Haredi parties push to allow building over Green Line

Finance minister considers gov't-backed loan guarantees for mortgages, contractors.

construction good 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
construction good 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There is now a shortage of between 25,000 to 30,000 housing units for the haredi population, United Torah Judaism Chairman Menachem Eliezer Moses said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week. "Thousands of young couples are living in converted storage rooms, garages, parking lots and even garbage bin rooms because they have no other choice," said Moses, who had a one-on-one meeting with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz last Wednesday to discuss the housing shortage in the haredi community. Moses said that the most obvious options for expanding haredi housing are Modi'in Illit and Betar Illit, two all-haredi towns, both of which are located beyond the Green Line. In Betar, located just east of Jerusalem, there is land already zoned for the building of 919 housing units, which if begun today would be completed within two years. Modi'in Illit, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, has land zoned for another few thousand housing units. "But the Americans won't let us," said Moses, referring to Obama administration pressure on Israel to freeze all building in Judea and Samaria. Despite US opposition, both UTJ and Shas, whose constituency is suffering from a major housing shortage, are expected to continue to pressure the government to initiate new haredi housing projects, whether they be inside or outside the Green Line. During the meeting, Steinitz promised to look into providing government-backed loan guarantees to financial institutions aimed at jump-starting the depressed construction sector. The bank loans would lower the risk exposure for banks, enabling them to be freer with credit to both building contractors and haredi families in need of mortgages. Without a coherent government housing plan, construction rates will never keep up with haredi fertility rates, said Moses. According to a special Central Bureau of Statistics study published in 2004, the average haredi woman has eight children on average, much higher than the national fertility rate of about 2.8 The most significant rise in fertility rates began in 1990 and continued through the beginning of 21st century, before cuts in child benefits and rising employment rates among haredi women resulted in a gradual decrease. Young haredi men and women born during this period are just beginning to reach marriage age now. As Moses put it, "Just look at the daily engagement notices in Hamodia, Yated Ne'eman and Hamevaser [three haredi dailies]. Dozens of young people are getting engaged every week. Where will all these couples live?" Moses estimates that every year there is a need for 5,000 new housing units for newlywed haredi couples. The two fastest growing haredi cities - Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit - are both beyond the Green Line. If not for American pressure to freeze all building in Judea and Samaria, these two cities would be the most logical choice for new haredi building projects. Meanwhile, other projects inside the Green Line are being considered. In Beit Shemesh, there is a potential for another 30,000 units suitable for the haredi population. Another option is Harish, located in the north near Hadera, the site of a failed kibbutz and a failing settlement which, according to a 2008 Construction and Housing Ministry plan, will be reslated as a haredi town with 10,000 units. Finally, there is also talk of building a haredi project in Lod, south of Tel Aviv. However, even if these projects receive full state backing, housing units will not be ready for well over two years. Moses said that while part of the reason for the housing shortage was due to the haredi community's rapid growth, another factor was the community's self-applied limitations. "Unlike the secular or modern religious public, we can't just live anywhere," said Moses. "We move together en masse to maintain our special customs and ways of life. We also need to build our own educational institutions. We can't just rely on the local state schools. Everything takes a lot more planning."