No room for improvement

The absence of a statutory building plan has Jewish Quarter residents battling extensive fines and even prison sentences for violations.

Jewish Quarter 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jewish Quarter 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
All is not sweetness and light in the Jewish Quarter. Eleven of the quarter’s residents are facing court orders to demolish illegally built additions to their homes. Two of them – a grandmother of 10 and a widowed father of nine – are facing four-month jail terms (an almost unheard-of punishment for this offense) if they do not comply. In addition, some 110 families are in the process of putting together lawsuits against the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter (the autonomous government corporation that oversees the Jewish Quarter) for fees levied on them for building changes that were done, both internally and externally, to their apartments.
While the building problems of east Jerusalem’s Arab residents receive far more attention, Jewish residents of the Jewish Quarter (called the Rova in Hebrew) face the same basic problem as their Arab neighbors – the absence of a statutory building plan that provides for building additions in their neighborhood. What’s more, due to the unique legal status of the Jewish Quarter, its residents also have to deal with an added level of bureaucracy – the approval of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter (called the Hevra in Hebrew).
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Following the Six Day War, when Jews returned to live in the Jewish Quarter after their expulsion by the Jordanians in 1948 and the quarter’s destruction, the government decided to set up a corporation to rebuild, develop and repopulate the area. In 1969, it established the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, which began selling homes in 1970. By the 1980s, reconstruction was basically completed. Today, approximately 600 families live in the Jewish Quarter.
n 1992, the State Comptroller’s Report called for the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter to be dismantled, since it had already completed its mission in 1984. The report also cited the company’s own decision from 1985 to dismantle.
The Knesset subcommittee for issues of the State Comptroller’s Office decided in 1982 that there was no justification for the company’s continued existence, and the Knesset ratified this decision in January 1983. A meeting of the Knesset subcommittee for issues of the State Comptroller’s Office in October 2009 reiterated this decision and called for dismantling the company within three years.
Nevertheless, the company continues to maintain public and private property in the Jewish Quarter worth tens of millions of dollars and has become a middleman between the residents and the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), and the residents and the Jerusalem Municipality.
Residents are required to obtain the company’s approval for any additions or changes they make to their properties – in addition to meeting all the necessary requirements for a permit from the municipality and the district planning and construction committee of the Interior Ministry.
MILCAH NAVE has lived in an 87-square-meter apartment on Rehov Hayehudim in the Jewish Quarter for some 20 years since making aliya from Finland. A few years ago, this grandmother of 10 closed off a part of her 120-sq.m. balcony. She now faces a demolition order and a possible four-month jail term if she does not dismantle the enclosure.
“My situation was critical,” Nave explains. “I needed more room for the grandchildren when they come over. So I closed off part of the balcony. It is not as if I didn’t try to get a building permit. Most of us facing these demolition orders have been trying for five to 10 years to arrange permits.”
According to Nave, this can cost as much as NIS 100,000. “You need a bank guarantee, lawyer, architect, building engineer, a surveyor, etc.,” Nave continues.
“You have to measure the area of the addition and show how it fits in with the building and surroundings.
You also have to get an okay from all your neighbors and from almost every municipal department you can imagine. I went to every department connected in any way to building, plus antiquities, and I got their approval. Then I went to the municipal planning and construction committee. I wanted a twowindow enclosure. The committee approved only one. So I went back to the architect to redesign it and then back again to all the departments for approval. I got the municipality to approve and then moved on to the district committee.
“Three years ago, the district committee decided that I can’t get a permit because the statutory building plan for the Rova does not provide criteria for building additions. The case went to court, and the court said I could make it all legal retroactively if I got a permit.But in order to get a permit, criteria need to be established.”
Nave says that the municipality stated that it would set criteria for the Jewish Quarter, and demolition of Nave’s addition was postponed. But when the Jerusalem District Court saw that three years had passed and no criteria had been set, the judge ordered demolition by August 31, and said that if Nave didn’t comply, she could face four months in jail. That date has come and gone, and Nave still hasn’t demolished the balcony or gone to jail.
