Israeli Housing Crises: Country of refuge or country of opportunity

SETH J. FRANTZMAN

The housing report landed like a fat man hitting the water of a placid pool.  The State Comptroller detailed the ineffectual response of Israel’s government over the last seven years to address the housing crises that has seen prices skyrocket.  From 2008 to 2013 prices rose 55%.  Rental prices rose 30%.  The share of one’s salary needed to pay for rent climbed from 29% to 38%.  The number of salaries need to purchase a home increased from 103 to 137.  A Ynet special report noted that there were “massive” increases in the cities, with some prices climbing 220% in 6 years. “Even in Tel Aviv satellite town of Holon, we found a building in which prices have more than doubled in recent years. In January 2008, a four-room apartment in the city went for NIS 731, 000, but seven years later, the price for a similar apartment on a lower floor had jumped to NIS 1.47 million.”

More expensive than the OECD and the West

More expensive than the OECD and the West

ISRAEL IS unaffordable to live in.  That’s the simple truth.  Or Kashti aHaaretz noted that “perhaps if the [government] ministers and senior officials responsible for the failure had to cope with similar questions they would be doing more and talking less. But their families are taken care of.”  That’s a good point.  The social justice protest of 2011 resulted in several young politicians being sent to the Knesset, but the only outcome of those protests in terms of housing prices is that those politicians can now afford a home, the hundreds of thousands of protesters can’t afford anything.  And so the politicians don’t see the problem.

Since it is election time in Israel, all the newspapers and politicians want to make housing a political “gotcha” issue. Ynet notes, “MKs in the Likud party have begun to personally attack Shapira and claim that the public should only receive the information contained in the report after the March elections.”  Unsurprisingly Haaretz claims “PM is main culprit in housing crises.”  Both these newspapers are known for opposition to the current governing coalition.  But how is placing the blame on the government helping the average person and answering their desires to see housing that is affordable.  One politician running for office spoke to a group of the wealthiest Israelis at the Naveh Tzedek tower in Tel Aviv.  How exactly was that helping the people?  The Zionist Camp has put up posters saying that it will provide “free land” for people, another pie-in-the-sky claim that obviously has little substance behind it.

"Return to Zion"

“Return to Zion”

The essence of the housing crises is at the center of an ideological view of Israel.  When the right wing talks about Zionism, it rarely talks about a land of opportunity.  Netanyahu calls on European Jews to move to Israel to escape anti-semitism.  We hear about the “religious” reasons to move to Israel, the “land of Zion.”  Another group of “move to Israel” voices seek to attract through neat packaging. Birthright and other organizations run programs to let people see the best side of Israel.  Hasbara sells Israel as a high-tech nation with bikini clad babes. Israel is packaged and sold like a Happy Meal.

The fact is that the current Israeli government has been focusing on “existential” threats to Israel and security at the expense of housing.  Niv Elis wrote in The Jerusalem Post “the comptroller has painted a picture of a government unwilling to focus its efforts on one of the most pressing problems, even years after it has reached crises levels.”  Iran, of course, is one of those issues.  The Prime Minister is focusing his efforts on a speech about Iran in the US.  The concept is that, between Iran and anti-semitism in Europe, Israel’s primary raison d’etre is to be a refuge or a “homeland” for the Jewish people.  Nowhere in the manifesto of Zionism does it speak about it being a successful homeland exactly.  Israel is an answer to a question. The “yearning for return to Zion.”

Walter Christaller's central place theory

Walter Christaller’s central place theory

At the heart of the discussion in Israel today is an Israeli Left that is beholden to the old roots of Zionism’s “answer” to the economic strategy for developing Israel.  When Labor Zionism ran Israel the answer was to create a “perfectly planned” utopian society.  The architect of this planning regime was Arieh Sharon (not to be confused with Ariel Sharon), a European trained expert in planning.  Like most Labor Zionists, such as Arthur Ruppin, he imagined a pristine blank slate for Zionism, to be constructed over the new immaculate surroundings that resulted from the 1948 war and the almost total depopulation of the Arabs of what had been part of Mandate Palestine.  A million dunams were placed into the planning departments hands and in the first years of the state the “master plan” was put into action.  Based on Walter Christaller and other European “theories” of “future planning” and an “ideal society” of rationalizing humans, much like the Soviet Union was then practicing; Jews would be shoe-horned into a new “modern marvel” of planning.

The main features of the Israeli landscape that we see today are relics of this era.  The small rural kibbutz and moshavim with their little fences around them and their acceptance committees are on the top of the structure; then there are the development towns, the “periphery”, Israel’s dumping ground for the immigrants from the Arab countries, Russia and Ethiopian, the “menschenmaterial” in Arthur Ruppin and other Zionist sociologists view; who had to be turned into a “proletariat” and “rationalized” to build the new state.  Zionism and state-building took precedence over individual rights.  Hence the people were stuffed, sardine-like, into small apartments when they arrived in Israel.  They often had no choice as to their destination; many were housed in barbed-wire festooned camps until they could be processed and sent to their “new home.”

