There's a small war going on at number 119 Rehov Dizengoff in Tel Aviv. The 1936 UNESCO-registered Bauhaus building that sits next to the legendary Caf Kassit is the battlefield of a typical Israeli phenomenon - a va'ad habayit (house committee) dispute.
Caught in the crossfire is 32-year-old Yannai G., a London native who assumed the volunteer position as head of the va'ad bayit when the previous volunteer sold her apartment. She called Yannai two years ago, begging him to take the position, he said, because "no one else wanted it."
Since his family had owned a large apartment in the complex for 26 years, Yannai reasoned that by being in charge of maintenance and repairs, he could help protect the building's property value. Assuming his duties, he decided to install a real-time security camera in order to ward off some of Dizengoff's swarthier characters, such as the heroine addicts who had been found shooting up in the building's backyard. The other residents in the building agreed that a camera was a great idea.
But Yannai's efforts to keep the building maintained to a high standard, he says, were sabotaged after new residents moved in. He and his brother Isaac observed that the new tenants let their dogs defecate on the roof and urinate on the freshly cleaned stairwell and foyer. The front door was "karate-chopped" twice, when one of the new tenants forgot her key; the security camera wires were cut when a resident decided that the cameras were an invasion of her privacy.
Yannai says that he had his door spat on, posters campaigning for captured soldiers ripped off, and va'ad habayit notices and receipts taken down. The new residents decided not to pay their monthly va'ad fees for at least the past year. And finally, in an ironic twist of fate, Yannai was taken to court.
With shaky Hebrew and tears in his eyes, Yannai sat before Judge Mira Arielli on January 31 at the Department of Inspectorate for Real Estate Property in Tel Aviv. Seated in front of him were the plaintiffs Dana B. and Shulamit E. - two apartment owners at 119 Rehov Dizengoff. Also present was their lawyer.
The plaintiffs claimed that the security cameras installed by Yannai were an invasion of their privacy, and that they demanded to see receipts for the va'ad habayit expenses but were not given them. Yannai brought forward a paper with signatures that the residents of the building all agreed to the cameras. In his dissertation he wrote that receipts were always posted, but often ripped down aggressively by residents in the building.
Shulamit E. and Dana B. were ordered by the court to pay their outstanding va'ad fees. On February 15, they were to attend, along with Yannai and the other apartment owners in the building, a meeting where the future head of the va'ad would be chosen. At that meeting they would vote on whether or not the security cameras would stay. Majority would rule.
'From what I've heard from both sides, I have reached the conclusion that Mr. Yannai [G.] did indeed serve as a va'ad representative even though he was not legally elected,' wrote Judge Arielli in her verdict. 'I was not convinced that the installation of the cameras was performed after receiving consent from all apartment owners in the building, yet I was convinced that most of them did not object to the cameras until [a plaintiff] raised claims against having these cameras. The installation of cameras is not determined according to the whim or desire of one apartment owner or another, and a camera should not be removed according to the whim or desire of one apartment owner or another.'
The plaintiffs were not willing to speak to Metro that day. They did not return our telephone calls.
Brothers Yannai and Isaac are not sure if this will be the last time they meet their neighbors in court. "[Dana B.] sees our building as a personification of my brother," said Isaac after the verdict was handed down. "She is not happy with the camera. A situation like this never would have happened in England. Here in Israel, the laws need to be defined better. There is no accountability before a case goes to court. Every sign that my brother put up in the stairwell about the va'ad expenses has been taken down. When [a tenant] karate-kicked in the front door when she forgot her key, I told [her] -- it's not just where I live, but this is where you live as well."