The municipality is currently working on a renewed plan for the Old City, including the Jewish Quarter, and Nave is hopeful that her case can be postponed until this plan is completed.
“I have already received two fines totaling NIS 30,000,” Nave adds. “I also had my arnona [property tax] rates doubled as a punishment. The situation is absurd. I am ready to meet criteria, but there are no criteria. I did everything I could to arrange a permit.
Halachically, I cannot move elsewhere. I believe that living in the Rova is a spiritual aliya [ascent], and moving out would be a yerida [descent]. I think that the court should order a freeze until after the renewed plan is completed and give me a chance to make my building addition legal.”
“My clients have fallen between the bureaucratic cracks,” says Roni Dover, who represents five of the 11 Jewish Quarter residents facing demolition orders, including Nave. “My clients asked for legal permits.
They presented building plans. The municipality approved but the district did not because the municipality and Hevra do not have a statutory building plan that sets criteria for building additions. The court imposed fines but said it would postpone implementation pending arrangement of permits. But my clients cannot get permits. Legally, we have reached an impasse. I am not very optimistic unless something changes dramatically.”
Responding on behalf of the municipality, the municipal spokesperson's office writes: “Firstly, in Mrs.Nave’s case, it should be stressed that we are not talking about closing a balcony but building an illegal addition over a large area of some 50 sq.m., using light-weight material... The Jerusalem municipal court ordered her to demolish or get a permit… Mrs. Nave violated a court order and was sentenced to a punishment that includes four months’ imprisonment. The choice is Mrs. Nave’s. She can get an extension, get a permit or destroy the illegal structure. It should be noted that the demolition order in this case was also upheld by the district court and the Supreme Court.
There was a ruling in this case (upheld by the Supreme Court) that in the Old City due to its unique, historic and architectural importance, as well as its importance to three faiths, extending demolition orders should be avoided except in extraordinary cases. This ruling has been applied in dozens of other cases of demolition orders in the Old City.”
Miller adds that to the best of the municipality’s knowledge, in 2009 not one person was put in jail for building violations in the Jewish Quarter. He goes on: “The quarter was built in accordance with an approved plan… Today all the plans being submitted are requests to modify that approved plan, mainly to add living space to existing buildings. The municipality is working on a renewed plan for the Old City and, in its framework, will evaluate the possibilities for additions in the Rova.”
YAAKOV SEVILLA is also facing a four-month jail sentence.
Beginning in the 1990s, Sevilla, a 36-year-resident of the Jewish Quarter, began requesting a permit to enlarge his 70- square-meter apartment on Rehov Hanevel. A father of nine with an ailing wife (who has since died), Sevilla was confronted with a desperate situation.
“I needed a [caregiver] for my wife,” he recalls. “My children were getting older and the boys and girls needed separate rooms. There was no room for anything in the apartment. So I built a 30-square-meter addition on the roof. I tried to do it legally. I decided to build without a permit after I saw no other way. This was only after I went through a Via Dolorosa of bureaucracy.”
Sevilla sent letters to the company asking what conditions he had to meet for approval. He got all his neighbors to sign that they agreed to the addition. But from the company, he claims he only got one excuse after another why it could not approve his building request. He was told that building in the Jewish Quarter was frozen, yet he saw others building and getting permits.
In 2002, one of Sevilla’s neighbors reneged on his consent to the addition and complained. Sevilla had a trial and was given 18 months to get a permit from the municipality to make his addition legal.
“I opened a file for a permit with the municipality, but my file was lost three times,” he notes. “Each time, I had to refile the plans, pay to remeasure the area, etc. And each time I refiled, I was told that the criteria for getting a municipal permit had changed.”
In 2008, Sevilla’s case was discussed in court, and he was ordered to destroy the addition. At his trial, the architect of the Jewish Quarter said that Sevilla was being put through “legal torture” because of the policies of the various government bodies.
He was given another extension to get a permit.
“Then at the end of 2008, I was told my file was frozen because of municipal elections,” he says. “In 2009, I was told there were new requirements. After nine months, I had another trial to which neither I nor my lawyer was invited. Only the municipality was represented. It was decided that I must demolish. I appealed to the district court and I was told that because I didn’t get the permit in the time allotted me to do so, I must demolish the addition. I said that the municipality lost my file three times and then froze my request. But the court decided I had to destroy the addition by August 22 or face jail.”
