An entire city block stands hollow, its Jerusalem stone architecture crumbling
from disuse and abandonment.
The shuttered storefronts and cracked
concrete balconies overshadow the commuters hustling and bustling outside the
central bus station.
Across town, in a neighborhood where three or
four-story family homes fetch asking prices of nearly $1 million, the problem
reemerges. A walk down Ibn Gvirol Street in the tree-lined Rehavia area reveals
a row of Bauhaus-designed homes falling apart from disuse.
Jerusalem, abandoned buildings dot the landscape, creating eyesores and
blighting neighborhoods. In the city center alone, a number of prominent
buildings appear deserted – from the padlocked Solel Boneh building on King
George Avenue to the deserted Etz Haim Yeshiva next to the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk,
and the towering Eden Cinema on Agrippas Street.
According to Hitorerut
B’yerushalayim (Jerusalem Awakening), a secular advocacy group represented on
the city council, the city center-Rehavia neighborhoods host an estimated 60
abandoned houses and buildings. Across the capital, at least 1,000 unoccupied
structures mar the cityscape.
In these high-demand areas, young and
lower-income residents are often priced out of the neighborhood, says Merav
Cohen, a city councilwoman for Hitorerut. The vacant and abandoned buildings
reduce the number of available apartments on the market, exacerbating the
problem of housing scarcity and driving up housing costs across the
“It’s a part of the affordable housing problem and a big loss for
the city,” she says.
According to her fellow activist and husband, Yuval
Admon, the problem is twofold, as abandoned buildings account for 2 percent of
the housing stock in Jerusalem. This, in conjunction with ghost apartments – or
residences owned by foreigners who do not reside there full time – exacerbates
“A lot of [these empty houses] are in the center –
Rehavia, Nahlaot – areas of high demand,” affirms Admon. “And a couple of
thousand people could live in these apartments.”
AFTER LAST summer’s
social-justice movement – when hundreds of Jerusalemites occupied deserted
buildings – activists forced the issue back on the legislative agenda. In March,
the cabinet approved the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations that would double
property tax on abandoned properties, and last fall, the Jerusalem
city council also voted to double the arnona on “ghost housing.”
remains unclear how the municipality and national government would find out
which properties are abandoned or vacant, identify the elusive owner and then
enforce the doubled arnona. At the same time, some real-estate brokers and
activists doubt that doubling the arnona is a panacea for the shortage in
available housing stock.
“Raising the arnona won’t stop the flow of empty
apartments,” says real-estate agent Shelly Levine of Tivuch Shelly, as “some
owners have more than enough money to keep a place vacant.”
expresses skepticism that doubling the arnona will lead to revitalizing
abandoned, as opposed to unoccupied, property.
Other brokers fault the
government for curbing ghost housing without tackling more systemic
“The doubled arnona will definitely decrease foreign interest
in the city, which is very expensive anyway,” says broker Benita Raphaely of
Optimum Real Estate, adding that the tax hike would not resolve the underlying
issue of affordable housing.
“But if they want to stop foreign buyers in
the capital, this is a way to do it,” she says.
The proposed changes
stipulate that owners of abandoned or vacant properties are exempt for six
months from paying arnona, with a three-month grace period.
municipalities can charge double the tax rate.
The Knesset must approve
the full report before the doubled arnona takes effect.
optimistic that the legislation will pass in the near future.
pretty likely that the Knesset will try to pass the bill in 2012,” he
According to Cohen, the municipality has limited tools at its
disposal to identify abandoned and unoccupied housing. For example, a local
government may rely on water consumption metrics to identify a vacant residence,
an often unreliable metric due to aging pipes and leaky faucets.
met with the city’s municipal director- general, Yossi Heiman, to investigate
and compile data on the problem. Heiman researched the issue by coordinating
with the tax division and seeing which residences did not submit property taxes.
According to the unofficial audit, an estimated 1,500 houses were deemed
“The [arnona] department could see in the past few years who
hadn’t paid local property taxes, including in east Jerusalem,” Cohen says. “We
realized that the government should change the law so only owners who are
rebuilding won’t pay arnona.”
Two main obstacles stand in the way of
rehabilitating and reusing abandoned property in Jerusalem: tax exemptions and
municipal ordinances. On the municipal level, Cohen has pushed city officials
and Mayor Nir Barkat to address the problem by enforcing preexisting ordinances
and compiling official data.
“There’s a local law that forces people to
maintain their yards, and usually the municipality doesn’t enforce that,” she
“But in this case, they can make sure the property owner cleans and
renovates around their house.”
