My Word: In tents and purposes

It is not only the cost of housing that needs to be addressed, we simply cannot afford to ignore the underlying social issues.

Tent City 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Tent City 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I discover that I’m ahead of the times. Last week I realized I had been a potential trendsetter 21 years ago. Unfortunately, it was one of those occasions when even being able to pronounce “I told you so!” with a righteous sigh did not make me feel good.
In a piece I wrote under the headline “Out of control,” published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine in July 1990, I opined: “This is the time of year when I see red. This is the time of year when I think red. My face, bank account and politics are all red...
“This is the time of year when I am forced to search for an apartment.
“Every year since I left the greenhouse safety of university dormitories, I have had the same crisis at the same time. Usually it’s a simple war of nerves over whether the landlord will or won’t renew the lease and by how much the rent will jump...
“This year our landlady is not renewing our lease.
This year the flat-hunting is worse than ever...
“More homes are definitely being built in the city,” I pointed out. “All over town you can see luxury apartments under construction. I recently asked one developer how he squared the building of luxury apartments (the cheapest going for $150,000) with the needs created by the influx of Soviet immigrants.
“He replied that he intended to use the immigrants as a labor force and thus provide them with jobs.
Well, good for him, but I wonder where he intends his musicians-turned-bricklayers to live.”
That passage, admittedly, sounds dated: The new immigrants have become seasoned veterans – and more to the point, the idea of a luxury apartment “going for $150,000” is now ludicrous. Even the price of small flat in Jerusalem is about double that. But it says something in favor of the Israeli economy (and part of the credit goes to those same immigrants from the early 1990s) that the prices are now quoted in shekels and not dollars and – unlike even the American economy – Israel’s financial situation has weathered the global storm well.
“So what’s the solution?” I asked in conclusion, all those years ago. “For a while I envisaged myself wandering the streets of the capital singing, ‘All I want is a room somewhere,’ my computer-cum-livelihood in one hand, my books-cum-worldly possessions in the other, my trusting cat tagging along.
“But things are now looking brighter for me. My friends demanding electoral reform recently evacuated their tent across from the President’s Residence – out of disgust rather than political achievement, I’m afraid. This could provide me with an affordable home, with neither rates, house-committee charges or capricious landladies.
“This prestigious address – ‘Liat Collins, Sderot Hanassi [President’s Boulevard]’ has a ring to it, and would provide strategically situated headquarters for a new campaign: Bring back rental and housing controls.
Trouble is, I can’t distribute campaign literature at the moment, as I don’t have a home phone number or address.”
THERE IS another obvious difference between the “tent cities” that have sprung up around the country in the last week to protest the untenable price of housing and the demonstration I envisaged 21 years ago. Then, I thought I would use the facilities evacuated by the political protesters rather than turn my demonstration into a political issue.
It is too early to say whether the latest wave of public dissatisfaction that started with the so-called Cottage Cheese Rebellion and has now reached the real housing situation will eventually bulldoze the current government out of power. It has certainly shaken it out of complacency.
At the moment, it’s hard – although not impossible – to foresee this particular coalition crumbling over social issues. It is even more difficult to imagine the next Israeli elections being won solely on the basis of a socio-economic platform rather than a security-diplomatic-based one.
As Post political reporter Gil Hoffman pointed out in an analysis last week, already National Union MK Uri Ariel has suggested that US President Barack Obama is to blame for the astronomical rents and rising cost of housing, having prevented construction in Judea and Samaria.
In any case, while the Knesset enjoys its summer recess, returning only in October, it is unlikely that the momentum will be maintained.
Clearly some of the protesters are participating more for the “in-tents experience” than to actually effect a deep social change. It’s summer vacation for the students, too, and as a Yisrael Hayom commentator noted, the protest camp on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard is serving as something between a massive pick-up bar and a cheap alternative to chilling out in Goa, on the Indian coast.
That’s not to say that the protest is not legitimate.
My sympathies are with not only the students and other singles who can’t afford decent housing, but also the young (and old) families for whom cottage cheese is a luxury and home ownership beyond their dreams.
I have heard, of course, the many voices (mainly from those who are living very comfortably) telling the students they are “spoiled”: There’s no need for them to be staying in the major cities.
I heard the same argument when I left my parents’ home in Karmiel in 1982 to study in the capital. The Galilee town has developed considerably since then but I still don’t accept the reasoning. Why should young people from the periphery give up the chance of living in the big city for a while? Most of them have spent the previous two to three years serving in the army – they deserve the opportunity to enjoy the student experience, especially as the majority are also working at least part-time and doing reserve duty.
True, the students need not seek the most prestigious neighborhoods (although much depends on the vagaries of public transport) but even the less fancy areas are expensive. (I should know: With a lot of help and a mortgage, I finally purchased an apartment in the Katamonim a few years ago. Today, I couldn’t even afford to rent there.)
SO WHAT is the solution in 2011? Not the freeing of more land if it is only going to be turned into luxury homes. There needs to be better use of available land within existing urban areas, recognizing the real needs of residents. Ignoring the environmental and social impact of expedited construction is only sowing the seeds of the protests a couple of decades down the line, when it will be too late to undo the damage.
Similarly, the much-vaunted eviction-construction projects, now being marketed under the more attractive title “urban renewal,” should be handled with care: Too often those evicted cannot afford to maintain the more expensive apartments constructed where they used to live.
The building of apartments for long-term rental should be encouraged, however.
A neighbor told me she thought the tent protests are a sign of a real change; I think a more encouraging sign was when Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz finally stood up to the tycoons a few months ago and insisted that more of the expected revenue from the off-shore gas reserves be used for the public good.
If I’ve learned anything in the past 21 years, it’s that the “free market” often carries a high social price.
And that is the real message of the tent cities: It is not only the cost of housing that needs to be addressed, we simply cannot afford to ignore the underlying social issues.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.