Homeless in Tel Aviv

The competitive rental market is treacherous for everyone, but immigrants find it particularly difficult to navigate.

Tel Aviv skyscape 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tel Aviv skyscape 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Finding a good apartment in Tel Aviv is like finding a needle in a haystack: Nearly impossible to do and frustrating the entire time you try.
In the White City, where a sizable percentage of the population is under the age of 35, and the Tel Aviv Municipality says 82 percent of residents between the ages of 18 and 35 live in rented apartments, available flats are often rundown and salaries are not commensurate with rental costs.
This is not just a problem for olim; the city’s rental market affects native Israelis as well. However, it disproportionately impacts new immigrants for a variety of reasons, as the lack of fluency in Hebrew surrounding rental agreements, not knowing applicable local laws and a highly competitive rental market create a challenging situation for olim.
In recent years, veteran Israelis and olim have complained that the housing issue has gotten out of control, with rising rental costs, slumlords, collapsing buildings and a complete lack of access to decent apartments in the Tel Aviv area.
“Tel Aviv is unique and a lot of young people want to live here,” says Guy Seeman, founder of Kol Oleh, a city grassroots group. “Because there are so many young people wanting apartments, [landlords] invest very little in them.”
Referred to by many as a multifaceted problem, there are various issues that play into the housing equation in the White City. One issue is the unregulated rental market. Instead of having government oversight, many residents complain that the rental market in Tel Aviv operates in a free market-type system where landlords are able to get top dollar for apartments that are in disrepair. In this way, they have tenants sign leases they do not understand while keeping the apartment in poor condition.
Guy Flysher, a 34-year-old computer programmer and native Israeli from Petah Tikva says that after his rental nightmare, he understands how difficult it could be not knowing how to navigate the rental market system.
Flysher says that he rented a 100- sq.m. two-bedroom apartment near Rabin Square nearly three-and-a-half years ago for NIS 6,500 a month.
“[You would] probably have a harder time being an oleh,” Flysher says, “but when you get [a landlord] as crazy as this one, it doesn’t matter who you are,” he laughs. After finding his apartment on Yad2, he says his landlord was “always cheap” and nickel-and-dimed him after the air conditioner died, refusing to replace it.
After Flysher decided to move out, he says the landlord stopped taking his calls and kept the security deposit he had left prior to moving in.
Only once he hired an attorney to write a letter threatening to sue the landlord did he get a response, eventually receiving his deposit back.
But just the letter itself and meeting with the attorney ran up a bill of around NIS 2,500. After leaving the apartment, Flysher decided to buy an apartment rather than deal with a landlord again.
Because Hebrew is Flysher’s native tongue, he says he has no doubt it made the situation a lot easier to deal with.
And he’s not alone. Many renters who were interviewed said without having the resources to hire a lawyer, write a letter and press legal action, high deposits and withheld rent were not something they could combat on their own.
“It’s an absolute disaster,” says Seeman, explaining that most of the time renters feel forced to sign an agreement they do not fully understand (if at all), and simply sign because of the supply and demand of the rental market in Tel Aviv.
Indeed, many residents complained about signing contracts that allowed landlords to increase the rent upwards of 15% the following year. Because regulations do not exist in terms of what landlords can or cannot do, they often get away with it.
With tenants juggling long hours and not having the time, funds or understanding of the Israeli rental system, Seeman says landlords often turn into slumlords – as they sit back and collect rent, while young residents end up paying for repairs because it becomes easier than dealing with the landlord.
While Tel Aviv is a city that often ceases to sleep and is known for its young, vibrant, all-night crowd, eventually everyone wants a place to call home – even with a roommate or three.
THE COST of rent inside the city is what most report as an upward trend, one that renters are getting priced out of, in a growing reality in which it is near impossible to live alone.
“Treacherous” is what one immigrant called Tel Aviv rental prices. Citing that what she believes is the No. 1 complaint in finding housing, she says, “Prices are absolutely horrible in terms of what you get for your money.”
Of the nearly two-dozen olim from various countries interviewed, many said they spend over half of their salaries for their rent, which is for a room in a multiroom apartment – apartments that were often in disrepair, with landlords who neglected to fix anything.
Beth Hertzog, who has dealt with various landlords in Tel Aviv, was living in a 60-sq.m. apartment for nine years when her landlord informed her the space was big enough, illegally dividing it into two separate apartments while simultaneously doubling the rent.
Another landlord, she says, would “never show up to fix things,” but would feel “justified in raising the rent on a slum hovel.”
Aside from dealing with conditions indoors, many renters talked about frustration surrounding safety issues outside their apartments. Lack of upkeep, no lighting in hallways and homeless squatters were problems renters said are often overlooked.
