Solving the crisis

There have been periods in the state’s short history when huge building projects have been undertaken successfully.

February 28, 2015 22:34
3 minute read.
Jewish settlement

A section of the controversial Israeli barrier is seen close to a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem . (photo credit: REUTERS)

There have been periods in the state’s short history when huge building projects have been undertaken successfully.

In the first three years of independence, about 680,000 Jews – mostly Holocaust survivors and North Africans – immigrated here, doubling the population. At first, some of them were forced to live in makeshift camps called ma’barot. But soon, proper housing was built.
Unfortunately, since 2008, consecutive governments have failed colossally at the much more prosaic challenge of keeping the pace of housing construction in line with the natural growth rate, as noted in the State Comptroller’s Report released on Wednesday.

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By failing to provide ample affordable housing, the state is in danger of failing on one of the principles of Zionism – providing a home in Israel for every Jew, regardless of his or her financial standing.

The problem, as articulated in State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report, is that the state’s housing policy lacks an overarching guiding hand. A plethora of bodies – the Construction Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Israel Lands Authority, municipalities, planning councils, the Netivei Israel – National Transport Infrastructure Company (formerly the Israel National Roads Company) – work without any coordination and sometimes at cross purposes.

Government agencies do not report to each other on what they are doing. Sometimes the interests of one body clash with those of another. For instance, though there is a national interest in providing cheap housing – particularly to young couples and families – numerous municipalities have consistently blocked the building of cheap apartments because municipal tax revenue from this type of housing is low.

And because government agencies tend not to coordinate with one another, there is little sharing of data. As a result, even if governments have wanted to formulate nationwide plans, they have lacked the information needed to do so.

Another factor, not mentioned in the report, is political instability. Because governments tend not to finish their four-year-plus terms, long-term plans are abruptly discontinued.

Indeed, it could be that the situation has gotten so bad that ministers do not bother to formulate plans that would take years to implement, because they know they will not remain in office to see them to fruition.

Also, strong business and political interests oppose change. These are people who are familiar with the present system of red tape and know how to manipulate it.

Any change would take away the edge they have over others.

More than any other factor, however, consecutive governments – including the outgoing one that was hardly mentioned in Shapira’s report – seem to lack the will to do what it takes to fix our dysfunctional housing sector.

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Apparently, our political leaders do not think that the housing crisis is bad enough to demand their undivided attention. They do not seem to be particularly impressed by the fact that between 2008 and 2013, housing prices jumped by about 55 percent.

Nor do they seem to think it problematic that the state has failed to meet a basic obligation: providing affordable housing for its citizens. Today Israelis are forced to pay on average 38 percent of their monthly salary on housing, which means that food, transportation and energy consumption must be curtailed.

In the past – whether in 1991 when immigrants from the former Soviet Union began pouring into Israel, or in the 1950s, when tens of thousands of Jews from around the world doubled the population – governments managed to provide housing for newcomers.

Where there’s a will it is possible to find a way to significantly increase housing supply fast. We can only hope that politicians muster the will and navigate the way out of the housing crisis. Ahead of the election on March 17, Israelis should help them by insisting that the next government solve this crisis or face the wrath of the voters next time around.

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