A housing win-win

A new industry has sprung up that can alleviate J'lem's lack of affordable housing and abundance of apartments that are empty for most of the year.

yoni shapira and bennie loval_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yoni shapira and bennie loval_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As the Jerusalem Municipality seeks solutions to the twin problems of an affordable-housing shortage and about 11,000 foreign-owned apartments that stand dark most of the year, the timing of a new travel trend could not be more providential.
Here, like in many other popular world destinations, people are beginning to rent out their second residences or exchange houses in vacation barter agreements.
This trend coincides with a new project launched just before Pessah to encourage overseas owners of Jerusalem properties to rent their unoccupied apartments to students and young families. In December 2009, Mayor Nir Barkat tried a similar plea with little success, but the current “Turn on All the Lights in Jerusalem” campaign (www.lightson.jerusalem.muni.il) was planned in coordination with professional property management companies.
“These companies can offer the owners something much more developed than what we offered initially,” says Amit Poni, manager of the Affordable Housing Project for the Jerusalem Development Agency (JDA), a joint municipal and state authority.
In addition to worsening the housing shortage, empty apartments are tempting for burglars, unprofitable for neighborhood merchants and unnerving for permanent residents in largely “ghost-town” buildings.
“If we can bring these apartments into the market, perhaps we can increase neighborhood safety, lower rents and certainly increase supply,” says Poni.
Bennie Loval of Jerusalem’s Anglo-Saxon Realty, which has a large overseas clientele, is fully on board with the campaign.
“When our sales staff is dealing with investors – foreign and Israeli – who want to know about renting their property, we put them together with this project,” says Loval.
He is working with Yoni Shapira, an enterprising Israeli whose website, Home4Trip.com, matches travelers with available apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and acts as a virtual reception desk.
“Yoni already manages about 150 apartments in Tel Aviv and 30 in Jerusalem, so the technical details are taken care of,” says Loval.
The Anglo-Saxon-Home4Trip option is one of seven the JDA recommends to non-resident homeowners, each offering specific expertise to targeted markets.
“People can rent out their apartments and get the finest property management for their asset while helping us support Jerusalem and keep more students and young families here,” Poni says.
Vacationers seek out-of-hotel experiences
“People are tending more and more to see apartments not as a cheaper alternative, but as a more luxurious alternative, to hotels,” says Shapira, who started Home4Trip almost four years ago.
“In Barcelona, there was also a problem of foreign absentee homeowners, and the municipality successfully developed boutique short-term rentals. Now, this is happening all over the world. People are tired of hotels.”
Loval agrees. “Many Israelis and foreigners do this when they go to Paris or London. I was in Manhattan recently and rented a two-room apartment, and I think I will only do this from now on. You get a fully furnished and equipped place to stay. The Internet makes it very simple to arrange. The homeowner gets a password and blocks out the dates they will need the apartment, and they decide how much rent to charge.”
When Shapira came back to Israel after five years in Italy and Germany, he began inviting friends from abroad to visit Tel Aviv and realized how pricey hotels were – while approximately 6,000 apartments were standing empty.
“In the Italian community, many people own apartments in Tel Aviv that they use two or three months a year, and I saw the potential for this kind of business,” says Shapira. “My vision was to turn on the lights in all these dark apartments and let others enjoy them.”
Shapira may expand into cities such as Ashdod and Netanya, which each have about 3,000 rarely occupied apartments owned by foreigners that are prey to damage and burglary.
“I think homeowners were waiting for a solution and so was the state, and here is this treasure box of thousands of apartments,” says Shapira. “Bringing 10 or 20 percent of them to market will make a change.”
A shortage of accommodations in Israeli cities affects not only shortand long-term renters, but also vacationers. Israel’s tourism industry is racing to build thousands more hotel rooms in anticipation of higher demand in the next few years, but in the meantime, hotels are running at full capacity and room rates are rising.
House-swapping offers one increasingly popular solution to this problem.
“We’re always looking for a good deal for vacations, and we’ve always rented our house out when we travel,” says Batya Burd, a resident of Jerusalem’s Old City.
