Music echoes from the old stone walls as cigarette smoke drifts out of a courtyard packed with students on a Thursday night. Here, a mere NIS 20 gets you a ticket into a dance club with a live DJ and includes a free beer. Fresh knafeh (a thin, vermicelli-like pastry) is cooked right next to the bar, and the courtyard is filled with chairs and benches for lounging around.
This isn't a new bar to arrive at the end of Rehov Ben-Yehuda. It's a house party in Nahlaot, where the occupants are hoping to raise enough money to pay their rent for December. Organized by the production company Dag Maluah, these "apartment rental parties" take place about every two weeks in different student apartments around the city.
Students have always struggled with finances and paying rent, but sky-high rent in Jerusalem and an extreme shortage of affordable apartments are making some students look for creative alternatives to help pay the bills. Enter Israel Hass, co-founder of Dag Maluah, who hatched the idea for rental parties with co-founder Ya'acov Weiskopf to create an alternative, chill atmosphere for social gatherings and help students pay their rent at the same time.
The average rent for a room in a shared apartment in the city is NIS 1,120 a month before taxes, according to the Jerusalem Development Authority, a joint government and municipality organization. Part-time jobs as waitresses or guards are no longer enough to cover rent, so students are increasingly turning to alternative ways to pay their monthly bills. Besides rental parties, second-hand parties, yard sales and clothing swaps are other creative ways that Jerusalem students are finding to pay their rent. Host apartments charge up to NIS 10 for entrance to the sale, in addition to whatever money they raise from the items.
The arched apartment in Nahlaot hosting this week's rental party belongs to Sagi Hershler, an industrial design student at Hadassah College; and Ricky Antar, who studies video arts at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Inside, all the roommates' belongings are shoved into a single bedroom behind the bar, and a disco ball sits perched on top of the refrigerator, throwing colorful shadows around the kitchen. The spacious living room has been turned into a crowded dance floor. More than 100 people are sitting on every available surface in the courtyard, sipping their free drink and chatting with other students.
By the time the party ends at 2:30 a.m., 305 people have passed through Sagi and Ricky's door. The two raised NIS 6,000, a larger amount than the previous two rental parties. A quarter of the money raised goes straight to the hosts, which will pay for about half of the NIS 3,200 monthly rent. The remainder raised pays for the party - equipment rental, alcohol and other party expenses. Hass invites local pubs to take part, helping to spread the business around. The police also make a brief appearance at this party around midnight, but after Hass explains the premise of the party and turns down the music, the officers leave without issuing citations.
"The rental parties are a nice and creative way of collecting money, which is why the association partnered with Dag Maluah," says Yuval Admon, vice president of the Student Association at the Hebrew University. The Student Association picks locations for rental parties based on students' requesting to host them and partners with Dag Maluah to make them happen.
"Having a rental party every two weeks somewhere else meets different needs. It helps people pay rent, and it gives students a night life," says Admon.
"The environment here is very homey; it's not like going to a club or a pub," says Eldad Adam, 30, a graphic design student at Ort College. "I don't think there's another place in Israel that you can go into a party that costs NIS 20 and get a bottled drink. It's really amazing."
"I pay for the party, and if it goes to something good, then why not? Finally there's something in Jerusalem, something social for students," says Efrat Korochinsky, 26, a speech therapy student at Hadassah College. Coming from Beersheba, Korochinsky is struck by the differences between the two cities. "In Beersheba, everything is directed toward students. Here, it's not like that."
The Student Association pinpoints high rental costs as the major problem for Jerusalem's students, brought on by a shortage of affordable apartments. "Even if students compromise on a simple apartment and not one that is centrally located, the price is still higher in comparison to other cities, except for Tel Aviv," says Admon.
The average student spends between two weeks and a month looking for a room, according to the Hebrew University's Student Association. Most students find rooms on the Internet, using sites like homeless.co.il; baboo.co.il; or yad2.co.il. The Student Association is trying to encourage students leaving their apartments to keep it all in the family by renting their rooms to incoming students. Every May, the association puts up a bulletin board on the Mount Scopus campus where students can advertise openings to other students for the upcoming year.
This year for the first time, students accepted at area universities were mailed a hefty booklet over the summer containing tips for renting in Jerusalem. The booklet was published by Academic.City, a project of the Jerusalem Development Authority. The 32-page publication includes pros and cons about all Jerusalem's neighborhoods, bus lines to major universities from each area, and helpful hints about getting discounts on municipality taxes and how much electric bills should cost.
Ruah Hadasha, or New Spirit, is another Jerusalem organization dedicated to helping students and young people succeed in Jerusalem. "The goal is to promote students to come and learn here," says Daniel Greenberg, the spokesperson for Ruah Hadasha, a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the municipality to work on students' issues.
"Everything we do we ask ourselves, 'Will a student stay here for the weekend? Will they stay for the next month or for their entire degree? Will they stay after their degree?'" says Greenberg.
One of Ruah Hadasha's main projects is group purchasing organizations - that is, creating groups of secular and Religious Zionist young people who pool their money to buy a property together and create affordable housing. This summer, Ruah Hadasha's group bid against eight haredi groups for a piece of property owned by the Hebrew University, the Stern Dorms in Ein Kerem. Hebrew University ended up canceling the sale, but the organization is optimistic that they'll be able to create a successful group purchasing organization again in the future.
