New quarter, same old problems

Jewish Quarter residents want municipality to take over day-to-day running of area from current company.

Jewish quarter jerusalem (photo credit: )
Jewish quarter jerusalem
(photo credit: )
Some Jewish Quarter residents are demanding the elimination of the company charged with maintaining the neighborhood, saying it no longer serves their interests and has too much control over their daily lives. They want the Jerusalem Municipality to take over for the Jewish Quarter Development Company (JQDC), which was formed by the government after the 1967 war to oversee rebuilding the Jewish Quarter, which was then in ruins. In 1983, when the rebuilding was completed, the government decided to keep JQDC in place to oversee maintenance of the area, known to residents as the "Rova." "If they're not willing to close the company, we want the day-to-day affairs to be turned over to the city," says resident Brigitte Bliah. "We want to be in the same situation as any other neighborhood in Jerusalem." Residents are not the first to call for the disbandment of the company. The state comptroller has recommended it twice before. The neighborhood of about 500 families is in a unique situation. The company handles many things handled elsewhere in Jerusalem by the municipality, such as parking, zoning, building registration and some of the neighborhood's maintenance. Company spokeswoman Gura Berger says that the Jewish Quarter presents a unique planning challenge and requires a different, more concentrated form of local governance. "There must be some control and some rules for the right to live in the Jewish Quarter. It's a great right. It's not just another neighborhood. It's the crème de la crème of Israel," says Berger. Residents say that their needs are neglected because the company is preoccupied with the needs of tourists, whose large numbers put significant strain on the residents. "We deal with so many pressures, and our quality of life is so low. There needs to be an equalization of our quality of life against all the pressures our neighborhood is getting subjected to," says Rebecca Shore, a resident of the Rova for 25 years. However, Berger says the company is doing an adequate job, given all the groups and obligations it has to consider. "We're always trying to find a balance between tourism, people living there, people coming to pray, businesses and places where people are learning," says Berger. "[The residents] don't see the whole picture - everything the company is dealing with." Residents claim that the Rova is falling into a state of disrepair and that instead of fixing holes in the streets, broken streetlights and faded street signs, the JQDC spends its time slapping outlandish fines on the residents. "It's an out-of-date, wasteful situation. Money that could be used directly for the benefit of citizens is being spent on maintaining a bureaucracy that works against the people it's supposed to help," says Shore. About two years ago, the company began registering the homes in the residents' names to give them greater ownership. In the process of inspecting and registering the homes, company surveyors discovered numerous small changes to the interiors that residents had made over time. The company is now issuing fines for these violations and is also asking residents to pay several years' worth of interest on the extra space. The alterations are mostly efforts to maximize indoor space, since little can be done to expand the total square meterage of the homes. According to Shore, some 60 families have received citations so far. Home costs are based on square meterage. By adding to their indoor space, the residents increased their total space; but they were never charged for it because the company didn't know about the changes, says Berger, explaining that residents failed to follow proper procedure and apply for permits. As a historic neighborhood, the Rova is subject to a different standard of control over private residences, says Berger. The problem is not with the changes themselves but the fact that residents didn't receive permission in advance. "We understand the criticism and we are trying to do better," says Berger. "The Rova buildings are historic buildings… No one has the right to make changes in those buildings without confirmation from the architect of the company or the Antiquities Authority." Shore says that the changes they're being charged for are mostly not things the municipality would ever issue fines for and that the company is taking money from residents without giving a full justification or explanation for the charges. Some residents are charged less than others when, because of their location or because of the nature of the changes made, they should be paying more. Shore says the company told residents that the cost per square meter is based on proximity to the Western Wall but that she was charged less than a friend who lives farther from the site than she does. "It's basically extortion. We don't know where the money goes, and we don't know what they're basing their charges on," she says. Berger says there is nothing unusual about the charges, for violations and for added space, even if they're for things as slight as carving into the Rova homes' unusually thick walls to add a nook or widen a doorway slightly. "If you make changes, if you enlarge your house, you have to pay more. It's not the same lot anymore. It's not the same space," she says. The company pays for its maintenance and renovation projects with the money it receives from sources such as property leases, tourism and parking. At a loss for where the maintenance money could be going, a group of residents filed a request for financial information in October 2008 and a second one in February. "We could not find anything in the budget that indicated where they're spending money on the neighborhood," says Shore. They discovered from the information requests that the company was spending NIS 25,000 annually on gardening and made a one-time expenditure of NIS 742,000 to renovate Rehov Tiferet Yisrael in the Rova, among other things. There was also NIS 10,000 a year allotted for signage in the neighborhood. Although the street renovations are apparent, Shore says that the residents have noticed no improvements in landscaping or signage. There are no signs pointing to the Western Wall in the whole neighborhood, she says. "It's not what it should be, considering what the place is and who comes through here," she comments. The company says that much of the maintenance of the Rova is not actually in their hands. Things like street repairs and cleaning are actually the responsibility of the city, which receives municipal property tax payments from the residents. Cleaning is the only maintenance done adequately. An unclear delineation of responsibilities between the company and the city has been problematic because the neighborhood's needs end up falling through the cracks, Shore explains. "There's no master plan for anything," she says. On top of the confusion as to the delegation of responsibilities, there is no communication between the residents and the company. The committee of elected representatives for the neighborhood has no power and has a hard time setting up a meeting with the company, says Shore. A former member of the committee says that any attempts at sitting down with representatives of the company have been met with disinterest and disdain. The committee members were told that it was their choice to live in the Jewish Quarter and they just had to deal with the challenges, he says. There is no warning from the company when they begin large-scale projects that will impact the residents and no updates that give residents an idea of what is happening around them, says Shore, citing the Hurva Synagogue that is currently under renovation. Residents know nothing more than the general public about progress on the renovation, even though the construction work has temporarily ended their access to a central gathering area for the community. However, Berger says the committee has been a useful apparatus for keeping a finger on the pulse of the Rova and communicating with residents. The struggles with the company and frustrations that come with living in the Rova are driving out many of the neighborhood's most valued residents, says Shore. Many of the apartments are being bought up by wealthy owners who live there only a few weeks a year. The middle class, the bulk of the Rova residents, is getting squeezed out, she says. "Part of the beauty and magic of the Jewish Quarter is that it is a living neighborhood," says Shore. Many have already left because of problems they've had with the company, says one resident who asked to remain unnamed. Many residents were hesitant to talk with In Jerusalem or give their names because of fear of retribution from the company through citations or additional fines. To maintain that, the residents are willing to bring the situation to the courts, which the resident says could happen soon if they continue to be brushed aside by the company and the Housing Ministry. They have hired a lawyer, Gavriel Danon, and they've been trying for months to secure a meeting with Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas). "We're going to take it to court soon if we don't make any headway. But who wants to go to court when you can dialogue?" says Shore. "Because we've gotten no cooperation, we don't feel like we have any choice now," Shore said. At this point, the residents filing the complaint want the Jewish Quarter to be handled by the municipality, just like any other neighborhood, and for their representatives to be given the ability to actually represent the Rova residents. What they don't want is any continuation of their relationship with the JQDC. "The company doesn't clean. It doesn't care about hygiene. It doesn't make any repairs. It doesn't do anything in this neighborhood," says Bliah. "Now it's got to go."