The housing protests are a justifiable uproar - opinion

Urban intersections have again become the venue of demonstrators and protest tents are being erected in a number of cities throughout the country.

 DEMONSTRATORS SET UP tents across from the Knesset, to protest soaring housing prices, last week. One of the signs reads: ‘We all deserve a home.’  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
DEMONSTRATORS SET UP tents across from the Knesset, to protest soaring housing prices, last week. One of the signs reads: ‘We all deserve a home.’
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Social and political protests are among the favorite pastimes that Israelis love to engage in. While public policy and international relations do not go ignored, more often than not these protests focus on issues that have an impact on day-to-day economics, with rallying cries originating from the cost of such mundane and commonplace products as cottage cheese and soup almonds.

Manufacturers have not infrequently acquiesced to the pressure of these demonstrations and pulled back from public announcements of planned price hikes. This does not mean that free enterprise or market forces are in any way controlled by the threat of rabble-rousing, but it does indicate that government and business leaders are neither deaf nor blind to the anger of the public, particularly when that anger is perfectly understandable and just.

Similarly, the targets of these protests are by no means random or reckless. They address that which the public at large is affected by and for which mutually acceptable compromise to the differences between those on opposite sides of the fence can be reached.

Urban intersections have again become the venue of placard-bearing demonstrators and protest tents are being erected in a number of cities throughout the country, including Tel Aviv,  Pardess Hanna, Holon and Jerusalem.

This time, though, the focus of the protests is not something readily found on supermarket shelves or regularly and routinely purchased. The focus this time is on the very serious issue of housing availability and prices, and the unfortunate reality that many young men and women find themselves in a seemingly inescapable quandary of being incapable of finding suitable housing.

 Israelis set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, to protest against the soaring housing prices in Israel and social inequalities, on June 19, 2022.  (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Israelis set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, to protest against the soaring housing prices in Israel and social inequalities, on June 19, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Not that Israel is alone in trying to find some way out of this trying dilemma. On the contrary, major cities throughout the world – London, Barcelona, Istanbul, Tampa Bay – are facing the same challenge, which has been more than a little exasperated by the building constraints that were demanded from the COVID-19 pandemic. But while efforts, in some places, are aggressively underway to bridge the gap between supply and demand, there are no expectations for overnight solutions.

Impatience

THE RESULTING frustration and lack of patience in concert with the high prices associated with a seller’s market have, understandably, brought the matter into the streets with governments being called on to intervene and assist in the alleviation of this situation.

Locally, in addition to particularly cumbersome bureaucratic hoops that need to be maneuvered through before receiving building permits, the need for additional public housing is particularly critical. The competition among those who find themselves at the lower level of the economic strata for an affordable place to live is fierce.

Although the statistics are somewhat haphazard and can be unreliable, there is agreement that over 30,000 men, women and children – which include those defined as financially disadvantaged, elderly and new immigrants – have met the criteria for public housing but are facing an inadequate number of vacant apartments. Part of the problem is that many available apartments are uninhabitable and must therefore remain empty. Funds have thus far not been provided to upgrade these domiciles to meet quality-related standards and criteria; other spending lines in the housing budget have, it appears, greater priority.

Moreover, there have been troubling reports that hundreds of apartments that had been designated for rent or sale to the more disadvantaged segment of our society are being used for logistical and administrative activities by various governmental entities.

Truth be told, the fault or blame for this worrying situation is not entirely one-sided. The periphery is vastly underutilized, and public housing is in fact available in a number of out-of-the-way locations throughout the south. Unfortunately, it is difficult to disengage from the lure of the center.

In this regard, COVID, if anything, should have removed one of the main obstacles that have kept remote – and less costly – areas from being more heavily populated. With working from home now a requirement or a viable option for much of the white-collar sector – hi-tech, finance and accounting, mass communications – residing in a “blue highway” town or village is no longer a major impediment.

What exactly the government can do to prevent the escalating prices of homes – newly built ones as well as resales – is by no means clear. As a homeowner, I would not appreciate being told that the price I am asking for the sale of my home cannot exceed a specific figure.

Builders and contractors, similarly, would rebel against interference with how they calculated what their efforts are worth. Israel, in other words, can ill afford to bring back May 1 as a national holiday; for better or worse, prices must be determined by free-market forces.

Government intervention

WHERE GOVERNMENT intervention is possible, however, is in the area of mortgage criteria and eligibility. Surely, the government should be able to provide security that would enable banks and mortgage companies from demanding prohibitively expensive down payments that are now reaching 50%.

A three-million-shekel asking price for an apartment may be reasonable from a market-value perspective, but for a first-time buyer, coming up with the requested down payment is an obstacle that, for too many, simply cannot be hurdled. The government, I believe, has the means to get this under control.

We all – for the most part – applauded the recent legislation that will provide combat veterans a significant subsidy for higher education. Enacting something similar for mortgages would be a welcome expression of gratitude for service rendered to this country. And, again, relevant legislation can include enticements and incentives for willingness to settle down in areas more than a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Tel Aviv.

We can agree, then, that the objectives of those engaged in housing protests are valid and that action of one sort or another is urgently needed. Streamlining the process for getting new housing projects off the ground and increasing the number of public housing units for the less fortunate segment of our population would certainly be steps in the right direction.

Creatively finding ways to make mortgage criteria less restrictive is urgent as is encouraging the readiness to make a home far from the madding crowd. And, yes, those complaining about housing prices must show some flexibility and willingness to compromise on where they will hang their hat.

These problems are not insurmountable. Just how much attention the housing situation will receive given the temporary government that’s now in power remains to be seen, but the relevant ministers and committee members dare not ignore this matter, or wait six months (or more) for a new government to be affirmed.

If the combined efforts of the public and the public servants were able to ensure that everyone would have a container or two of cottage cheese in their refrigerators, there’s no reason why a similarly happy ending cannot be achieved for those seeking an adequate roof over their heads.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.