“Yaakov Sevilla is a very unusual case,” says Sevilla’s lawyer, Ovadia Gabbai. “He has nine children and, at the time he built, had a very sick wife. The municipality lost his file three times and never discussed his case. Then it froze his file. Now, he has been told by the municipality it is willing to discuss his request for a permit if the Hevra approves. But the Hevra wants more than NIS 200,000 for a building addition in order to approve, and he can’t pay. So he has to demolish the structure, which will cost him even more and which he can’t afford, either. The municipality made all the mistakes, and now he has to pay.”
Replying with respect to Sevilla, Stephen H. Miller, a foreign affairs aide, says: “The claim by Mr.
Sevilla that the municipality lost his files is not true. He brought that claim to court. The court ruling sided with the municipality that no files had been lost. The court sided with the municipality that indeed he constructed illegally. The municipality will continue to follow the rulings of the courts of the State of Israel.”
THE MONEY that the company wants from Sevilla touches on a larger dispute of a different nature – a lawsuit in the making by some 110 families against the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter.
The land on which the Jewish Quarter lies is state land administered by the ILA. The land was leased en masse to the company in 1968 for restoring and developing the Jewish Quarter.
Those who buy apartments in the Jewish Quarter are in fact leasing their properties from the company, making them secondary leasers, while the company is the primary leaser. This is a situation that does not exist in anywhere else in Israel.
In 1995, the State Comptroller’s Report criticized the company for not having fulfilled its mandate to register the Jewish Quarter’s apartments under the buyers’ names in the Land Registry. The company only recently started a project to register the properties. As part of the process, the company has taken experts to measure the apartments for changes, internal or external, and assess the owners for them.
The residents in the pending lawsuit claim that the company does not have the authority to charge them for these changes for numerous reasons and, even if it does, it sets the fees arbitrarily.
They claim that in order to register they are being asked to sign a contract that they believe is very one-sided in favor of the company and to which they have no right to make any changes.
They also contend that the contract perpetuates the company’s bureaucratic control over them, despite decisions to disband it.
Many of these families have been fined for building additions.
These include “shaving” the very thick interior walls of the old buildings to gain more space by creating niches or window seats, building platform lofts or galleries in homes with high ceilings and enclosing balconies. This is despite the fact that the owners of the thick-walled old apartments paid for 15 percent more meterage than they have access to.
“Basically, we want the Hevra out of our lives,” says Jewish Quarter resident Rebecca Shore, who is one of those taking part in the lawsuit. “We want to be the primary leasers from the ILA without the Hevra as middleman. We feel the contract we are being asked to sign in order to register our apartments is draconian.
Plus, we are space challenged in the Rova, and we should have the right to make interior changes to increase space without being charged.”
The residents question the legality of the company’s charging them for having added interior space. And they want to know why some people are charged one fee per square meter, while their neighbor is charged another fee for the exact same change.
“There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the differences,” Shore says. “The Hevra did not provide any good explanation when asked according to the Freedom of Information Law. I love the Rova, but daily life here is so hard and the Hevra makes it even harder. If we could deal directly with the municipality, I think we would have a better quality of life. We should be part of the rest of Jerusalem, not an extra-territorial ‘fiefdom’ run by a small government company.”
CHANA SPERBER lives with her husband and 10 children in two adjacent apartments of 79 sq.m. each. In one apartment, the family dug out an 80 x 80 cm. niche in a thick kitchen wall to make room for their refrigerator. In the second apartment, they built a wooden platform, 1.45 meters high on one end and 1.20 m. on the
other, to form a loft where some of the children sleep.
For their nearly one square meter of extra space, the Sperbers were asked to pay a leasing fee of NIS 9,000 and a charge for 10 years of use of NIS 3,150. They were also charged NIS 3,465 for the assessor, who they claim was in the apartment for less than two minutes. This adds up to NIS 15,615. They paid this charge on June 24, 2009, but their apartment is still not registered in the Land Registry.
