Whose property?

Four key-money tenants in Rehov Hanevi'im are fighting eviction notices from the Russian Religious Mission.

Rehov Hanevi'im 64, located in the heart of central Jerusalem, is the kind of address that many people would die for. But the current tenants have unexpectedly found themselves at the center of a battle over the ownership of the beautiful historic buildings. Following mounting efforts by Russian authorities and financiers to purchase properties in and around the Russian Compound, as previously reported by In Jerusalem ("To Russia with love?" July 4), four residents of Rehov Hanevi'im recently received eviction notices from the Russian Religious Mission ordering them to vacate the building they have called home for over 30 years. It's not difficult to see why the address, which translates to "Street of the Prophets," has become so desirable. The road spans two different worlds, emerging from the walls of the Old City and rising gently toward west Jerusalem, a stone's throw away from the Ticho House, the haredi Mea She'arim district and the shops, cafes and bars of Jaffa Road and Rehov Ben-Yehuda. The four-meter-high brick wall of St. Joseph Convent drops to head height, affording inquisitive pedestrians, a milieu of Orthodox Jews, French nuns and patients at the nearby Bikur Holim Hospital, a glimpse into the grounds of No. 64. But the tranquility in the sheltered courtyard is deceiving, as the threat of eviction and the ensuing court case have dampened the spirits of the residents. The eviction notice, claiming the tenants have breached the contract, came as a "total surprise" when it landed on the doormat of one of the residents who has rented her apartment since she married in 1967. "Suddenly we are all criminals. For years we have been good neighbors, taking care of the houses and we have never been bothered," says K. "We came to live here because we saw a beautiful Jerusalem house and wanted to live in a home with history and character. So we invested in it and took care of it, as did all of our neighbors, but now we are all depressed." But the low rent and the unique history of the property have become a thorn in the side of the current residents. The property is one of the few remaining places in Israel operating under the system of "key money," an antiquated arrangement that K. describes as "somewhere between buying and renting." Under key money agreements, tenants pay a sum to buy the rights to the keys to the property from its owner, sometimes half of its value, which gives them the right to live there in exchange for a modest rental payment, in this case, approximately NIS 200 per month. Attorney Asher Axelrod, who is representing one of the tenants, says that there are not so many cases of key money tenants left in Israel, but most of those remaining are in Jerusalem or south Tel Aviv. Originally, the person collecting rent on behalf of the Russians was Dr. Helena Kagan, a pioneering physician and recipient of the 1974 Israel Prize, who lived in one of the buildings from 1920 until her death in 1978. The address is considered an official heritage building. Previous tenants include the poetess Rachel in 1925 and the British Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt who, in 1869, built the house where K. now lives. Of the seven residences, four have received eviction notices to date, including a 97-year-old man who has been living there since the 1930s. Of the remaining three properties, one is currently empty and the other two, home to Russian nuns as well as former veteran foreign correspondent Eric Silver until he passed away in July, have not been asked to leave. One of the tenants who has been affected is Yehuda Guy, originally from Great Britain, who has been living there for 38 years. Guy says that until the eviction notice, contact with the Russians had been "sporadic." "They never did very much and we never asked for much from them. They never did any repairs and hardly ever came to look around." One tenant claims she has discovered that the property is actually not legally registered in the name of the Russian Mission (also known as the Russian delegation) - or anyone else for that matter. In 2006, two apartments on neighboring Rehov Bnei Brit sold for a combined total of $2.7 million, so whoever can stake their claim to the property has a lot to gain. But Axelrod says that he is not challenging the rights of the Russians as the owners. "We just claim that we have a contract, we stood up to our part of the contract and have every right to stay there." The rights of key money tenants are guarded under the Tenant Protection Law, which states that the owner cannot evict the tenant from the house unless they have breached the law, explains Axelrod. "They paid their key money 40 years ago and have been fulfilling all of their commitments. But now, because there has been a change of regime in Russia, new people have taken charge and are doing everything they can, legitimately or illegitimately, to move them out," he says. The eviction notices accuse the tenants of breaching their contracts, for example, parking cars in the courtyard without authorization and irregular construction, for which the lawyers representing the Russian delegation are charging tens of thousands of dollars. Axelrod describes these alleged breaches of contract as "non-existent." "They are looking for excuses to evacuate the residents. These are minor aspects of conduct with no relevance to the contract between my client and the landlord." Sitting in her kitchen, encased by its thick white-washed walls and high-domed ceiling, K. reflects on happier times at the disputed address. "The reason why we came here was that we were a young couple without lots of money and it [the key money] allowed us to live in a nice house. "We fixed it up too - it was very dilapidated - with the agreement of the landlady," she continues. "They have decided that it belongs to them. But because it doesn't, they are trying to get us out instead. But we are fighting back!" Attempts to get any information on the case from the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs left K. empty-handed. The smell of politics is in the air, she says. "[Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert made promises to [former Russian President Vladimir] Putin and we are in the way," says K. "I've got no other property, this is the only place I have. If it's true that the Israeli government is helping them [the Russians], then they are betraying me, my own government." The Y. Rabinowicz law firm representing the Russian delegation declined to comment on the case.