It seems that just about everyone you ask in Israel - immigrants or sabras - who have lived in an apartment building complex have horror stories to share about their house committee experience. Unique to Israel, the va'ad habayit system came into effect in 1968, when the Association for Better Housing (Ha'aguda letarbut hadiyur) was initiated as a non-profit organization to protect tenants' rights in apartment blocks. While some of Israel's land laws, modeled after British laws, may need to be updated, admits the association's legal advisor Sami Israel, having a va'ad in one's building can increase property values. It may also be the perfect way for Israel's culturally diverse population to work out its differences.
Monthly va'ad fees (usually between NIS 50 and NIS 100) cover shared costs such as lighting, cleaning and heating the lobby and stairwell, elevator maintenance, landscaping and covering the janitor's National Insurance payments. A va'ad head is elected or appointed to ensure that the cleaning is done, supplies paid for and that everything - including repairs to the roof - is shared equally among all the residents in the building.
Israel told The Jerusalem Post that in Tel Aviv about 80 percent of apartments subscribe to the va'ad habayit system, compared to about 50% of apartments in periphery cities like Dimona. "There are more people belonging to the Association for Better Housing in Tel Aviv because people want to maintain the high value of their homes," he says. "Where the value of the house is less, people care less."
To become a member of the association, each apartment owner needs to pay NIS 25 per year to receive legal services and council. The person who volunteers to head the va'ad, says Israel, needs to take care of all the maintenance problems associated with the building. "Usually no one wants this position," he notes, "but it is an important one, especially to ensure that property values increase. We check houses where there is no va'ad. They are dirty and no one wants to live there - the value of the house goes down. Where there is a va'ad in place you can see a garden and other facilities that are well maintained."
He finds stories where neighbors fight - like that of 119 Rehov Dizengoff - the most disturbing. "I think the most difficult problems I have seen are quarrels between neighbors. Sometimes the quarrels lead to unbelievable places and when I check to find the reason, I just can't understand how it all started," says the Association for Better Housing's legal adviser.
If relations between tenants in a building become unbearable, the association puts the disputing parties in a room with a counselor. "We try to solve most of the problems," says Israel, who notes that the worst problems are usually over fees. "Seventy percent of the conflicts we resolve are over money. Israelis just don't want to pay."
The situation becomes especially difficult when the monthly outlay goes beyond day-to-day maintenance, such as building expenses incurred during renovations, he says. "A hole in the roof doesn't mean that only the apartment on top has the problem. In Israel we have a law - rehush meshutaf (joint property law) - and all of us have to share the burden of the costs."
This is exactly the problem that Sharon Sleeper from Bat Yam was up against with representatives from the association last week. "I'm at 'war' with my va'ad," wrote Sleeper, an immigrant from the US. "I live on the top floor across from the sea, and my balcony ceiling fell in again this week. The people in my building just don't seem to understand that the problem is outside," laments Sleeper, who feels she is being discounted because she is American and not fluent in Hebrew.
"All I want is to live in peace in my house without being afraid that it's going to come tumbling down," she says, adding, "What I have found here [in Israel] is that the absent landlords have it the best - they just collect the rent."
Jerusalem-born Dana Halevi pays about NIS 70 a month in her Ramat Gan rental flat. Unlike Sleeper, she has a problem with her present - not absent - landlord. She writes Metro, "The head of our va'ad habayit hasn't asked the neighbor living directly above him for va'ad money for close to three years," notes Halevi, who suspects that the va'ad head "has his eyes" on the elderly woman's apartment.
"I rent my place," she continues, "so I'm not that involved in what's going on, but if I was a homeowner in our building I'd probably want to do something to resolve this issue. She is a very nice lady, but we are all basically paying for upkeep that will later enable her to rent or sell her place. It's all pretty frustrating. If I complain to the guy who collects the va'ad habayit fees, he says, 'Fine. I can quit and you can do all the work.'"
Revital Yaron, a business lawyer, says she has "a lot of personal experience" with va'ad habayit issues. "I live in Tel Aviv in a building with 16 floors and 64 apartments. We had times with and without a maintenance company; we have a doorman, central heating, a garden and so forth. There are non-stop issues to deal with," she wrote to Metro.
