Attias announces free land for student housing

Activists warily support initiatives, which include construction tenders for contractors offering lowest bid.

By MELANIE LIDMAN, JONAH MANDEL,
August 10, 2011 16:45
Shas MK Ariel Attias

311_ariel attias. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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As dozens of demonstrators chanted outside the Israel Lands Authority in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning, Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) announced “historic changes” to the ILA and the way contractors are charged for building on government-owned land.

One of the central claims of the month-long social protest movement sweeping the country is that the Israel Lands Authority is needlessly charging contractors exorbitant amounts for land that belongs to the government, and those costs are passed on to the citizens in the form of high rent and a superfluous amount of luxury apartments, which is the only way for contractors to make a profit.

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“Land is not a way to make money,” Attias said at an impromptu press conference on Wednesday before he met with the National Housing Committee. “The minute the land isn’t for profit, we can give serious solutions to the populations of students and young couples, and free up land for use,” he said.

Attias announced that he would request a number of changes, including not charging any money for land destined for student dormitories, and awarding tenders to contractors who present projects with the lowest price per apartment, rather than the current policy of awarding tenders to contractors who offer the highest bid.

Additionally, Attias pledged to change the criteria for “priced by inhabitant” apartments, which offer affordable apartments to people who meet certain criteria, such as army service, employment, and children.

Previously, the criteria for priced-by-inhabitant apartments has been based on the number of children and has heavily favored haredim with large families.



Land for priced-by-inhabitant apartments would also receive a 50 percent discount.

The criteria for priced-by-inhabitant apartments that Attias recommended will be divided into three groups: 20% for couples with no children, 35% for couples with one child, and the remainder for couples with two or more children. There will be no preference for couples with more than three children, as opposed to previous criteria, which was awarded to families with six, seven or eight children.

The criteria will also require inhabitants to have performed army duty, national service or civil service.

City Councilor Merav Cohen (Jerusalem Awakening) said the proposals were “a step in the right direction.” She added that the criteria should include a provision that residents must work if they are able, which would also be a blow to haredi residents, many of whom receive subsidies for studying in yeshivot.

“There is no reason for the state to subsidize someone who doesn’t work,” said Cohen.

The promise of free land for student housing is significant compared to previous student housing projects in the center of the country, where the land price for each apartment is between NIS 100,000 and NIS 130,000, said Attias. He also plans to offer incentives to contractors who build in weaker areas, including cities such as Lod or in the periphery.

The idea of awarding tenders based on the lowest price per apartment rather than the highest bidder is something that activist groups like Jerusalem Awakening have been demonstrating for over the years.

When contractors compete to pay the highest price, it encourages them to build luxury apartments in order to make a profit.

The public is then left with a surplus of luxury apartments and a lack of affordable apartments.

The new criteria are expected to be approved this week by the Finance Ministry, and are in the process of being presented to the courts and to the Trajtenberg Committee, which is examining the requests of the social protest movement. The committee ill not approve requests until it examines the proposals.

“This gives the ILA a green light to change the system, so the system can help the citizens of Israel,” said Attias. “The goal of these decisions is not to fold up the tents,” he added.

MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) was not surprised at the decision, nor did he think the Finance Ministry would agree to the proposed changes.

“I told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last week over the Knesset podium that he could have done what we have been imploring him to do for the nation in a respectable manner, and now he’s doing it with shame and in the midst of public protest,” he said. “He could have spared himself had he understood that the state is not a supermarket, whose owner is constantly seeking to increase its gains. Yes, the welfare needs to be funded, but that is where the gains must be going to.”

As for the reforms Attias announced, “I wish I could believe they would actually happen, I don’t thing the Treasury will agree to them. [The ILA] brings in NIS 14 billion a year, I doubt they’ll give that up,” said Eichler.

To Eichler, the proposed change of criterion – to no longer prefer families with many children – is a result of the state’s anti-haredi sentiment.

“It’s obvious the secular state will do whatever it can to harm the haredim,” he said.

When The Jerusalem Post pointed out that the changes were led by Attias, a haredi member of the Shas party, Eichler stated that they were not really his decisions, but rather came from the Finance Ministry officials.

“This just proves we are in the most severe exile yet,” he said.

“But why are we agreeing to them? Because we are realistic, and believe that if there is lots of money for secular people, the haredim will receive a bit. So by the same logic, if the market is flooded with apartments for secular people, haredim will get a bit. But if the secular people only get a bit, haredim will get none.”

Activists demonstrating outside the ILA chanting “Attias, this is your fault!” and “Bibi, wake up, the public is in the streets!” tried to forcefully enter the building, though they were stopped by police. There were no arrests.

The protest leaders generally supported Attias’s suggestions, but believed there was still a lot of work to be done.

New Spirit director Elisheva Mazya took a “wait and see” approach to the changes in the criteria, and worried that the spate of houses currently in the approval process for “priced by inhabitant” buildings would still use the old criteria. “It’s sort of a step in the right direction, but we don’t believe anything until we see it in writing,” she told the Post.

Itai Gutler, the head of the Hebrew University student union, denounced Atias for presenting the changes without meeting with the activists to hear their demands.

Tel Aviv tent-city spokesman Roee Neuman said the demonstrators needed a bigger gesture.

“This is not big enough, and we need something more serious than this,” he said on Wednesday night. Cohen added that the activists would have like to see more suggestions for public housing.

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