For YAFIT DAHAN, worst of all is the winter cold. Jerusalem’s nightly
temperatures have dipped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit over the past month and it
has been an exceptionally rainy winter. “I know it may seem hard to believe, but
you get used to it,” she says, warming up by a makeshift heater. “Even the
children are used to it. They have no choice.”
Dahan, 36, does not look
at first sight like the image you might have of a homeless person.
and her husband are hardworking parents of five children; Dahan works in
cleaning services and her husband is a municipal employee. But they have been
living in a hut-like structure in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, in the valley below
the Knesset, since July.
A soft rain starts to fall as we speak in the
open air of the park. A man talking loudly into a mobile telephone and a couple
of joggers pass by, barely glancing. The family’s refuge, along with about five
or six adjoining makeshift habitations, insulated by plastic sheeting and
patches of canvas, and furnished with old sofas and chairs rotting with
rainwater, are among the last remnants of the urban tent camps that were the
epicenter of last summer’s mass social justice protest movement. The summer
protest tent camps, especially the main one on Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv,
had an energetic carnival-like atmosphere, very different from the bleak look of
what's left now in Sacher Park.
Almost all of the protest tents were
taken down long ago, when the autumn winds began blowing and most protesters
went back to their homes. In contrast, Dahan’s family, who used to live in an
apartment in the Gilo neighborhood in south Jerusalem, but were evicted because
they could not pay the rent, had nowhere to go. They are now in a legal fight
against municipal plans to remove their tent from the public park, with
assistance from Community Advocacy, a non-profit organization that promotes
awareness of social rights among residents.
Why can’t Dahan and her
husband, who are both working, put a roof over their heads by obtaining public
housing? It is not for lack of trying; she tells The Jerusalem Report that
despite filing repeated applications, she was told there are simply no public
housing units available.
Years of neglect
Public housing in Israel is in
dismal condition after years of neglect. According to Housing Ministry spokesman
Ariel Rosenberg, there has been no public housing constructed anywhere in the
country over the past 20 years. Since the year 2000, the stock of state-owned
apartments available for those eligible for public housing has fallen from
107,000 to about 64,000 today, a drop of about 40 percent in a little over a
Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has led to growing
waiting lists for public housing apartments. There are about 2,400 families
registered on the public housing waiting list, while the number of public
housing apartments available for immediate occupancy is only 313. Rosenberg
confirms that after being recognized as eligible for public housing, a family
may be forced to wait seven years for an available apartment.
situation is even direr than the official figures indicate, according to Barbara
Epstein, the director of Community Advocacy. “There hasn't been any real public
housing construction since the 1970s,” Epstein tells The Report. “In the late
1980s and early 1990s, during the large Russian immigration wave, there was a
rush to construct some new public housing, but it was poorly built, not much
better than caravans, not something that can really count as
Epstein also points out that the waiting list for public
housing is much larger than 2,400 families, because that figure counts only
families who have applied for public housing provided by the Housing Ministry.
New immigrants needing housing are the responsibility of the Absorption
Ministry, which currently has nearly 40,000 immigrants on its public housing
waiting list. In addition, there are another 450 elderly poor seeking sheltered
“Instead of building more public housing, the criteria
for public housing eligibility have been made stricter over time, in an effort
to reduce the official waiting lists,” says Epstein. According to current
Housing Ministry policy, only families with three or more children under the age
of 21 who have been living on welfare benefits for at least 24 months are
eligible for public housing.
While on the waiting list, families may
receive rental subsidies of 1,250 shekels to 1,550 shekels a
According to Emily Silverman, a lecturer on housing policy at the
Technion in Haifa, the strict eligibility rules lead to flawed statistics on the
number of people who are in need of public housing assistance. “People don’t
even bother to apply,” she says. “There are families who have been on the
waiting list for years, only to be told that they are no longer eligible because
during that time their children became adults.”
Even families with two
working parents can find themselves falling into a financial spiral leading to
homelessness. “People who cannot meet their monthly mortgage payments can lose
their homes and still be in debt to the mortgage lender,” says Silverman. “They
then need to pay that debt while renting an apartment in a city, because they
need to live near work. But renting a one and a half room apartment in a city
can cost 2,500 shekels a month. Even with rental subsidies, someone earning the
minimum wage of 4,500 shekels a month ends up paying most of the salary for
Israel once had a generous public housing
policy. The immense influx of immigrants in the early years of the state
required channeling major resources to finding immediate housing solutions. In
1959, fully 23 percent of the housing units in the country were owned and
administered by Amidar, the state-owned company providing housing for low-income
citizens. Public housing now accounts for less than 2 percent of the housing
units in the country.
One of the main reasons for the steep decline in
public housing since 2000 is the misapplication of a 1998 public housing law,
spearheaded by then Meretz Knesset Member Ran Cohen, which at the time was
hailed as being very progressive. “I was involved in supporting the passage of
that law in 1998,” recalls Epstein. “There were good intentions behind that law,
which was intended to implement historical justice.”
