At what price?

Jerusalem Arabs are determined to stay to preserve their residency status despite skyrocketing prices.

issawiya 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
issawiya 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Only traces remain to remind Gada Musa that her cramped home of 11 years once had a grander purpose. The stoop where she now sits would have been the last row of seats. Her laundry line is strung from columns that support the balcony above. Her kitchen - a fridge and a hot plate - is tucked into the corner of a lobby that once had the makings of elegance. The elaborate theater where Musa lives is part of a community center built by the Wakf. The building never served its original purpose because in 1998 it was converted into a makeshift home for 75 families who had moved to Jerusalem from the West Bank to protect their Jerusalem ID cards. They lived in tents until public housing was built for them by a former city councillor. He was, however, unable to obtain the proper permits; so today, more than a decade later, their real home sits empty and the families still live in the converted community center that was meant to provide a few months' accommodation. "It is very hard," Musa says, "but what can we do? We cannot afford to pay for an apartment... For now we are just here, waiting for the day we can leave." Today about half of the original residents have managed to move in with their extended families in other parts of east Jerusalem. None can afford the $1,000 a month it would likely cost to rent or purchase apartments of their own, according to Mahfouz Abu Turk, a former resident of the building. He and his family of eight now live with his sister in Beit Hanina. Most families in the building have six to eight children. The adult men work in low-paying jobs in the construction industry, Abu Turk notes. "Living like this, it is impossible to save the money. Even if they could, how would they find an apartment? There are no empty places. I know one family that is living in a well," he says. When it became clear their stay would not be brief, the residents erected plywood barriers in place of the original tents, and curtains are used to divide each home into rooms. The units are equipped with basic kitchen and washroom facilities. Still, on an unseasonably warm spring day, there is an unmistakable smell of mold and urine. "The winter is the hardest," Musa says. "There is some heating, but it is not nearly enough," she says. "It is becoming close to normal," Musa acknowledges of her life in the center. She says it would be a little hard to leave the close-knit community that has been created under these extraordinary circumstances, "but still, it is more important to have a real home to live in." When asked why she stays in Jerusalem even though it has proven impossible for her to find affordable housing, Musa's face registers incomprehension, then a trace of offense. "You cannot ask her that," Abu Turk says. "It is like asking someone why they don't want to leave their home. There is no answer to a question like that." Like real-estate prices in the Jewish areas of Jerusalem, the cost of renting or buying a home in east Jerusalem began to skyrocket in 2002. Before that, an average one- or two-bedroom apartment in east Jerusalem rented for $350 to $500 a month, according to Ahmad Sub-Laban of Ir Amim, an organization that works to promote "an equitable and stable Jerusalem." But "today you would be very, very lucky to get an apartment for $500," Sub-Laban says. Many two- and three-room units rent for closer to $1,000. THE STORY in the Jewish areas of Jerusalem over the past 12 months has been the dramatic reversal of the real-estate shortage. "Once, if someone wanted to see an apartment [in a Jewish neighborhood], I could show them three, four, five. Now I can show you 20 apartments," says Tomer Ohedzion, a manager at Century 21 real-estate agency. Prices have dropped even more quickly than they were once rising. It is now possible to rent a standard apartment for 10 percent less than a year ago, and as much as 25% less for higher-end units, according to Ohedzion. It is easy to assume that east Jerusalem rental prices, which mirrored the boom in the rest of the city, would also experience the same dramatic decline. Instead, they have held steady, according to Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD). "East Jerusalem real-estate prices are not subject to the same market pressures," Halper notes. The increase in demand was not, as in the rest of the city, tied to economic growth and increased purchasing power. Even as real estate prices were rising, the east Jerusalem economy was, in fact, declining, according to Ziad Hammoury of the Jerusalem Center for Economic and Social Rights. This raises the question of why, then, are prices so high. The answer begins with a dramatic increase in the population of east Jerusalem - from 70,000 in 1967 to nearly 250,000 today. This is only partially attributable to natural increase, according to Hillel Cohen, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University, whose most recent book, The Marketplace is Empty, looks at the "rise and fall of east Jerusalem." The reason for the recent, more sudden growth, lies in regulations implemented in 1995, which required all holders of Jerusalem ID cards, like the residents of the community center on Nablus Road, to demonstrate that their "center of life" lay in Jerusalem. Enforcement of this policy increased all the more with the construction of the security barrier in 2002 because everyone passing in and out of Jerusalem was required to present ID cards at the checkpoints. Approximately 20,000 Jerusalem ID card holders who had moved to the West Bank in search of cheaper rental prices have streamed back into the city since then, according to city councillor Meir Margalit, also a member of ICAHD. "Houses are being turned into shops. Families are moving in on top of each other. Still, people cannot find a place to live," says Sub-Laban, who works as a field