Housing Ministry to seek increased aid for homeless

At present, a non-oleh applicant for housing aid is likely to receive NIS 536 per month at most.

ugly apartment 88 (photo credit: )
ugly apartment 88
(photo credit: )
The Construction and Housing Ministry will ask the Treasury this week to increase rent subsidies for people who struggle to find a home, The Jerusalem Post has learned. At present, a non-oleh applicant for housing aid is likely to receive NIS 536 per month at most, says Chaim Fialkoff, acting director-general at the Construction and Housing Ministry. He confirmed that such limits were the fruit of a 2002 budget cut in which various aid supplements were slashed by as much as 50 percent. "We're very troubled... We don't say that's sufficient," Fialkoff says. He describes the challenges a family faces in finding an apartment "at all," let alone one near job opportunities: "With the lower subsidies... families are forced to spend a disproportionate share of income on housing and cut back on health-related matters, or even on food." "We're trying to petition the finance minister to increase those sums [for rent subsidies], as part of budget talks for 2008," Fialkoff adds. Talks are likely to conclude by week's end, he says, declining to elaborate. The negotiations come amid the ninth week of a protest-cum-shelter in Jerusalem's Gan Menorah, at the corner of Ben-Yehuda and King George Streets, where more than 130 homeless people have been living in about two dozen tents. The community's central grievance is that a NIS 1.6 billion public housing fund was redirected toward other uses, with about half going to the Jewish Agency. Government officials confirmed these events for an earlier Post report. The homeless demonstrators demand that this fund go "immediately" toward "solutions for... all people who need homes," says Yossi Levi, 35, who lives with his wife and three children in the encampment at the downtown park. Yedid, a social equality NGO based in Jerusalem, published an open letter in the Globes financial daily on June 15 imploring American Jews "to save [Israel's] public housing." The letter reads: "In spite of the drastic cuts in the public housing budget, the Jewish Agency is continuing to receive monies from the sale of public housing apartments for repayment of debts." These monies had been intended to buttress public housing per the Public Housing Law of 1998, Knesset sources say. "Yedid would like these monies to be used to benefit public housing," the letter continues. Fialkoff says he supports boosting public housing, but not through the method Yedid proposes. He defends the payments to the Agency as a part of a cabinet "decision... to pay its expenses and only use net income" for "housing solutions." This confluence of events - the Housing Ministry's petition to the Finance Ministry, Yedid's open letter, and the Gan Menorah protests - has amplified the debate over public housing in Israel. Ayala Sabag, who leads the Gan Menorah community though she is not homeless herself, says 53,000 Israelis remain stuck in some sort of homeless situation, unable even with government aid to find and stay in a decent apartment. But experts disagree on how to define "homeless." At the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem, Dr. Neri Horowitz partitions the issue into two distinct concerns. The first issue is a "catastrophe," he says, with "young couples sleeping in the streets who can't find... concrete walls, water and a place to put their heads." The second concern comprises the "problems after solving the basic problem," such as poor quality housing, a dearth of jobs, deficient education and ethnic ghettoization, he says. "I would like to see much better housing services and social mobility," Horowitz says, regarding second-tier concerns. As for first-level problems, only 1,800 Israelis struggle to find any housing solution at all, Horowitz says. "We're not in a catastrophe," Horowitz adds. "Whatever else we're very bad at, we're good at the basics." For comparison, Horowitz cites graver housing crises from the past, such as the crunch during 1991's wave of Soviet olim. Rent went up by over 100%, and more young couples lived with their parents, Horowitz says. One Construction and Housing Ministry spokeswoman agrees with Horowitz's assessment. While apartments remain available in the periphery, she says, many people decline these options due to job shortages in these regions. But several experts counter that a job shortage facing those seeking a home is a fairly basic problem of its own. This camp includes the Construction and Housing Ministry itself, considering Fialkoff's description of the petition to the Finance Ministry for increased subsidies. Yedid deputy director Ran Melamed agrees. "There is no planning," he says. "There is no one to sit down and say, 'Does this person live in Tel Aviv? Can he rent anything there with the subsidy we're giving him? If not, why is the subsidy so small? So are we sending him to Dimona? But there are so few jobs there. Are we sending him to Dimona and forgetting about him?" While Horowitz shrinks the definition of homelessness down to people "on the street," Barbara Swirski, executive director of Tel Aviv's Adva Center for social equality, expands the term to embrace "people with housing problems." She calls for solving the problem through civic