Jewish population in West Bank and other areas (Wikipedia)

Jewish population in West Bank and other areas (Wikipedia)

Israel’s government acquired 93% of the land in the country after 1948, not only taking over the entire Negev (half the land area of Israel) but annexing millions of dunams that had been Arab land and acquiring the lands of various Jewish Zionist purchasing societies (the PLDC, etc).  With the exception of limited areas of free market and a fluid inventory of housing, the vast majority of construction was state initiated, state planned, and state-owned.  The transition to any sort of free market in housing has never fully matured.  Over the years some Israelis sought a degree of freedom from these shackles, and they found it in the expansion into the West Bank after 1967.  The migration of some 350,000 Jews into the West Bank and 200,000 into annexed Jerusalem is seen often as an ideologically underpinned settlement.  But most of these people were not ideological settlers, but economic settlers.  The West Bank (and to a much smaller extent the Golan, Gaza and Sinai) were like a steam valve, letting pressure off the housing market inside the Green Line after 1967.  This was particularly true since the mid-1980s.  Thus the “housing crises” was postponed by the more liberal housing market in the West Bank where planning was more fluid and red tape less.  One could comment that this of course was a burden on the Palestinians, an obstacle to peace, and all those things; but from a standpoint of just looking at housing, the fact is the West Bank provided Israel with a semi-free market, that was free of the shackles inside Israel.

IN A BOOK about the history of suburbs one author comments “the suburbs represent the distinction between the way planners think people should live and the way people want to live.”  In essence what happened in Israel is that allowing people to live the way they want to live was never considered.  The high level planners mostly lived behind fences and acceptance committees on kibbutzim or in other elite areas and had no connection to the average people. For them the people were puddy in the hands of the socialist machine.  As in Soviet Russia, they focused on creating uniformity.  That is why in every major town in Israel everything looks the same.  Apartment after apartment block, all designed the same, all planned the same.  That was the “ideal” way to make people live.  Humans in Israel were to be concentrated; while the elites lived behind an acceptance (admissions) committee and decided what was best.

The rebellion in Israel against this system inherent in the political upheaval of 1977 had no real lasting affects on the housing market.  Like the social protests, political rebellion was seen as an outlet for actual economic grievances.  The bureaucracy inherent to the housing market that had retarded growth, encouraged the expansion into the West Bank remains in 2015. A report in the ‘Post’, noted “There was heavy criticism for the red tape of local planning authorities, which held up approvals for housing units for unreasonable amounts of time, leaving 50,000 units in the pipeline that could have moved forward. Some approvals were drawn out for between 5.5 and 7 years, with it sometimes taking 12 years from the time a development proposal was filed until people could move in.”

10 to 20 years of red tape just to build one building.

10 to 20 years of red tape just to build one building (Seth J. Frantzman).

The essence of the political showdown over housing today in Israel is unclear.  The right presents no real housing plan.  The left presents a plan for “affordable housing.”  Yair Lapid has rolled out a plan noting; “The newer elements of the plan involve doubling the number of land-planning committees to help speed up the process of getting land ready for building and housing units out to market. Lapid promised to slash the bureaucracy that has made Israel’s construction process one of the most onerous in the world.  Left wing Meretz put forward an affordable housing plan: “Its main solutions on housing came from increasing affordable, and public housing, more heavily regulating the Israel Land Authority, and increasing supply through urban renewal efforts for 100,000 housing units.”

The facts are two fold.  First of all Israeli housing plans do not take into account what has been done in other countries to make housing affordable and open up land to the market.  The natural concept is to play within the boundaries already created in Israel in the 1950s.  That means, for instance, in the Negev where there are millions of dunams sitting undeveloped, the concept is to build a few more apartments here and there.  Keep everything the same.  No one in Israel wants the Negev to look like Tucson, Arizona or a successful burgeoning town.  The Gulf Arab states or other countries in the world that have successfully transformed sleepy areas into bustling new urban centers hold no interest for Israel.  Israel is beholden to its system of state planning, concentration of population in central places, and protecting the small rural communities from having to liberalize and open themselves up to a free market.  Israel requires also that its population be balkanized so that Arabs live in Arab areas, religious Jews in religious Jewish areas and so on.  Creating an open inventory in land in Israel is often seen as a threat because “Arabs will buy it.”

Affordable housing is seen as a small tinkering measure to build a few apartments here and there for a country with one of the higher birthrates in the OECD and the West.  Separate planning is also adopted for the various groups in Israel; such that Arabs live under one planning concept (usually private housing), while Jews live under a different planning element and different regional councils.  Activist planners don’t aid this by proposing “cultural planning” which means designing housing “for Bedouin” that “resemble traditional Bedouin tent life” while housing for Jews doesn’t take into account Jewish cultural differences (unless of course the theory is to model it on a Jewish ghetto in Europe where people were all concentrated together, in which case one might say the planners have replicated this model.)

THE CONCLUSION when one looks at the housing crises in Israel is that the country is unaffordable to live in.  It’s people have been driven to penury.  Most Israelis are in overdraft at their bank.  The concept of Israel as a “refuge” for Jews may exist, but the concept of Israel as a land of opportunity and economic success has been abandoned.  One political grouping ignores housing as an issue, the other merely proposes more affordable housing so that people, despite being in penury, can afford some tiny apartment that, although it does not afford them dignity or freedom, keeps them on the government dole and begging for more “affordable things.”  Equality in poverty is one vision of the future.

Is there an Israeli politician who promises massive reform?  The Kulanu part’s Moshe Kahlon has said he wants to break up the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), the socialist-era behemoth that controls much of the land in Israel. With his party estimated to get only a handful of seats in the Knesset, it isn’t likely to have much impact.  Housing will never be fixed in Israel because of the mentalities and vision, or lack thereof, of the political leadership.

 

 

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