses needs more than we can see today. The governorate is responsible for the buildings, so it’s the place you need to go to if a building is in threat of collapse or if you need to renovate. You can’t renovate a building without the governorate’s permit.”

Shawkat explains that both the district and the governorate can issue demolition decrees, but either way they must be authorized by the governor, since the governorate’s jurisdiction is higher than the districts’.

In the case of 10 Nabrawy Street, it is still not clear whether the order to demolish came from the West Cairo district or the Cairo Governorate.

“It opens the question of how many buildings were demolished without the proper inspection and paperwork,” Shawkat says. “What kind of corruption exists, and what are the motives and interests that drive the district to bring the CSF to demolish a building without official papers?”

“What’s clear from the news reports we’re seeing is that many of the district’s staff are corrupt and receive bribes to issue demolition decrees,” he says, adding that often tenants with lower-income backgrounds would rather stay in an unstable building than be homeless — as is the case with 10 Nabrawy Street.

Putting doubts of corruption aside, Townhouse outreach manager Yasser Gerab thinks the district’s rash actions were due to incompetence rather than a sinister agenda. “I see a trend in all state institutions: They are being cautious and at the same time rushing, which creates confusion,” he says. “So to take the responsibility of the rest of the building collapsing off their shoulders, they took the quick decision to demolish.”

The problem with old rent laws

“When you take away owners’ rights to their own properties and their income is slim, then they won’t renovate,” argues Amr Hegazy, head of the Association for the Rights of People Negatively Affected by the Old Rent Law, which was established in 2006 to find collective solutions to abolish old rent laws. “So then you see a series of collapses.”

Hegazy says the continued existence of the old rent law is due to government and parliamentary corruption.

“These laws are exceptional laws,” he argues. “They are supposed to be for certain cases and not prolonged for more than three years at a time.”

According to Hegazy, several temporary rent control laws were used for short periods of time — up to three years — in difficult economic situations during the first and second world wars. During former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, due to the limits of the real estate market and the war-impacted economy, these laws endured. The state also took measures to reduce rents and cap any increases, according to Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Controlby David Sims (2012).

Law 49 for the year 1977 and law 136 for the year 1981, which control rent at market rates of the time the contract is made and allow for inheriting contracts, were based on these exceptional laws, Hegazy says. In 1996, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled these laws unconstitutional, which should have canceled both of them. At that point, however, the state just introduced the new rent law, which brought rent to market rates with fixed-term contracts, and brought these old laws into the general order, meaning they can only be changed by Parliament. It did not cancel the old rent laws, but amended them so that contracts could only be passed down once to the next of kin, rather than several times and to anyone living with the deceased tenant.

Hegazy believes this is where corruption is evident. “The parliamentarians were either renters or had family members who were renters. They were the beneficiaries,” Hegazy says. “In most of the committees formed in Parliament to deal with the issues, there are beneficiaries, and a beneficiary cannot be a judge.”

Shawkat agrees that well-connected people halt reform, because many powerful lawyers, companies, doctors’ clinics, shops, pharmacies and even government departments rent under old rent contracts.

But many beneficiaries of these laws are not financially well off. For the millions living in poverty in Egypt, the prices of new rent contracts or ownership are not an option. “It’s not the poor people who are keeping old rent,” Shakwat adds. “The state is not protecting the poor, it’s adhering to this lobby.”

Hegazy’s association is presenting a draft reform law to the current Parliament in hopes of finding a solution. The first recommendation is to give businesses and commercial spaces one year to update their contracts to rent at market prices or vacate. In the case of 10 Nabrawy Street, this would mean the 12 groundfloor workshops that house mechanics, carpenters, upholsterers and craftspeople who have been there for half a century or more under old rent laws. They are tiny, often struggling businesses that would not be able to pay standard rent.

For residential units, longer periods to vacate are suggested according to the date of the property’s rent and an incremental annual increase. The proposed law also suggests that tenants with other residences or adequate salaries or fortunes would be required to pay the rent’s worth or vacate straight away, and that low-income tenants would qualify for governmental housing support.

According to an article published in April by privately owned Al-Bursa newspaper, the Ministry of Housing is studying the proposal and will recommend  gradual rent increases according to unit size, but the financial situations of residential tenants will be taken into consideration. It does not say whether the government plans to step in to pay the difference in rent or provide alternative housing.

Gentrification and 10 Nabrawy Street

In an interview in 2012 on ONTV with Hegazy and Hamdy Abdel Rahman, a law professor at Ain Shams University, the professor states that the proposal from Hegazy’s association is “a little idealistic” and that it would be almost impossible to establish who is financially able and unable to meet new rent values.

Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment is a company that buys up buildings in downtown Cairo with the aim of refurbishing and renting them out at higher rates. A consortium of Egyptian and Saudi investors whose portfolio of buildings plays an important part in the government’s controversial urban development plan Cairo 2050, it owns the Townhouse’s Factory space across the street from the Nabrawy building and last year bought out and closed Takayeeba, the café next door.

Ismaelia is not pushing for reforming rent laws. According to CEO Karim Shafei, they operate on the basis that these laws will endure and seek to profit from spaces already vacant in their downtown buildings. He says he can’t think of a way to increase income from residential units under the old rent law, and that the commercial units baffle him.

Shafei says the company, alongside architect Omar Nagati of CLUSTER, helped the tenants at 10 Nabrawy Street reach out to Soheir Hawwas.

“We’ve worked with the people to save the building and we’ve put our money where our mouth is as far as restoring buildings in general,” he tells Mada Masr. “So far, Ismaelia is not buying buildings that are collapsing or buildings with structural problems. We’ve bought 20-something buildings over the past eight years. We have consistently bought structurally sound buildings to restore them. We see the real value is in maintaining the old buildings and refitting them for use.”

Yet Shafei argues that a business that can’t sustain itself at market prices should close. “The government is losing on real estate tax since the old rent law is exempt from this tax,” he says. “Also, commercial activity that is not making much profit can’t be taxed. It’s also not fair, because new ventures have to pay more for rent than old ones that are more established and can probably afford it better.”

But Shawkat explains that the socio-economic spectrum of renters with old contracts is wide, and this creates an interclass mix in many neighborhoods. If old rent laws cease to exist, he says we will see gentrification in many areas such as downtown, Garden City, Zamalek and Mohandiseen.

This certainly seems to be the case around 10 Nabrawy Street.

The estimated cost of renovating the building is between LE500,000 and LE1 million, and restoration will take three months to a year and a half, according to Gerab. The situation is challenging because 28 tenants, he says, must divide the cost and tasks among them. Alongside volunteers, they are trying to raise the money while also waiting to see if the owner’s appeal will be considered. For now, the building is vacant and supported by external wooden structures. Meanwhile, Townhouse is operating from the Factory space and plans to restart its public downtown activities in the fall.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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