researcher in the area. Everyone in east Jerusalem has at least a couple of extraordinary stories to tell about the living spaces families have created out of desperation - from tents, to roofs, to wells - until it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish the real from the apocryphal. CARMEL ZOUGHLU sits on the couch in the tiny three-room apartment she shares with her family of 11 - six children, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. All but two of the children had their Jerusalem IDs taken away by the Interior Ministry several years ago, so they are reliant on her every time they want to leave the house. Her warm, shy smile is constant, even as the chaos in the tiny living room swells. Some family members watch television, the older children fight over the computer, and the two young grandchildren bang on toys, "just to make some more noise," Zoughlu sighs. Her face becomes that of a shy schoolgirl when she tells the story of how she met her husband, Michael, who is from Bethlehem. "His brother told him, 'I have met a very nice girl for you.' It was less than a month and we were married." Initially they moved in with Carmel's parents, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, but as the family grew the overcrowding became untenable. They moved to the Via Dolorosa neighborhood in the Old City. But they were paying $300 for a single room, which again was a strain for the large family, so they moved to East Talpiot. Their circumstances worsened again when Michael had to move back to his family home in Bethlehem because he does not have a Jerusalem ID. Carmel has been left to manage the family's apartment. The neighbors are friendly but Carmel, who speaks no Hebrew and only some English, often feels isolated. "They know to speak to me in English, but it is not easy," she says, pausing occasionally as she searches for the right word in this foreign tongue. Sometimes the situation is a little "crazy," she admits of their crowded accommodations. "But still, this is where I feel at home." Michael is still hoping to obtain a Jerusalem ID card. THERE IS currently a shortage of over 25,000 units in east Jerusalem, says Halper. This issue came to the fore again last week, as residents protested dozens of demolition orders issued in their neighborhoods. They argue that illegal building is the only solution to the housing crisis because of the difficulty of obtaining building permits. "It is technically almost impossible" to get permission to build in east Jerusalem, agrees Yakir Segev, who holds the east Jerusalem affairs portfolio on the city council. "More than one authority is to blame for the problem," he adds, however. He places the responsibility on the municipality, which has long ignored the needs of the area, and some homeowners, who have built on their land without permission. The municipality faces two problems in granting building permits, he says. The first is determining ownership over the land. Until 1967 property deeds were issued by the government of Jordan. "This was not given out in the most efficient or orderly way," Segev notes, meaning today it is still often difficult to determine the true owner, which is necessary before issuing a construction permit. Second, some landowners in east Jerusalem have refused to give up the requisite portion of their land for public use, making it impossible for the municipality to issue them a permit. East Jerusalem also faces unique planning challenges, according to Avraham Shaked, who represents environmental organizations on the Jerusalem District Committee for Planning and Building. "If you put aside the political complexity and enormous difficulties people are facing, from a professional perspective you don't build in valleys. You don't build on hills. There are restrictions on building in the whole area around the Old City because of the importance of the walls." He notes that illegal building has taken place in response to a desperate need for housing, but he warns this haphazard building is hurting the people who live in east Jerusalem. "It has a terrible environmental impact when you build a house and there is sewage running out in the open, not many meters from their home. It is doing nothing to solve the problems of traffic. There is no easy way to come and go from many neighborhoods ... The situation is unacceptable, from a humanitarian, planning and political point of view." In a statement released last week in the wake of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit, the Jerusalem Municipality defended its policy regarding illegal construction in east Jerusalem. "The Municipality of Jerusalem continues to exercise its rights and its obligations to the residents of east Jerusalem in complete transparency," according to the statement. "Mayor Nir Barkat continues to promote investments in infrastructure, construction and education in east Jerusalem, while at the same time upholding the law throughout west and East Jerusalem equally without bias. "According to administrative procedure, orders can be given to stop work on illegal construction at the beginning and throughout the process of construction. Often, illegal construction has come at the expense of public land designated for the residents themselves." Municipality figures back the claim that the city applies the same policy regarding illegal structures in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Since January 1, 28 demolition orders have been carried out - 11 in west Jerusalem and 17 in east Jerusalem. Nevertheless, says Segev, "You could say that the legal procedures are inadequate. They are not suitable for the cultural needs of Arab neighborhoods." The high rate of illegal building makes it difficult to determine how great the housing shortage in east Jerusalem really is, but he says, "We have a real problem." In response the municipality has created a new master plan for east Jerusalem. Under the plan, the municipality will expand the area in east Jerusalem allocated for residential use. In addition, the new plan will