For the second apartment with the loft, they have been billed NIS 42,340 as a leasing charge and NIS 13,140 for use, plus NIS 4,500 for the assessor. They have not paid this bill yet.
“I thought we owned our flat,” Sperber says. “But I was told we only own the floor space and not the width of the walls. If we dig into the walls, we owe the Hevra for the extra space and the same with the loft.”
“We believe the Hevra’s charges are baseless,” says attorney Gabriel Danon, who represents the 110 families in their pending lawsuit. “The Hevra has overstepped its mandate. It charges for things which the ILA doesn’t charge for and has made demands which the ILA would never make. In addition, there is a statute of limitations on charging for changes, and most of these changes were made years ago – some even by previous owners – and have been known to the Hevra for a long time. We also believe that the appraisals are arbitrary and were done belatedly at the peak of the real-estate market in Israel when prices were at their highest.
“In certain instances, the assessor never set foot in the apartment but still made an ‘assessment.’ Moreover, residents are being charged arbitrary fees, with those on of the same street being charged completely different rates for the same changes without any professional basis for this. And some residents have not been charged at all, even though it is known that they made changes.
In addition, the Hevra wants residents to sign a new contract that maintains it as the primary leaser and the residents as secondary leasers. This could have future ramifications. By signing this contract, the residents remain hostages of the Hevra indefinitely. All these actions perpetuate its hold on Rova properties and residents.
There are tens if not hundreds of millions of shekels’ worth of real estate and outsourced services floating around here. The Hevra is using intimidation to maintain its control. It is a real attempt to create a reign of terror.”
In Jerusalem found a number of Jewish Quarter residents unwilling to talk about their problems with the company, even anonymously. But no family said it was afraid. A number of other reasons were given, such as discussing problems tarnishes the Jewish Quarter’s image, discourages aliya or that they were too busy to talk.
IJ contacted the company and director-general Shlomo Attias, who only entered into the job in April. He referred IJ to the JQDC’s lawyer, Sagi Tirosh.
“The Hevra is like the ILA,” Tirosh explains. “It administers property, and it does this through a government decision from 1968 and through an agreement with the ILA, which gives it all the rights the ILA has visà- vis property administration and Land Registry registration.
“In quite a few cases, it was found that residents who bought a certain number of square meters from the Hevra dug into walls, surrounding rock or under the apartments and added space,” Tirosh relates.
“They did this without building permits or the Hevra’s permission. When a resident does this on property leased from the ILA, there is a permit fee. The law gives the ILA the right to do this because the resident has increased the size of the property and therefore must pay for the addition. The ILA sends someone to measure the property, as well as an appraiser, who decides on the fee in accordance with ILA rules. We operate by the same laws. Residents have to pay for every change that enlarges the area of the apartment, including internal changes. Measuring, assessing the property and settling fees are preconditions for registration in the Land Registry.
“We don’t set the prices – the appraiser does this according to professional criteria,” Tirosh continues.
“The differences may be because one property faces the front, while another faces the back. In any case, residents have the right to appeal, and we will sit with them and discuss their individual cases.”
Tirosh says that registering their property in the Land Registry is in the residents’ interest and denies that the contract perpetuates their status as secondary leasers.
“The residents will have the property in their own names,” he notes. “They receive leasing ownership rights and will no longer be secondary leasers. They can sell the property directly and no longer have to go through the Hevra.”
However, IJ has obtained a copy of an appendix to the contract, which appears to contradict Tirosh’s claim. The appendix heading states that it is for a secondary lease by the residents from the company, and in the body of the appendix the document continues to relate to the residents as leasers from the company.
As for the contract, Tirosh claims that it is a standard ILA contract that cannot be changed and that residents receive a copy when they sign. A new contract with correct meterage is needed for registration.
“Residents will not be allowed to register if they do not have an up-to-date plan of the apartment, and this cannot be made if no one is allowed in to measure and assess. Refusal to allow measuring and assessing also delays registration for one’s neighbors. We register the buildings as condominium [bayit meshutaf], and we need to register all the residents in a building together.
We want to give fair and appropriate service to every resident and welcome their participation and input,” says Tirosh.