Hitting a brick wall?

Although Mayor Nir Barkat has offered needy residents a solution of sorts, with the decision over closing down the Prazot public housing company still pending it will be difficult to provide them with permanent homes.

Housing protesters in Jerusalem 521 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Housing protesters in Jerusalem 521 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Maya Zagov, a single mother of four, has been on a waiting list for public housing from Prazot (the municipal housing company) for more than four years. In the second week of the tent protest movement, when she realized that she could no longer pay her rent, she decided to join the 20 families that had moved into Independence Park, across from King George Avenue.
Two weeks ago, Zagov was among the group of families and social activists who squatted in the former Hebrew University dorms on Stern Street in Kiryat Hayovel and were evacuated a few days later by the police.
Now Zagov is back in her tent in the park, frustrated, desperate, but still ready to squat elsewhere if possible – and determined to obtain her rights.
Prazot was established in 1960 as an executive arm of the Construction and Housing Ministry. Owned by the state (72 percent) and the Jerusalem Municipality (28%), its aim was to purchase and distribute modest apartments to needy families at low rents – sometimes even rent-free.
In 1998, the Law for Public Housing was proposed by MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) and approved by the Knesset, enabling tenants of public housing to purchase their apartments at very low prices. The objective was to allow low-income residents to become owners of their homes and, with the money obtained, enable companies like Prazot to buy additional apartments to enlarge their reservoir of public housing.
However, things did not turn out that way. Houses were sold to tenants, but the state didn’t build new ones or purchase existing apartments. As a result, people like Zagov have to wait, sometimes for six years or more, until an apartment becomes available.
Over the years, all the other public housing companies (there are five in the country and another one in Jerusalem – Amidar) gave the Treasury the money they obtained from selling apartments to eligible residents. Prazot was the only company that didn’t. It kept the money in its coffers, which infuriated the Treasury. However, in last year’s state comptroller’s report, Prazot was commended for doing so. As State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss wrote, “Prazot acted according to its mandate, namely to keep the money for purchasing homes for the needy and not giving it to the Treasury.” Since the Law for Public Housing was introduced, Prazot has amassed NIS 120 million but it has not been able to purchase additional housing due to the complicated bureaucratic procedure for doing so. The Finance Ministry is now claiming that Prazot owes it NIS 90m.
At the end of last year, the government decided to shut down Prazot, claiming that it was unnecessary to keep more than one public housing company in the city. Since the decision to shut down Prazot had to be approved by the two owners – the state and the municipality – the procedure has not yet been completed due to hesitation on the part of the municipality.
Sources at Prazot say that in many annual reports of the municipality’s Social Welfare Department, Prazot has been praised for the high quality of work it has done for needy families and disabled residents. These reports may explain why the municipality is reluctant to agree to pull the plug on Prazot.
After the students left their tents, most of the tents in Jerusalem and other cities have been inhabited by single-parent families or needy singles. Their circumstances are so dire that they are prepared to remain in the tents, even when winter comes.
“We just don’t have any other option,” says Vicky Vanunu, the mother of a two-year-old, who was the first single mother to install herself in the park in July and was evacuated from the building on Stern Street.
She and the other families living in Independence Park have one thing in common: Besides their precarious situation, they are eligible for public housing and have been on the waiting list for years. But Prazot cannot do anything following the decision to close the company, so the situation is at a standstill.
Against this difficult backdrop came Mayor Nir Barkat’s proposal for a package deal for the tent dwellers that combines some financial support and renting apartments for them using Prazot’s funds. Besides the fact that Barkat is the only mayor who has come up with a viable proposal rather than ruling that the tents be evacuated, he makes no secret of the fact that he wants to see the park free of tents as soon as possible. But Barkat, who says he wants to use the funds to help the homeless families (and ensure that the park returns to its original function through a non-violent evacuation), may have a hard time achieving that goal.
According to city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz), a member of the coalition and on the board of Prazot, the decision to shut down the public-housing company is a monumental mistake.
“Barkat may have good intentions, but he seems to forget the secret weapon of the Treasury, called the Economic Arrangements Law, through which they will put their greedy hands on the money. Jerusalem’s needy families will not see one shekel of that NIS 120m.,” he says.
And indeed, sources at Prazot have confirmed that a recent request from the Treasury that Prazot pay back “the debts, including the interest it owes the state” may see the whole project go up in smoke.
Margalit confirmed that the Treasury’s request for NIS 90m. is “a crude attempt to deprive the needy families of Jerusalem of their rights, out of the state’s sheer greed.”
Margalit also said that for the past two years, almost every attempt by Prazot to purchase houses to solve some of the most urgent cases was thwarted by the Construction and Housing Ministry, “which was in no hurry to approve these purchases as required by law. I believe it was done for fear of retaliation by the Treasury, but the bottom line is intolerable. People are living in the streets, money is waiting in the coffers, and nothing is being done to alleviate the suffering,” he says.
Barkat’s package deal, which includes some financial support (NIS 2,000 per family through a special grant from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein), is based on the assumption that the mayor can use the NIS 120m. (some say even NIS 140m.) sitting in Prazot’s coffers.
In an official statement, a municipal spokesman said that the municipality had agreed to allow Prazot to be closed if the Finance Ministry honored an agreement to allocate NIS 100m, to Jerusalem’s needy.
According to his proposal, of the NIS 35m. for the renovation of the apartments available for public housing (in this case, apartments owned by Amidar, since Prazot director Gilad Baraddon says that Prazot doesn’t own houses that require renovation) NIS 22m. will go toward an evacuation/ building project of the immigrant absorption center in Gilo. NIS 17m. will enable rental support for needy families eligible for such help. And NIS 55m. will be used to purchase new houses for families on the waiting list. Additional funding, if available, will be used to enlarge the Social Welfare Department’s homeless shelters.
But for Zagov and her compatriots in the struggle, there are more immediate considerations. “The state, the government, the Treasury – they all have time, but our children are sleeping in the streets, and nobody seems to care.”