Not to fret, suggests Israel. He has seen the worst apartment building conflicts resolved. The best formula, he says, is to "learn how to forgive one another. Forgive, forgive and forgive. Then it will be better," says the Morocco native who has at least 10 years' experience in bridging cultural gaps among Israelis.
Israel also suggests that tenants should rotate the position of va'ad head every year. "Va'ad heads must put it in their minds that they are working to improve their own property and understand that if it's not done, the property value will drop. It is not easy to organize a va'ad bayit, but if people divide the job, it's easier to understand the process."
And, he adds, lawyers and counselors at the association are always on call to answer questions - including on damages laws if someone is injured while in your building, or if property owners have problems with their builders.
"Or," he laughs, "As a final solution, you can always escape to a moshav like I did."
The va'ad in Dutch and German
'In Germany,' writes Ofra Kleinberger from Givatayim, 'there are maintenance firms that own houses, and they are responsible for repairs. A representative from each building is appointed to communicate between the neighbors and the firm which owns the house. This representative, the 'Haustmeister,' may also be required to solve problems between neighbors at times - this is expected of them although it is not a duty,' explains Kleinberger, who lived in Germany for three years.
'On the whole, Germans tend to be more organized and everything is straightforward. In Germany one plus one is always two. People in Germany also tend to take care of their houses themselves - a well-kept apartment inside and out is very important although it seems as though the majority of Germans live in rented quarters. In Israel, without the va'ad, I guess that some tenants would do a better job with maintenance and upkeep than others, but overall there would be much less effort put in than in Germany, especially in rental housing units. In Israel you also can find companies that manage maintenance and repair for large apartment towers (I lived in one), but this is only required and common in the new tall towers.'
'Israelis take care of things for themselves, while Germans do it for the general welfare of their surroundings.'
Debra Dejong immigrated to Israel from Holland in 1996. Today she lives in Ra'anana's Lev HaPark and pays NIS 140 per month in va'ad fees. She writes, 'I know that in Holland, there is a similar system [as in Israel] for owners of apartments and it is called 'bewonersvereniging.' In Holland, only the owners of the apartment pay, never the renters. My sister in Holland is paying around 500 Euros a month; my parents used to pay 250 Euros. Most of the money is spent on heating systems, security systems, elevators, roofs and gutters to prevent water damage from rain and frost. The legal structure of the bewonersvereniging is a non-profit, ruled by strict accountancy and liability rules. In Holland, they hold monthly meetings where the conduct of the building's residents is also discussed (littering is a hot issue!).'
'This meeting is far more a social event than it is in my building here in Israel,' concludes Dejong.
It happens on occasion that a building's va'ad habayit has no volunteers willing to take on the job of heading the committee. If this is the case, explains lawyer Sami Israel from the Association for Better Housing (Ha'aguda letarbut hadiyur), there are two options:
The residents of the building can inform the association that no one wants to volunteer for the position. The court will assign a va'ad head from outside the building. Expect to pay an extra 20 percent in fees per month.
Alternately, tenants can hire a company to coordinate maintenance and repairs for the building. Expect to pay more than 20% per month on building fees; in this case 66% of the tenants in the building must agree.
Do new immigrants have it harder?
"Yes, there is no doubt that new immigrants to Israel have a harder time with the va'ad habayit system," says Sami Israel. "They ask more questions than the average Israeli - especially Ethiopians. Sometimes the cultural differences in a building lead to quarrels. Solving them is a great exercise for creating unity among Israelis."
"Sometimes we find the Va'ad Habayit is made up of Russians, Ethiopians and Moroccans and it is good to see how they live together."
For questions about va'ad habayit call the Association for Better Housing (Ha'aguda letarbut hadiyur) at 1-800-40-4040 - English-speakers should ask to speak with Odelia or Carmit. www.tarbut-hadiur.gov.il