At the heart of
Cohen’s housing law were clauses granting long-standing tenants of public
housing apartments the right to purchase the homes in which they were living.
Under government policies dating back to the 1950s, public housing residents
were perpetual renters. By the 1990s, social justice advocates were noting that
this was a recipe for inter-generational perpetuation of poverty.
immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s who had managed to earn sufficiently high
incomes to enable them to move from public housing projects to homes that they
purchased were able to bequeath the home equity they had to their children,
giving the next generation an economic boost. The less fortunate ones who
remained mired in poverty, in contrast, could not pass the public housing homes
they had lived in for decades to their children.
To correct this, the
1998 housing law offered public housing residents opportunities to buy the homes
in which they were living. The purchasing terms granted a three percent discount
for every year of continuous tenancy in an apartment, giving the
longest-standing tenants access to property equity that they otherwise would
never have had. Since every such housing unit sold meant a reduction in public
housing stocks, Cohen’s law stipulated that the money raised by the state from
those sales be used to construct new public housing projects.
governments since 1999, however, have frozen full implementation of the 1998
housing law in their yearly budgets, objecting in principle to the earmarking of
state income for a particular purpose, such as public housing construction.
Selling of public housing units to residents was too popular an idea to be
ignored, and the state eventually sold 33,400 apartments to residents at a
discount. A further 4,100 apartments were sold at no discount. The money raised
from these sales, however, was not used to replace the public housing units that
Where did the money go? According to a study of public housing
published by the Knesset’s research center in October 2011, the state took in a
total income of 2.75 billion shekels from public housing sales over the years.
Of that sum, only 1.54 billion shekels went into Housing Ministry accounts.
About 40 percent of the sum, 1.081 billion shekels, was diverted to the Jewish
Agency, a monetary transfer that was sharply criticized as being inappropriate
by the State Comptroller in 2008.
Of the money that was retained by the
Housing Ministry, 680 million shekels was budgeted for Housing Ministry
construction projects, some of which included the purchase of new public housing
and repair and maintenance of existing housing stocks, but the money was also
spent on road construction, non-residential buildings and rural development.
Another 187 million shekels went to government-owned companies, and 438 million
shekels was taken by the Treasury. The remainder, 237.5 million shekels, is
still in Housing Ministry coffers.
The net result of these policies has
been a steep reduction in available public housing even as the population has
increased and housing prices, for both rental and purchase, have skyrocketed.
“When people are thrown out of their homes because they can’t pay their mortgage
debts, where are they supposed to go?” asks Epstein. She notes that housing
costs have risen by 40 percent since 2000, while real income has stagnated,
especially for the working poor.
Housing help half-baked
As a first step
towards correcting this situation, Silverman recommends getting an accurate
estimate of the number of people in need of housing assistance. “You don’t
estimate who needs housing assistance by looking at how many applicants fill in
a form,” she says. “The question is how many low-income families are paying more
than 50 percent of their income for housing. That is the level at which housing
assistance is needed, because it leaves too little for food, health and
There is, however, no official statistic on that
figure. “No one knows the answer to that, because no one has checked,” says
Silverman. “If you don’t know, you can’t begin doing something about
When the true picture of public housing need is known, Silverman
says major new public housing projects need to be constructed to make up the
deficit that has developed over the past decade. She praises a proposed bill
sponsored by David Azoulay of Shas that would require all new building projects
approved by planning boards to reserve at least five percent of housing units
for public housing needs.
Epstein advocates the immediate purchase or
construction of 10,000 housing units to be added to the stock of available
public housing, for reduction of the waiting lists. “We need to build new
housing and repair the existing apartments as soon as possible,” she says,
adding that rental subsidies for those who are still on waiting lists need to be
increased to ensure that their out-of-pocket housing expenses are on par with
those who are living in public-owned apartments.
Community Advocacy, the
organization headed by Epstein, has been lobbying Knesset Members to establish a
new government authority to oversee all aspects of public housing. The
organization calls for legislation that would extend eligibility criteria for
some form of housing assistance to any family whose income per person falls
below the poverty line and establish new rental subsidy guidelines for those on
Rosenberg, the Housing Ministry spokesman, says that
Housing Minister Ariel Atias is in favor of new housing legislative initiatives
and “intends on fighting until the state’s responsibility for obtaining housing
for eligible citizens is fully recognized. Until they can be given public
housing apartments, they should receive full realistic rental
Back at the Sacher Park encampment, the tenacious homeless
families vow to remain put until they can be given a permanent housing solution.
The Jerusalem municipality recently offered to give them rent subsidies of 2,200
shekels a month for six months, if they leave voluntarily. This offer was
rejected by the encampment residents, who said that six months is too short a
time period. The municipality is still trying to obtain legal authority to evict
them. In a statement released by his office, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said
that he cannot let the encampment continue to “negatively affect the public
sphere and become a health and security liability.”
Shivering slightly in
the winter cold, Dahan says she is tired of hearing empty promises.
we are evicted,” she says, “I have no idea where my children and I can go.”