Poker faces in the social housing game

Though the whole affair seemed like a round of poker in which all the players were waiting to see who would show their hand first,

Moshe Gafni
Once upon a time, somewhere in the 1950s and ’60s, the right to social housing was one of the pillars of the socioeconomic ethos of this country. Within that framework, a national social housing company was established called Amidar (Hebrew for “my people dwell”), with local companies working in several large cities. In Jerusalem it was called Prazot (based on a biblical verse in which there is a vision that someday Jerusalem would be expanded and fully inhabited).
The same standards held for all of them. They were owned in equal parts by the local council (the municipality) and the government (the Treasury).
In 1998, then-MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) promoted a bill stating that people who had been living in such housing for more than 10 years should be allowed to purchase it at very low prices. The bill was approved, and hundreds of Jerusalem residents (and thousands across the country) became owners of the modest and usually tiny apartments in which they had lived for years.
The bill also stated that with the proceeds and additional government funding, these companies had to buy more such apartments for the new generations of residents who would require social housing. However, not a single apartment has been purchased by Prazot since 1998.
As a result, there are 310 families that are entitled to social housing but are simply registered on waiting lists and live with relatives, if not on the street. But in reality, according to several social advocacy NGOs, there are many more than 310 families without a permanent housing solution, but they do not even appear on the waiting lists because of the criteria specified by Prazot, with the support of the Construction and Housing Ministry.
By the end of 2011, there was NIS 130 million in Prazot’s coffers, while the list of residents eligible for social housing kept increasing. In 2012 the government, with the agreement of the municipality, decided to dismantle Prazot and to split the money between the two owners of the company – the Treasury and the municipality.
They said that from then on, those people would be directly taken care of through the Construction and Housing Ministry. But so far, the residents have had to get by with only some rental assistance.
But then the Tzahor Foundation – a local NGO that deals with social and citizen rights, led by Yossi Havilio, the former legal adviser of the municipality – stepped into the arena. Havilio submitted an appeal to the High Court of Justice, asking for a total freeze of the planned dismantlement so all the money could be used to purchase new apartments for the 310 families on the waiting list (some have been waiting for more than 10 years). The court accepted the appeal and ruled that Prazot had to purchase apartments with the money before being dismantled and shut down.
Even Prazot’s 22 employees (those who are still there, compared to the staff of 125 a decade ago) agree with the decision and are willing to end their contracts in return for decent conditions – which Prazot is ready to approve, anyway.
So what’s the catch? The funds. Neither the municipality nor the government is willing to concede the money they expected to get from the dismantling of Prazot. Mayor Nir Barkat has publicly announced that he thinks the Treasury should compensate the city with the amount of money it should have received before the court’s decision. Havilio responded that “Barkat is holding the poorest residents of his city hostage to his will.”
Not surprisingly, the Treasury refuses, arguing that this was not the spirit of the court’s decision.
An attempt was made last week through the Knesset’s Finance Committee to override the issue and rule on the dismantling without first purchasing apartments. Committee head MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), who has always been very sensitive to social issues, refused to do so.
Yet this past Tuesday evening, Prazot’s board decided to follow the committee’s instructions, approving a resolution to buy apartments for the 310 families entitled to social housing before adopting the dismantling decision. As a result, neither the Treasury nor the municipality will be able to get their hands on the NIS 130 million in the company’s coffers.
So though the whole affair seemed like a round of poker in which all the players – the Treasury, Barkat, Gafni and Havilio – were waiting to see who would show their hand first, the 310 Jerusalem families seem to have suddenly made it into the game.