Jerusalem: An empty city?

In 2017 there were 163,000 empty apartments in Israel, of which around 73,000 had been unoccupied for long periods and were termed “ghost apartments.” Of these, 15,100 were said to be in Jerusalem.

Thousands of Jerusalem apartments sit unoccupied for long periods (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Thousands of Jerusalem apartments sit unoccupied for long periods
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem has had its fair share of challenges over the years. This millennia-old city at the crossroads of the ancient World has served as a battlefield for practically every foreign power that has trudged through from Europe to Asia to Africa, and vice versa. Then, of course, there was the War of Independence, Six Day War and the Second Intifada.
And there are the more prosaic – yet no less pressing – obstacles to a good, prosperous and harmonious life here. For some years now, there has been a marked migratory pattern here, with many – mostly young – Jerusalemites upping stakes and relocating to Tel Aviv. That has been prompted by better employment opportunities over on the coast, and also by the greater availability of more affordable housing.
It’s not that there aren’t enough accommodation units to go round in the capital. Not that we are talking about a localized phenomenon here. It seems there are tens of thousands of unused apartments dotted around the country. According to figures cited by the Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC), in 2017 there were some 163,000 empty apartments in Israel, of which around 73,000 had been unoccupied for long periods and were termed “ghost apartments.” Of these, 15,100 were said to be in Jerusalem.
That is a stunning figure. Free market prices in the capitalist world, as we know, are dictated by the balancing act between supply and demand. The fewer housing units there are available to consumers, the more demand outstrips supply and, hence, the more expensive accommodation becomes, whether for purchase or for rent.
“It’s crazy,” says Esther Fuerster, a lawyer who lives in a new residential tower block on Jaffa Road, overlooking the shuk. “We live in this new building, and only a small number of the apartments are occupied. You have all these places, like Mamila (David’s Village) with no one living there. It’s not a nice feeling.”
Fuerster says she is at a loss to understand local authority machinations behind the large-scale downtown construction projects.
“The municipality allows construction of apartments in order to have people live in them, to enable Jerusalem residents to purchase an apartment and live there, no? Or maybe, it is just a trick by contractors who build and build, and then there’s no one to sell to.”
That, Fuerster feels, impacts on locals with less in the way of ready wherewithal.
“Maybe they are targeting people from abroad who don’t live in Israel and who can pay more.”
Perhaps it is just a matter of semantics, but the municipality spokesperson sets the number of ghost apartments far lower than the RIC, whose figure is based on data provided by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, which operates under the auspices of the government.
“In Jerusalem there are approximately 1,500 ghost apartments, which account for a small percentage of the supply of apartments in the city. As such, this does not represent a widespread phenomenon in Jerusalem,” the municipality statement noted.
Of course, facts and figures can make for fickle bedfellows. Victorian British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once scathingly observed: “There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Mark Twain put it more succinctly: “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
EITHER WAY, there are some facts to be seen, literally, on the ground. Last week there was a second screening of a fascinating documentary, Rehavia – The Story of a Jerusalem Neighborhood, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The first showing was a couple of weeks earlier, as part of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. The film, by Aliza Eshed and Eli Abir, which was supported by The Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, focuses on the history of the neighborhood since its founding in the 1920s. The interviewees, which include a small number of first-generation occupants who still live there and former locals, and who are primarily from Jewish German – yekke – origin, talked about life back in the day and how the place has radically changed over the past 80 or so years.
Some also bemoaned the growing incidence of apartments being purchased by wealthy Jews from abroad who come here once a year. The rest of the time, the apartments lie empty and shuttered from the outside world. The neighborhood, which was once home to a stellar cast of European-born intellectuals, is now populated by a motley demographic with, naturally, only a handful of original residents. Media personality and stand-up comedian Kobi Arieli, who has been living in Rehavia for a few years, is not exactly enamored with the deserted units he sees around his home patch.
“I don’t have any statistical figures, but I look around me and I see a lot of closed shutters,” he says. “There are also a lot of vacant parking places – but not on my own street, unfortunately,” he laughs.
Typically, Arieli takes a quizzical smile-inducing look at the situation.
“On Sukkot, all the owners from abroad come here for a few weeks. That’s when I don’t go to my grocer’s because I don’t speak English with the right accent. For a few weeks, it’s just like Brooklyn here.”
He also sees some benefit, albeit of the backhanded kind, in having fewer people around.
“If all the owners from abroad lived here all the time, it would be really crowded. Then again, all these empty apartments could serve young students who find it very difficult to find decent affordable accommodation.”
 Despite his normal sunny disposition, Arieli is not hopeful about improving matters.
“I can’t see how you can do something to combat this. Something like this can really kill the city.”
In fact, there was an official state initiative around six years ago, whereby the Knesset Finance Committee approved a temporary order to double the arnona (municipal tax) paid by owners of apartments that were categorized as “ghost” housing units. The order, which was initially due to be implemented for two years, and subsequently extended, was to be applied to apartments that were left vacant at least nine months of each calendar year. At the time, chairman of the Real Estate Appraisers Association in Israel, Ohad Danus, expressed grave doubts with regard to the effectiveness of the Knesset move.
