Rents spike in Tunisia’s south as displaced Libyans boost demand

Classified ads for property rentals and sales in Tunisia in two newspapers, July 27, 2019. Photo by Fadil Aliriza

This summer, the regions near Tunisia’s border with Libya have witnessed a significant rise in rental prices for housing. Contributing to this is the influx of a large number of Libyans escaping the fighting between the forces led by General Khalifa Hafter and the forces affiliated with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

Three people renting in Tunisia told Meshkal that the record turnout of Libyans in Tunisian cities since the fighting intensified in recent months has contributed to an unprecedented imbalance between supply and demand, leading to a rise in housing rental prices.

One freelance real estate broker, Sami al-Ragui’i, who lives in the border town of Ben Guerdane, told Meshkal that finding a vacant house for rent in recent months has been like searching for a needle in a haystack and that this shortage has made prices rise significantly.

While rental prices typically increase during the summer months due to tourism, this normal trend has been exacerbated by Libyans seeking refuge from the fighting that began in early April when forces loyal to Khalifa Hafter marched on Tripoli from their base in eastern Libya.

Al-Ragui’i pointed out that many of the displaced people are coming primarily for healthcare after they or their family members sustained injuries in the clashes. The broker notes that the kind of housing these renters seek often depends on the kind of health treatment they are receiving. Eighty percent of al-Ragui’i’s clients are Libyans, he says, and many of them seek his services because of the extensive network of contacts he’s built since he began working in the sector five years ago.

There is no law that sets ceiling prices for housing rents in Tunisia. This allows those renting properties to take advantage of the desperate needs of those arriving from a warzone.

One young Libyan man, Jalal al-Fakhri, said price quotes for rents rise suddenly when the client is Libyan, noting that he has had to haggle with intermediaries and homeowners when conditions in Libya forced him to extend his stay in Tunisia.

Al-Fakhri added that the lack of currency liquidity in Libyan banks has squeezed ordinary people who need to go to Tunisia for treatment despite high rental rates.

Al-Fakhri, who is from Sirte, stressed that he has regularly turned to real estate brokers to find housing as his father’s health issues have forced the family to move between different Tunisian clinics in different cities.

Experts believe there are several factors other than the recent fighting contributing to high demand for housing in Tunisia among Libyans.

“Amendments made by Tunisia [regulating] house ownership have allowed significant numbers of Libyans to settle in [Tunisia],” said Houssine Dimassi, an economist and Tunisia’s former finance minister.

Tunisia issued a decree in September 2018 granting Libyans the right to purchase real estate without having to get approval from the local governor’s office. This right is limited by certain restrictions, such as that the property does not include agricultural-related areas and provided the purchase is made in foreign currency.

“The shared cultural traditions of the two countries means Tunisian people are used to Libyan migration in the current circumstances, and armed clashes have contributed to an increase in the displacement to Tunisia,” Dimassi told Meshkal.

Wissem Ghorbel, a former civil servant at the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment and current executive director of Numu Consulting, thinks the increase in rents is a temporary phenomenon because Libyans will not be able to continue spending at current rates for housing in Tunisia.

The “financial crisis that Libyan citizens have suffered…has seen their [average] annual income fall to $5000 [US dollars] a year,” Ghorbel said.

According to Ghorbel, the fact that Libyans do not have the same spending power as before should put a ceiling on how long prices can continue increasing.

“Libyans are suffering from hard livelihood conditions that have affected their ability to spend, in contrast to the situation during the early years of the revolution. This reduces the possibility of rents soaring for an extended period,” Ghorbel told Meshkal.

Tunisian authorities do not require entry visas for Libyans, and many Libyans came to Tunisia during the armed conflict in 2011. This made Tunisia the closest destination for both health and tourism visits.

The influx of Libyans into Tunisia stimulates significant economic activity in various sectors. According to official data from 2017, about 380 thousand foreign patients are treated annually in Tunisian healthcare institutions. Of these, 320 thousand are Libyan patients.