One renter who did not want to be identified said she continually found human feces outside her apartment building that the landlord refused to clean. The landlord also did not address the problem of squatters in and around the complex.
While fully inhabited, the buildings that house the apartments many tenants talked about were in horrible disrepair. This year alone, two dilapidated buildings in central Tel Aviv collapsed. Even with many complexes sitting on prime real estate, they remain rundown and look abandoned.
“There are no regulations – all the owners have no incentive to change,” explains Seeman, referring to a building in Nahalat Binyamin, where earlier this year one of the top floors fell through (luckily, no one was injured). “People are going to get hurt and the buildings will get worse.”
Even though many residents say they would like to purchase an apartment instead of dealing with deadbeat landlords, it does not look realistic, given the average price of a two- or three-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv.
With rent upwards of NIS 2,600 to NIS 3,400 for a room in an apartment with roommates, renters are often required to pay not only arnona (municipal tax) and utilities on top of the basic rental fee, but also a broker’s fee associated with locating available apartments.
This is the case in many cities, including New York and San Francisco.
Seeman discusses his own personal experience: He spent over four months looking at countless apartments that he found on housing websites, to no avail. Since the condition of the apartments was often far below par, he ended up going with an agent and paying an extra month’s rent for the fee of finding the apartment.
Websites in Hebrew like Homeless and Yad2 are considered good portals for finding apartments in Tel Aviv either with roommates or without, while their English equivalents are often designed for holiday flats with a targeted foreign clientele and much higher prices.
However, even in Hebrew, apartments are still difficult to find.
David Leivy has been in Israel for six years and has lived in four apartments.
He’s currently subletting, and says most of the good apartments are never actually on the market. “They are forwarded to friends or relatives, which for olim makes it even harder since they are a bit out of the loop in most cases.”
BECAUSE RENTALS remain unregulated by the government (one of the few developed countries not to be regulated), until recently there was little to no recourse for residents – aside from private legal advice. Dalite Gold-Dryer, who made aliya with her husband and four children from Liverpool in 2007, has dealt with her share of landlord legal battles.
After moving out of an apartment she says was left in far better condition than when she moved in (which she thoroughly documented with photos), her landlord took her to court. After she prevailed in the initial trial, he was able to appeal, and the entire ordeal ended up costing over NIS 15,000. Translation, attorney’s fees and court fees add up quickly. “Document everything,” Gold-Dryer cautions.
“Don’t talk on the phone because everything needs to be documented when you’re dealing with landlords.”
Seeman says he thinks olim are not adequately prepared for the rental market upon moving to Israel, and wishes that pre-aliya counseling about the rental market was done to educate prospective renters.
Noting this lack of help for olim, the Tel Aviv Municipality has partnered with Mazeh 9. In addition to providing a platform to empower young people by providing workspace and social initiative guidance, they now provide legal services for both olim and native Israelis to help navigate the rental scene.
Launched just over two months ago, Mazeh 9 has staff attorneys and is set up for the young demographic (specifically olim), offering services in both Hebrew and English. The legal services are partly subsidized by the municipality: clients can consult an attorney for NIS 70, with the municipality subsidizing the remaining NIS 130.
In addition to offering legal help, Mazeh 9 has workshops on topics like home improvement and financial planning.
Rov Ha’ir party representative Asaf Zamir sees Mazeh 9 as a big step in accomplishing an integral part of his party’s political platform, on which they were elected five years ago. Having vowed to promote the city’s young interests, he says they are making good on campaign promises.
“Tel Aviv is the one city in Israel that offers an urban and vibrant atmosphere where people live, while at the same time supply of apartments has decreased and demand is higher,” Zamir says.
Because of poor transportation around Tel Aviv, he says young people often need to live within the city instead of in a suburb. “Living far away is problematic. [Tel Aviv] is where the jobs are, and it’s the cultural and commercial center of Israel,” he explains.
While he says he wishes there was more government regulation due to lack of accountability, Zamir hopes it changes.
He says that in addition to Mazeh 9, Rov Ha’ir has two other affordable housing projects that are working to help the residents of Tel Aviv.
Launched two years ago, a foundation that has since worked with more than 330 students was created to offer rent subsidies of up to NIS 9,600 a year, with up to three students per apartment, starting from the first day of university to graduation. In addition, affordable housing on municipal-owned land was set up in the Shapira neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, which offers apartments (at an average of 85 sq.m.) subsidized by the municipality at rents between NIS 2,900-3,100.
“[We’re] trying to create services within boundaries of the authority and assist young residents, including the growing sector of olim,” Zamir added.
But, renters say, unless landlords are held responsible for their property and the government steps in, the rental market will remain in disrepair.
Until this happens, with the help of advocacy and education, hopefully olim will be more empowered by organizations set up to help them navigate the rental market.