Demonstrating despair

Students take to the streets to protest the lack of affordable rentals.

ugly apartment 88 (photo credit: )
ugly apartment 88
(photo credit: )
A conference addressing the issue of foreign buyers snapping up housing in the capital, entitled "The Right to Jerusalem: Between a bustling city and a ghost town," was held by the Jerusalem Center for Ethics on Sunday. The conference dealt with the increasingly incendiary topic of the thousands of Jerusalem apartments left vacant most of the year (the current estimate is 9,000). Since the Jerusalem Development Agency has expressed an interest in encouraging young people to live in the capital, especially in the center of town, the issue has a unique relevance for students who are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable rental apartments. Students attending the conference first held a protest march, which they called "March of the Ghosts," since they say Jerusalem is becoming a ghost town. The group of young people, which mostly consisted of students and graduates of the Hebrew University, began their march at Jaffa Gate, passed through the Mamilla shopping center - which for some is a symbol of foreigner-directed affluence - and wound their way to Mishkenot Sha'ananim where the conference was to take place. The picket signs they carried displayed slogans like "Jerusalem is not the Hamptons" and "I don't want to leave Jerusalem." "We don't want to live in a ghost town!" the protesters chanted repeatedly. "I feel that the current situation is intolerable," Hebrew University student Anat Stein told In Jerusalem, explaining that rent could now be as much as $350 to share with other students, when $200 used to be the standard. "The fact that Jerusalem is emptying is upsetting and it's bad for the city," said Chava LeVine, also a Hebrew University student. According to LeVine, many of her friends have found it impossible to find affordable rentals in Jerusalem, while others were forced to move out of their apartments after their landlords raised the rent by hundreds of dollars. Doctoral student Shaul Zemel said that the only reason he and his wife could afford to live in Jerusalem was that he had a full time job - "as a student, it would be impossible," he said. As it is, they live in the relatively less central neighborhood of Givat Mordechai, where they pay $600 to rent (the standard used to be $400). According to Zemel, the problem is that contractors are no longer building affordable housing, and consequently the natural character of the city is disappearing. Student Eli Osheroff clarified that the was meant to serve as a wake-up call to foreigner buyers whom he believed often didn't realize the impact of their decision to leave their apartments empty. "We have no problem with [foreigners] buying apartments - but live in them," was Osheroff's plea. Alternatively, Osheroff suggested that many students would be happy to rent such apartments, even if it meant being inconvenienced for several weeks of the year when the apartment owners came for a visit. Osheroff, who has family in the US, said he understood the mentality of Americans and their belief that any money spent in Israel is good for Israel's economy. "We want people to understand that it's not helping us, and it's not helping the country," said Osheroff.