“These are mostly exclusive apartments with wealthy owners,” he said. “This is a populist measure that will not have any effect on young couples and the middle class.”
DAVID KROYANKER feels the same. Kroyanker is an 80-year-old Jerusalem-born architect and architectural historian of Jerusalem. He has written dozens of popular books about the capital’s neighborhoods, streets, buildings and urban planning, and knows more than most about the residential dynamic here.
He adopts a sober stance on the empty accommodation phenomenon.
“There are ghost apartments all over the world,” he notes. “Wealthy people have an apartment in Antwerp, another in Acapulco, in London, New York and also in the Land of Israel.”
Kroyanker believes that here it is very much a matter of prestige and religious pecking order.
“There are numerous such apartments in Mamila (David’s Village). That’s because Mamila is Jerusalem’s ‘beach.’ Jerusalem’s ‘beach’ is the ‘holiness beach,’ it is near the Old City Walls and the Western Wall. It’s just like other rich people buy a house in Acapulco near the beach. These apartment owners in Jerusalem are most religious, or traditional, and they come here once, at most twice, a year. ”
Kroyanker follows Danus’s line of thought.
”These people don’t care about spending money on property managers, and none of the other expenses involved interest them at all. But the fact that they can tell their relatives and friends in New York that they have an apartment of seven rooms next to the Kotel is the most important thing.”
The veteran historian believes that finances come into play, but only in the long term.
“It’s a good investment and if it stands empty for a year or two, it doesn’t make any difference to them. They also assume that the price of the asset always rises and, if not, that’s not critical for them. This generally refers to wealthy religious families who have apartments in places like Baka, the German Colony, Talbiyeh and Rehavia.”
Like Danus, Kroyanker did not place a lot of faith in the Knesset Finance Committee resolution.
“They once tried to address that by doubling the arnona. That doesn’t interest these wealthy people at all.”
He feels it simply isn’t practicable.
“You can check if an apartment is being used, for instance, by checking the electricity meter, but you need a whole team of people to monitor that sort of thing.”
City Hall also ran into difficulties with billing absent owners for higher arnona rates.
“In 2016, the Jerusalem Municipality charged a higher level of arnona for ghost apartments, as stipulated by the Interior Ministry that year,” states the municipality spokesperson. “But, as we known, in 2017, the regulation was rescinded by the Interior Ministry, so the municipality was forced to go back to charging the same arnona for all apartments. And it’s the same today.”
STEVE TOBERMAN, owner of the Edison Homes and Management real estate company, is keenly aware of the accommodation plight in these parts.
“There is a concern about not enough housing in Jerusalem and, obviously, there’s a concern about reasonable rental rates for people. In real estate in general, what scares me is that to buy an apartment is expensive, but people can always rent. But now it is getting very hard for people to even rent here, because rents have gone sky high.”
Toberman says that the Knesset initiative in 2014 was, in fact, preceded by a municipal attempt to curb the ghost apartment problem.
“I think it was during Nir Barkat’s reign [as Jerusalem mayor] when he wanted to do a project where the city would get of the names of all the apartment owners who don’t live here. The city would help them rent them out to students, and they would come to some sort of agreement about how to do that.”
While that sounds like a pretty commendable proposition, Toberman, who also acts as a property manager, was not overly enthused.
“I thought there’s no way I’m going to cooperate with the city on that,” he chuckles. “I didn’t trust the city. I didn’t know what they would do with that information and I wanted to protect my owners.”
He has personal experience of living in a building with empty units.
“In one building I lived in, the contractor himself lived there, and when we had problems, say with the roof or the garden, he would be happy to fix it. Of course, we’d have to pay him for the cost of the repair. But he was always angry. He’d said he didn’t mind doing the repair for me, because I lived there. But he said why should he do the work for someone who doesn’t live there?”
Longtime Rehavia resident Hannah Bergman says she is frustrated with what she calls “municipality inaction.”
“They are not doing anything to combat ghost apartments. There’s one right opposite my home. There’s a three-story building that is owned by the same family, which is always dark. I live on Ramban Street, and that building is on Ben Maimon Boulevard. When I stand by the window at night I just see darkness. That’s really unpleasant.”
According to Bergman, there are wider repercussions.
“Think of the neighborhood and the businesses here. The neighborhood is dead. In my building, there is one vacant apartment and there are three out of four in the building next door. In fact, all four are empty, because one belongs to the Spanish Consulate and they are never here. So that’s another building that is completely dark at night. It doesn’t give you a nice feeling.”
Like Arieli, Bergman does not enjoy the annual religious holiday mass influx.
“The owners come from abroad at Sukkot, and it really feels like Brooklyn here. You hear only English then. And the people who do move in are religious, even haredi, Americans, and the all the prices go up because the Americans are willing to enormous sums of money to live here.”
Sounds like a double whammy.