Real estate hoopla

Housing Minister Ariel Atias wants to slash real estate prices by inundating market with cheap land.

ariel attias 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ariel attias 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Housing Minister Ariel Atias (Shas) is a refreshingly proactive crusader, like few others at the cabinet table. Reforms introduced during his stint as communications minister in Ehud Olmert's recent government are of long-term benefit. The ease with which we switch cell phone providers without having to switch numbers is only one of several noteworthy contributions. Now Atias has redirected his energies to housing and assumes he can work similar magic for apartment-owners. His declared aim is to significantly lower spiraling real estate prices by inundating the marketplace with cheap land. In theory this sounds compelling. In real life Atias may find that correcting inequities in the electronic communications sphere was child's play in comparison to making homes more affordable. Low-priced gadgetry and attendant services are one thing. The biggest-ticket item of most folks' lifetime is quite another. WITH MUCH fanfare Atias last week announced two large-scale sales of Israel Lands Authority plots, sufficient for the construction of some 9,000 apartments. The first offering, slated for September 21, allows for nearly 5,500 housing units. The second is scheduled after the High Holy Days. Atias called these "gifts to home-buyers." His idea is simple enough. Land is the costliest component of real estate prices. If the market is swamped with inexpensive lots, prices are bound to tumble. Atias may indeed improve things in the greater Jerusalem area, especially for young haredi couples. About 2,105 of the housing units included in his plan are in Beit Shemesh. The rest, however, are in locations like Afula, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Shmona, Lod, Ramle, Or Akiva, Ofakim, Yeruham and Dimona. Almost nothing will be available in the high-demand Dan Region. Other than Beit Shemesh, the only semi-desirable real estate on offer is in Yavneh. The Kiryat Gat plot - suitable for over 500 apartments - failed to sell in a tender just a year ago. As any beginning realtor knows, the key is "location, location, location." The recycling of low-appeal properties, already unsuccessfully marketed, encapsulates the problem. Most of what Atias features in his plan lies outside high-demand areas. Families in search of flats in metropolitan Tel Aviv are highly unlikely to opt for Afula instead. Indeed, Atias's press conference and attendant hoopla notwithstanding, there is little that is particularly new in his "gift to home-buyers." The ILA had in recent years been offering plots in outlying locales at rock-bottom prices. There were few takers. Cheap land was never unavailable in this country. However, there will always be greater demand for greater Tel Aviv than for Yeruham. The question is how to bring Yeruham closer to Tel Aviv's opportunities and thereby make more remote residence more viable and less forbidding. POPULATION DISPERSAL isn't only a commendable objective. For Israel it's no less than a national priority. But the way to implement it is not through schemes to peddle projects where there are few purchasers in the best of times. The answer lies in other, seemingly mundane solutions - like belatedly pulling Israel's rail links out of the late 19th century and bringing them into the 21st. Improvement in public conveyances of all sorts will shrink distances and demolish psychological barriers to dwelling away from the country's economic and cultural hubs. A short, comfortable, pollution-free ride, unhindered by traffic congestion and accidents, would open new employment-opportunity vistas and entrepreneurial interaction opportunities for residents of remote locales. It potentially would decrease the younger generation's temptation to leave the periphery in search of jobs. It would lure new residents away from the central Coastal Plain without fear of cutting themselves off from their current workplaces. And such dynamics would naturally drive housing costs down where they're now highest. The notion of artificially competing with vibrant population centers is a non-starter. Even so, everything would be different were these centers to be made physically more accessible, in less time, for the maximum numbers of Israelis.