largesse: "It's more worthwhile to invest in people. That's what a society is for," she says. "Society will get the money back. If a kid has a place to do his homework and feels secure, he'll be a more productive citizen - and pay taxes. If he has problems at home... [because] income is too low and he doesn't know where he's living tomorrow, it's harder to see him becoming a productive member of society." Swirski calls for reversing the 2002 budget cuts. Politicians "said that government had to be reduced" and "cut wherever there was no resistance," she says. "People in need are not known for their resistance." The cuts were part of "Economic Defensive Shield" - an "Orwellian" name, Swirski says. A cut of at least 4% hit all ministries, except defense, she adds. Horowitz does not deny the problems facing those who search for a home. But to him, it no longer makes sense to call these housing problems per se. "Poor people are excluded in labor and education," while "public health" is barely "muddling through," Horowitz says, "but we're still able to solve the basic problem of a roof. If a neighborhood has bad services" - inadequate education, for instance - "then I would address the Ministry of Education, and not move people out but get better services." To those living in Gan Menorah, however, such an issue is not an Education Ministry problem, or a welfare problem, or any particular species of problem; it is simply a life problem. "For food for three children, electricity, gas, it's not enough," Levi says of the subsidy. Exacerbating the problem, he adds, is the correlation between job shortages and the only neighborhoods where one can afford to live on a scanty subsidy. "We try to work decently, but we don't have a chance," he says. As a result, he adds, "a poor man raises a poor child." Anat, another Gan Menorah resident, mistrusts the government's low subsidies. "We're just getting acclimated to a place, and then we have to move," she says. She is wary of settling for subsidies at all, rather than a permanent, publicly-owned apartment. Adds Chen, a supporter at Gan Menorah for the afternoon: "Look how the government is treating [evacuees] from Gush Katif. Even I don't trust the government. Why should they [the homeless]?" Providing publicly-owned apartments, however, exceeds the limits of largesse even for many sympathetic to the public housing cause. "If you have to buy [an apartment] and pay $100,000," Fialkoff says, then one forfeits the chance to "assist a lot more families" by putting the same money toward rent subsidies. Fialkoff says that with a maximum subsidy of NIS 1,800 a month - available only to new olim, the elderly and, since 2006, veterans with large families - one's own contribution to rent "is more or less equal to what a family would pay in a public housing unit." Meanwhile, in the free market, "you can choose the location." The answer, Fialkoff concludes, is not to return to public-owned apartments, but to grant the higher rent subsidies to more families. Swirski applauds that subsidies give a person shoulders to stand on in the free market, not a full, instant apartment. "We encourage people to work hard," she says. Like Fialkoff, Swirski takes issue not with rent subsidies in theory, but with close-fistedness in practice. Anat, ultimately, agrees to the realistic compromise of subsidies. "But only if there were a written guarantee and someone standing behind it," she says. "It needs to be something we can count on." Horowitz calls for strict eligibility requirements. "We're going from a Scandinavian, generous welfare state to a liberal, Anglo-American welfare state," he says. "We use a means test: Only if you're in need, we give you, and give you the minimum." A ministry spokeswoman confirmed that such criteria were used. For example, families with three children receive large subsidies that a family with one or two children is unlikely to get. Swirski criticizes such criteria as not only stingy, but ineffective. Often, she says, as many as a third of people who should qualify do not know how - they fail to go to interviews, or to prepare for them. Ultimately, "you don't give to who needs it, you give to who's strongest," she says. The government redirected the NIS 1.6b. public housing fund under an agreement with the Jewish Agency, officials from both parties say. The state had asked the Agency's housing subsidiary, Amigur, to sell its apartments, transferring those that remained unsold to government control. The Agency agreed, but only if the government would pay them for the latter apartments, which were built with Diaspora Jews' donations that the Agency had collected. "It's the worst agreement," Melamed says. The government remunerated the Jewish Agency with money from public housing residents' purchases of their public apartments - money required to go back to the ministry for housing solutions, according to the Public Housing Law of 1998, he says. Government officials confirmed this was the case. The controversy over the NIS 1.6b. fund has propelled the eight-week Gan Menorah demonstration. The park's scores of residents have organized several rallies, including a march to the Prime Minister's residence and on Tisha Be'av, a sackcloth sit-in at Kikar Davidka. "On Tisha B'Av, we cry over the destroyed Temple and the destroyed homes of Jerusalem, yet we are homeless," Levi says.