"At the end of the day, it was a semi-victory because it seems like the apartments will continues to house students, albeit in a different matter," says Greenberg.
Currently, 40,000 students of higher education live in Jerusalem. Attracting students to study and live here is an essential part of raising the city's economic status, according to the Jerusalem Development Authority. Mayor Nir Barkat said in August that he hopes to draw a total of 60,000 students a year by 2020. Recently, the municipality introduced a host of new student benefits, including rent subsidies of NIS 4,200 per year for students living in the center of the city; up to 80 percent discounts on municipal tax payments; and special Jerusalem resident cards, which enable students to get discounts on cultural events, sports, museums, theaters, and special services without changing residency on their identity cards.
"Renting an apartment in Jerusalem is an experience! It's a very active city, rich architecturally and plenty of places to hang out for students, especially recently," says Chana Feigin, an Israel studies student at Bar-Ilan University, who commutes to the campus a few times a week from Jerusalem. But to really help students, the municipality should "increase the grants given to students renting in the city," she says.
Feigin isn't alone. Most students agree that grants for rent would be the single most helpful thing that the municipality could do. But a subsidy or grant may not be the answer to all rental woes, others point out. "They gave a grant to students living in the center of the city, but all that did was trigger the landlords to raise the price," says Hass of Dag Maluah.
High rental prices come from the overabundance of empty luxury apartments in the city, creating a shortage of apartments for regular residents who live here full-time. Mayor Barkat made a stir in the student rental debate last week when he launched his own campaign to combat "ghost apartments" on December 6. He sent a letter to 900 apartment-owning foreigners to ask them to consider renting out their empty apartments to students and young families who are struggling to find a place to live.
An empty apartment, Barkat reminds the owners in his letter, "has a negative effect on Jerusalem. An empty apartment means fewer customers at the local grocery store, fewer children at school, fewer patrons of the neighborhood cafe and, most importantly, fewer young families living in the city."
A 2007 housing survey conducted by the municipality found that 9,000 apartments in the city stand empty most of the year. The city classifies apartment owners who spend less than two months a year in Israel as "Diaspora residents."
"Every apartment that is added to the market supply and is rented out to a young family or to students will enable us to provide a solution to a population that is like oxygen for the city's future and will create positive dynamics in the housing market," the letter continues. The letter includes a link to a Web site (http://rebuild.jerusalem.muni.il) where owners can sign up to learn more. An optimistic spokesperson for the municipality says they hope that 300 apartment owners will take part in the initiative, even though owners will not make any profit from people renting their second homes.
"[Barkat's letter] is just hilarious to us," says Abner Inbar, 30, a volunteer with a neighborhood association in Rehavia. "They don't give them [the owners] any incentive. Also, we're talking about huge apartments, expensive apartments, probably filled with artwork and things that cost a lot of money. I don't know why anyone would agree to this," says Inbar. "The mayor doesn't say, 'Look, what can we do to overcome these problems?' He just puts out this idea so he can say that he's fulfilling his obligations," Inbar says, echoing the frustration that many activists express with the municipality. "They're just doing it for the publicity in the newspapers. It's clear that they're not serious, and it's a shame."
Rehavia, with the ornate apartments lining quiet streets, is emblematic of the severe shortage of affordable apartments for students. In the 1920s and '30s, the neighborhood was an intellectual haven for students, as well as artists, intelligentsia and politicians. It was designed as a garden city by German-Jewish architect Richard Kaufman, with many buildings built in the International or Bauhaus Style, the beginning of modernist architecture. Today, it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, and the young professionals and students are increasingly being driven out of the apartments on the neighborhood's leafy, tranquil streets.
Inbar, who has lived in Rehavia for five years and is working on his dissertation in philosophy, is one of more than 200 concerned Rehavia residents who created an informal neighborhood association about two months ago. They are trying to combat the gentrification that is threatening to force students and young families out of their homes. The current conflict crystallized at 14 Radak Street, a Bauhaus-style building with three floors and eight apartments that is slated for demolition. A new six-floor building, with just three luxury apartments, will take its place.
The neighborhood association organized a protest party on December 10, with two dance rooms with DJs, and art and video collages from local artists decorating the walls of the empty building. "We wanted to bring as many people as possible to see the building and to hear its story," says Inbar.
More than 1,000 people showed up - more than could fit inside. Hundreds milled around outside on the sidewalk. "It was beyond our wildest dreams," Inbar says. "We were trying to sign everyone up [for a petition to the mayor to save the building] and we just ran out of papers. It was crazy. At first we were worried that people were coming because it was just a party. But when we started giving out flyers about the event, people said there are a lot of parties in the city, so they didn't come just for the party," Inbar says. "They're coming to protest because what unites Jerusalem is its past... If they just wanted to live in cubicle regular buildings, they would go to Rishon Lezion. This is important to Jerusalem because Jerusalem has something so special to them. They feel like something is going and slowly, slowly disappearing in front of their eyes because of developers' interests and people with too much money."