TITLE-HOLDERS IN the city possess many
incentives and few financial consequences for abandoning properties. In the
country today, the owner of an abandoned home is exempt from
Without direct financial penalties, the proprietor has no
pressing motive to rebuild, often allowing him to dawdle for years.
you don’t have to pay the arnona, or make part of the payment, you can earn
money from land appreciation,” says Uri Aven-Haim, an architecture graduate
student at Bezalel.
“Everyone knows that property and land are one of the
best investments, and it’s a good pay-off even if you’re not using
Disputed ownership among legal heirs also plays a role in hampering
the redevelopment of abandoned property.
“When a building is inherited by
a number of siblings, then it has multiple owners,” Admon explains. “Sometimes
the family isn’t able to decide what to do with the building,” allowing the
property to fall into disuse and disrepair.
In a separate scenario, the
deed holder may want to increase the floor height and add to the house’s
property value. “He says, ‘Okay, I’ll wait until the municipality approves my
building,’” Admon says.
Historical preservation and municipal ordinances
may also interfere with the rehabilitation of certain unused properties, and
owners are unwilling to jump through various legal and financial hoops. “A lot
of people just want to make more money out of the building, and they don’t have
any incentive to rebuild,” he says.
Admon – who wrote his graduate thesis
on the abandoned housing phenomena in Jerusalem – compares how other
municipalities and cities respond to the issue. In Boston, the deed owner of an
abandoned property is subject to back taxes and fees. If he continues to neglect
the property, the city has legal tools at its disposal.
“If a building
owner refuses to rebuild or renovate, even after having to pay fines and double
taxes, in Boston today the municipality can actually take the building and
compensate [the owner],” Admon said, advocating that Jerusalem adopt a similar
mechanism of eminent domain.
IN RESPONSE to urban decay in the capital’s
center, activists from Hitorerut have turned to social media to galvanize the
Aven-Haim took an academic interest in the structural
design of abandoned buildings, and that curiosity metamorphosed into social
“As a student, I always liked finding new places with unique
architecture,” he says, adding that in his strolls downtown, he recognized the
scope of the problem.
Last November, he, Cohen and Admon organized a
walking tour of abandoned downtown homes to raise public awareness.
event stemmed from frustration that the problem was affecting civic
“My feeling is that in the city center, it’s supposed to be alive
and vital. Yet we felt that something was wrong, that there’s so much abandoned
housing,” Aven-Haim says.
From empirical data indicating that the
phenomenon was more widespread than commonly assumed, Aven-Haim compiled a list
of abandoned houses in Jerusalem. But rather than engage in a cumbersome
top-down effort, he decided to outsource the project to the
That’s when he came up with the idea of using Google Maps to
document and describe each abandoned property in the city.
people to view the houses and understand the problem,” he says, adding that he
thought the public didn’t grasp the sheer number of abandoned properties. “The
main issue is about the attitude – one that allows abandoned housing when there
aren’t enough places for people to live.”
He created the Google Maps
group “Abandoned Houses in Jerusalem,” where city residents can photograph and
upload information on abandoned property in their neighborhood. The page offers
information on over 100 abandoned buildings scattered across the
IN CONTRAST to many similar-sized European cities, Jerusalem
possesses a disproportionate level of abandoned housing in its downtown areas.
In Western Europe, the central government prioritizes and invests in downtown
infrastructure projects and housing density, as opposed to the Israeli-American
planning model of sprawl and suburbanization.
The problem of abandoned
housing in Israel is most acute in the capital, says Admon, as many former
residents have relocated from downtown to more outlying areas.
is one of the cities with the most abandoned [buildings] because of the age of
the city and its neighborhoods, and also because of the mass demographic move to
the suburbs in the past 20 to 30 years,” he says.
Similar to a number of
American cities undergoing deindustrialization in the 1970s and ’80s, Jerusalem
has seen a decline in the prosperity of its city center.
A 2011 study by
the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies states that “Jerusalem has been on the
wane for a generation,” and urges policymakers to invest and redevelop in the
downtown area. “Jerusalem’s troubled state can be seen with particular clarity
in the decay that has come to characterize the city center,” the report
Despite the lingering problem, the Hitorerut activists sound
pleased with the recent developments, adding that the Trajtenberg
recommendations are due to years of relentless advocacy.
maintain that much work lies ahead, including the refurbishment and
redevelopment of some of the most blighted properties.
“When we came to
city hall, nobody there was thinking of the problem,” Aven-Haim
Cohen concurs, noting that while the municipality has addressed the
issue of ghost apartments, abandoned houses were not on the official
“The problem they didn’t talk about at all was abandoned houses,”
she says. “Only because of the work we did, the municipality has finally paid