Reem is a cleaning lady and a mother of four. She has been married twice though neither ex-husband supports his children financially or otherwise. Reem is on her own raising her children.
Reem is among the working poor. Although she works full time, she barely meets basic needs. All four of her children show signs of malnutrition, both chronic and acute. Now and throughout their lifetimes an adequate amount and variety of food have been unavailable to these children.
Among Reem’s larger and more daunting monthly expenses is rent. Although she is precisely the type of Egyptian that would greatly benefit from affordable housing that would allow her to better meet her family’s basic needs, it is not available to her. Instead, Reem pays “new rent”, and as a result her children’s health and education are relegated as lower prioritises.
Reem wishes she could pay “old rent”. These are prices from many decades ago through laws such as Law 49/1977, which froze rental values and forced the renewal of rental contracts between a tenant and a landlord, with the ability to continue to rent a flat at the fixed low rate passed down to family members in residence. Although subsequent laws have changed the nature of the tenant-landlord relationship, many properties remain governed by the old laws.
This is an old debate in Egypt with familiar arguments and perspectives.
The landlord: In essence tenants assume quasi-ownership of the property without according responsibilities, which is an unjust and uncompensated transfer of property. Landlords argue it is the state’s and not their responsibility to subsidise housing for the needy.
Stories about landlords and their immediate families’ financial struggles or difficulties finding affordable housing are used in the lobbying efforts to encourage a major policy change on the issue.
The old rent tenant: Tenants, while enjoying the privilege of paying very low monthly rental fees (as low as EGP 6 or less than $1 in some cases), often live in unmaintained or poorly maintained buildings. Buildings badly deteriorate, sometimes in violation of the law.
The tales of old ladies living on EGP 100 monthly pensions or poorly paid state workers struggling to survive or educate their children is used to keep the issue emotionally charged and ward off any major policy reform.
Unfortunately the debate about the old rents – a very social, economic and political issue in Egypt – ends up being not unlike many other debates – void of much facts or data, and at times emotionally manipulative, painting a picture of the most neediest of our fellow citizens as the reason to hold back a reform that might be better designed in the better interest of everyone. This is true not only in the old rents debate, but also for other important and economically costly policies like the current food subsidy scheme.
More unfortunate is the impact on those citizens really in need for which potentially life-improving and appropriate policy changes never occur because the dialogue around the issue is obfuscated. When examining the most fundamental problems that constrain human, social and economic development in our society, we rely heavily on the emotional response of the images painted for us about the poor and their needs rather than the types of information we need to make better decisions.
Consider old rent tenants that have summer flats or villas in places like Ain Sokhna or on the northern Mediterranean Sea coast. Or perhaps an old rent tenant that pays EGP 20 in monthly rent while owning three grocery stores. Should they still be allowed to pay pennies to live in a large flat while Reem and others like her barely survive? Does that seem fair to the landlord? How many affluent or financially comfortable families are old rent tenants while Reem struggles?
When we consider the implications of changing the old rent system – do we know this sort of information? Is it part of the debate? As a society, we have many very difficult social, political and economic issues ahead of us that require dire attention. For how many of these issues do have the information we need as citizens to have informed opinions? Or are we just told the stories of the little old ladies that are barely surviving for which a change in the old system would be devastating. I always hope for the Reems of Egypt that things change.