allow property owners to build their homes higher, bringing regulations in east Jerusalem closer in line with those in west Jerusalem. The municipality also plans to crack down on illegal building, in the hope of improving the overall living conditions in east Jerusalem, Segev adds. Segev urges patience, saying it will take at least several years to undo decades of neglect. MANY FEEL they cannot wait. Some families, like the Zoughlus, have begun migrating to cheaper, predominantly Jewish neighborhoods like Neveh Ya'acov or Pisgat Ze'ev. Others have instead looked toward Arab villages and towns that lie outside the wall but are still part of the Jerusalem municipality. There are now an estimated 120,000 such residents of towns like Kafr Akab, Beit Hanina and Shuafat. At first glance it has all the elements of the suburban dream: cheap rent, a quiet lifestyle and more space to raise a family. Salim Shawamreh, who has been living in Kafr Akab for 10 years, quickly rejects this characterization. "They are always running after you to see that you are not living [in the West Bank]... It is a horrible life. Everywhere around me people can't find work in the West Bank... and can't find a job in Jerusalem because their employers are worried they will be getting in late every day [due to checkpoints]," he repeats. Even prices in Kafr Akab are becoming unaffordable. The house Shawamreh began renting in Kafr Akab for $250 in 1998 would now go for more than twice that. "I am trying to find an apartment in Jerusalem - any house - just to prove to [Israeli authorities] that I live there ... Sometimes I think I don't even want [my ID] anymore," is how Ismail begins his story. He lives in a small town in the West Bank just outside Ramallah, and goes into Jerusalem most days for his job as a driver for an American organization. He asked that his real name not be used because he fears losing his residency card if Interior Ministry authorities discover he is not living in Jerusalem. Most people in his position would not even agree to be interviewed for fear of losing their status. Ismail was born in Jordan, but he acquired a Jerusalem ID in 1995 when he married a Jerusalem woman. They lived in the city for six years but struggled with the annual $5,000 they paid in rent, relying on Ismail's income as an independent contractor. When the second intifada began in 2000, they decided to leave the country and move to the United States. They returned in 2007 and discovered that rents in east Jerusalem had gone even higher, beyond what they could afford. "I am looking, but it is too expensive. I can't afford it. If you get $1,000 a month and you have to pay $700 a month [in rent], you will have nothing to eat," he notes. For now, he dreads the regular ritual of passing through the checkpoints. "It is like a nightmare ... Every day I am thinking about what will happen the next day. I think it is only a matter of time before they take [my ID] from me." According to Halper, another factor that has long driven east Jerusalem real estate prices up is the number of units that sit empty. In the mid-1990s, during the Oslo process, a number of Palestinians living abroad bought units in east Jerusalem, looking hopefully toward an eventual peace. When the peace process instead fell apart, many left their units sitting empty - perhaps hoping that a better day might still come. These ghost homes are a particularly vexing problem. They exacerbate the housing shortage without contributing to the economic health of the city. The problem has also been on the increase since 2002, as holders of blue Jerusalem ID cards with spouses in the West Bank look for ways to hold onto their IDs without having to uproot their families. Katib (also not his real name) was born in Jerusalem's Old City. He works at the United Nations refugee agency in Jerusalem, and moved to Ramallah several years ago when he married a woman with a West Bank ID. At first he felt it was worth the risk living outside Jerusalem. His willingness to take this risk changed, however, when his wife gave birth to twins in 2006 and he wanted to register them under his ID. "I knew they would ask me, 'Why aren't they on your ID?' Then I would have had my ID confiscated." To preserve his Jerusalem status, he began renting a house in Kafr Akab for $500. "Immediately after [my wife] gave birth, while she was still in the hospital, a man from the National Insurance Institute came and visited me at home. He took pictures of the house, living room, beds, closets, refrigerator, to check that we had food inside. Then he went to [my wife's] parents' house - because we said we had been living there - and took pictures of that." When asked if authorities have checked since, he says, softly, "Thank God, no." However, he will keep renting the house in Kafr Akab as long as he lives in Ramallah, "for protection." For Katib, national health insurance and the child welfare allowances he receives from the State of Israel as a resident of Jerusalem, as well as the ease of reaching his job in the city, seem well worth the extra expense. "With the UN," he notes, "I never have to worry about getting paid at the end of the month." Yet Cohen of the Hebrew University explains that it is not only Israel's social security network that is drawing families like Katib's back into the city. For middle and upper class families, more taxes and higher rent mean that the end financial gain is minimal. "It is a question of free access," Cohen says of people's ability to visit their families, Al-Aksa mosque and the Old City. Khatib acknowledges that his commitment to Jerusalem residency may not be entirely a matter of the head. When asked what then it is that makes him hold on to his right to live here, despite the odds, his reaction is as abrupt as Musa's from the community center. "Maybe it is hard for you to understand, but it is important," he says, his voice still quiet and controlled. Then, sweeping aside the complexity of his living situation for a moment, he gives the now familiar answer: "Jerusalem is my home."