The Burds, who have four children, were among the first 100 people to register at JewishSwap.com after it came online in March, offering a free house exchange service aimed specifically – but not exclusively – at Jewish travelers. Founders Amitai Richman and Yirmie Elkus of Ra’anana hatched the concept two years ago while discussing the Richmans’ positive home exchange experience with a Jewish family in London.
“One of the advantages of the Jewish aspect is that there are fewer degrees of separation between people,” Elkus explains. “There is some anxiety attached to wondering who will be in your house, but if you’re in the Jewish community it’s easy to do a reference check on the family. This provides a lot of comfort.”
Registrants specify whether or not their kitchen is kosher – about 40% are not – and whether they live close to a synagogue.
“I trust the arrangement more if I’m swapping with somebody rather than renting to a stranger, because we have mutual responsibilities to each other,” Batya Burd says. “We have swapped in the past with people who were referred to us when we were looking to visit a certain area.” Less than a week after signing up, the Burds were fielding inquiries.
“We’re negotiating with different people because we want to go on vacation after Pessah when we have a few days off, and we’re looking to trade our home and car for a big place [somewhere else] in Israel,” she says. “Not everybody is available at the same time you are.”
Elkus points out that home-swappers are often families or retirees.
“Retirees are fairly flexible and will go where they want to go when a swap is available,” he says. “For families with children, Jewish holidays and summer are popular times to look for a swap.”
Since hotel and short-term rental prices are high during these times, a swap can mean thousands of dollars saved on accommodations.
Non-simultaneous exchanges are an option.
“You can vacate your house for a week so people can come stay when it’s convenient for them, and then you’ll stay at their house when it’s convenient for you,” says Richman.
JewishSwap offers users an optional binding contract to ensure that the later swap takes place as agreed.
Because the two men are doing this strictly as a community service – both are full-time businessmen in Ramat Gan – they currently do not plan to impose fees or accept advertising. However, most home-swapping services charge a nominal amount.
Orna and Arnon Meroz of Nirit paid $260 to register for an 18-month period at one of several home-exchange websites.
“A cousin of my husband had done it a couple of times with this site, so we trusted it,” says Orna Meroz.
They posted photos of their home and answered a detailed questionnaire to provide a profile of their house and family. Soon they were sifting through 60 or 70 inquiries from places ranging from Australia and Bulgaria to Thailand and Russia, ruling out those where the travel dates didn’t mesh.
“We wanted to go to Europe in September, but most Europeans want to travel in August,” she says. Eventually they found a Dutch couple ready to swap their house and add the use of their car for a fee. The families agreed to feed each other’s pets during the exchange period, too.
“When we go abroad, we want to ‘feel’ the country and live with the people and not in a hotel,” Meroz says. The Dutch experience worked out well for them. “Usually you just find out where the key is, but they met us at the airport and took us to their house and then went back to the airport to fly to Israel. They even gave us a GPS with their car.”
JewishSwap lists tips for home-swappers, such as clearing away personal belongings, locking up valuables and leaving the makings of a first meal for arriving guests. “Use a home swap agreement to avoid all misunderstandings and clarify who pays what in terms of telephone, electric bills, food, etc.,” it advises.
More privacy, ‘real life’
Shapira says there are many reasons vacationers and business travelers are increasingly interested in residences rather than hotels.
“It makes a lot of sense for families, if you compare the cost of two rooms in a hotel with an apartment, and gives the added advantage of a kitchen and laundry room. For business travelers, [an apartment] can even be more expensive than a hotel, but you get more privacy and more space.”
Most foreign-owned properties are located in central city neighborhoods, he adds, such as Talbiyeh in Jerusalem and Rothschild in Tel Aviv. “You are not isolated in a 1,000-room hotel, and you’re much more integrated with the city and the people. It’s a more personal experience.”
Home exchangers also potentially gain new friends in distant places.
For travelers desiring the conveniences of a hotel, Home4Trip offers services from airport transfers to restaurant recommendations.
“We are like a virtual hotel with 150 rooms in 150 different buildings,” Shapira says.