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Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem
Housing policy
By JPOST EDITORIAL
04/12/2013
The housing protests two years ago were supposed to bring this issue to the forefront.
 
The roads leading to the Knesset yesterday were the scene of unfortunate clashes between police and around 100 Ethiopian Jewish protesters. Demonstrators banged on metal containers and blocked several streets, leading to police dispersing them with horses and water cannons.

Nine protesters were arrested and two police officers lightly injured, even though the demonstration had been coordinated in advance.

Protesters claim that the housing provided them upon immigration has been inadequate, and that they have no solution for better accommodations, despite government promises. They maintain that thousands are trapped in cycles of poverty in absorption centers, housed in cramped conditions with little hope of moving on.

With more Ethiopians arriving as the Immigrant Absorption Ministry seeks to wrap up the final phase of Ethiopian aliya, there is pressure to move those living in the absorption centers out. In 2012, according to the government data, 2,492 olim came from Ethiopia; as we approach the end of 2013, 1,378 have come.

The ministry, in partnership with the Jewish Agency, runs 17 absorption centers across Israel that house Ethiopians.

In August, Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who has passionately supported Ethiopian aliya over the years, stressed: “We will work tirelessly to make sure these new immigrants receive the loan and mortgage benefits to which they are entitled.”

Yet Ethiopians remain poverty-stricken: Around 52 percent live below the poverty line, compared to 16% of the general population; and they are underemployed, at 65% vs. 74% among the wider Jewish population.

The protesters complain that because of the low-paying jobs where they are housed, they cannot afford to move into new apartments or purchase accommodations for their families, especially with housing prices in Israel at an all-time high. In response, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry released a statement that claimed olim receive many benefits and various types of unspecified aid at the absorption centers, including programs for those seeking work and education. “They receive grants for housing for families.

This depends on the number of people in the family and the year of immigration, and ranges from NIS 300,000 to NIS 700,000. Single individuals can receive rent subsidies of 1,500 NIS per month for five years, or NIS 90,000 in total; they also receive loans with special conditions.”

But the immigrants argue that these grants and loans are not enough. In places like Mevaseret Zion, where there is an absorption center, most housing prices start at NIS 1 million.

With many of them making minimum wage or just above it, this puts housing beyond their grasp.

This raises several important issues. First, it is important to address the way the protest was handled by the police.

Other housing protests, such as the famous 2011 social justice protests in Tel Aviv, were rarely met with the level of police dispersal methods used near the Knesset. Using horses to disperse poor Jewish immigrants seems excessive.

This leads to the second issue: that the Ethiopian immigrants who were protesting Tuesday should not make this an Ethiopian issue. Everyone in Israel is suffering from high housing prices, which put owning a home out of reach for many young people and those from the middle and lower class. In 2013, the median price of a new home has risen to NIS 1.38 million. Data shows that it takes 130 salaries to purchase a home, but this figure is misleading; a person making the median wage of around NIS 6,200 a month will never be able to purchase a home, because they must put down around 30%-40% of the price (NIS 300,000-NIS 400,000).

The vast majority of Israelis simply cannot save enough.

The housing protests two years ago were supposed to bring this issue to the forefront. Ironically two of the leading activists in that protest are today in the Knesset, yet the government has not put forward clear proposals for solving the crisis.

Government assistance to new immigrants is a good thing, but it alone is not enough to solve the problem that affects almost everyone. Housing aid is often hard to obtain, and doesn’t seem to actually meet the needs of those buying a home – either because banks do not provide loans once the immigrants receive the grants, or for other reasons.

The root of the problem is affordable housing itself. Israel’s government, in partnership with the business sector, must provide solutions, either via wage increases or housing price reductions – which will provide olim with a chance to find a footing in their country, and others to see a dignified future for themselves and their children.
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