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Photo by: Courtesy Israel Solar Decathlon team
Think about it: It is time for a comprehensive housing plan
By SUSAN HATTIS ROLEF
08/12/2013
In short, Israel has an overall housing problem, which is not being confronted comprehensively.
 
In the first broadcast of her new investigative program on TV Channel 2, Miki Haimovich chose to deal with the housing problem in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector. This problem has led to the constant flow of haredi families to non-haredi towns and neighborhoods, where housing is more available and cheaper than in their traditional places of residence such as Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, and this in addition to the new haredi towns that have popped up mostly on the other side of the Green Line.

In my opinion (contrary to the opinions of much of the haredi and secular press) Haimovich made an honest effort to look at this complex subject objectively, bringing serious, level-headed spokesmen to present the various points of view. Especially impressive was the haredi building contractor and entrepreneur Rabbi Pinhas Salzman, who took the program’s cameras to locations that without him they could never have entered, such as haredi family’s tiny apartment (one of eight such apartments) in a windowless underground car park.

I expect that many secular Israelis mumbled to themselves: if only the haredim had fewer children, served in the army, and got themselves a proper education and decent jobs, they wouldn’t be in this situation. But that is sheer hypocrisy, since as we all know even the middle class in Israel has a serious housing problem, which two years ago pushed hundreds of thousands into the streets.

In fact, except for millionaires, the upper middle class and those whose parents can provide massive assistance, every population group in this country has a housing problem, and the government seems totally incapable (and some would say unwilling) to deal with it head-on.

Whatever one might think of the current hullabaloo in the Beduin sector around the bill dealing with the unrecognized settlements in the Negev on the basis of the Prawer proposal, one cannot deny that there is a serious housing shortage among the Beduin, and in the rest of Arab sector in Israel, which has resulted in massive illegal building, and a constant trickle of Arabs citizens into Jewish settlements in search of accommodation.

Another sector that is in a catastrophic situation in terms of housing is that of the impoverished strata of the society that requires subsidized housing, and which successive governments have neglected shamelessly.

Finally there is the housing problem on the other side of the Green Line, where housing is cheaper than within the Green Line, but which is constrained because the world at large considers all Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank to be illegal under international law, and the government’s policy seems to be based on the impossible mission of trying to avoid irritating the international community on the one hand, and the settlers on the other.

In short, Israel has an overall housing problem, which is not being confronted comprehensively. Every once in a while one section of the problem is highlighted, as when the former housing and construction minister Ariel Attias (Shas) was caught favoring haredim in a tender for the expansion of the Jewish town of Harish.

Current Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel from the Jewish Home was caught planning massive construction in Judea and Samaria at precisely the time the Americans are trying to get a breakthrough in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while Finance Minister Yair Lapid from Yesh Atid announced a grandiose plan for constructing 150,000 apartments for rental while circumventing the Housing and Construction Ministry. The Arab sector is up in arms about the program concerning the Beduin in the Negev, which is being forced on them despite their total rejection of it.

Unfortunately there are too many persons and factors involved in the issue, each of whom is interested in only a particular aspect of the problem, and for political or conjunctural reasons refuses to try to put all the puzzle pieces together to create a complete picture.

The situation is made worse by two facts that have to do with our government’s extreme market-economy approach to all problems not connected to security.

The first is the insistence on letting market forces cope with the problem with very little central guidance, and the total refusal of the government to act directly – even in the case of social housing.

The second is the policy of the Israel Lands Authority, highlighted last week in several reports by the indefatigable reporter Matan Hodorov on Channel 10.

Hodorov reported that while the government in general and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in particular keep saying that something must be done urgently about the shortage of affordable housing, it is the government itself, by means of the Israel Lands Authority, that manages all state lands in Israel (which constitute 93 percent of the land), which is responsible for the unsatisfactory rate at which land is released for construction, and the policy of handing the land over to whoever offers the highest price in tenders, to maximize the government’s income.

This has resulted in a situation where the cost of land constitutes over a third of the exorbitant price of new apartments in central Israel (10% in the periphery).

The reason why housing in Judea and Samaria is so much cheaper than within the Green Line is largely because land ownership status there is dodgy; it is not managed by the Israel Lands Authority.

In short, unless the government starts taking the overall housing shortage seriously, and starts working on an overall housing plan, which takes into account the housing needs of all the social sectors while defusing potential social clashes resulting from the absence of planning, and unless the government instructs the Lands Authority to make sufficient land available, at reasonable prices, to realize housing plans supported by the government (even if less money flows into the Treasury as a result), nothing will change for the better.

What will happen is that a growing number of young, middle class Israelis will leave the country; Israeli Arabs will continue to build illegally and use increasing violence against the authorities trying to stop them, and will continue to flow into Jewish settlements that are unwilling to absorb them; growing numbers of secular settlements and neighborhoods will be overrun by haredim; and there will be growing numbers of individuals and families living on the streets.

Furthermore, if the government does not completely stop its hesitant settlement activities in territories that are destined to be handed over in future to the Palestinians within the framework of an agreement, and negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and the PA itself, collapse as a result, it will soon find itself being responsible for solving the housing problems of the Palestinians in the West Bank as well.

So isn’t it high time for the government to stop talking and start acting? The writer is a retired Knesset employee.
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