A decade since the protest: Israel’s housing crisis goes from bad to worse

Waiting lists of up to 10 years. 900 uninhabitable apartments and more than 1,500 units simply abandoned by the authorities. Huge disparities between apartments in popular towns in the center of the country and those in far-flung places in the south. And more than 30,000 people waiting for a solution. A special Shomrim report into the ever-growing crisis in Israel’s public housing sector

Waiting lists of up to 10 years. 900 uninhabitable apartments and more than 1,500 units simply abandoned by the authorities. Huge disparities between apartments in popular towns in the center of the country and those in far-flung places in the south. And more than 30,000 people waiting for a solution. A special Shomrim report into the ever-growing crisis in Israel’s public housing sector

Waiting lists of up to 10 years. 900 uninhabitable apartments and more than 1,500 units simply abandoned by the authorities. Huge disparities between apartments in popular towns in the center of the country and those in far-flung places in the south. And more than 30,000 people waiting for a solution. A special Shomrim report into the ever-growing crisis in Israel’s public housing sector

Ze’ela Kotler Hadari

Hagit Meshulam, 44, from Bat Yam, has been waiting 11 years. Photo: Bea Bar Kallos

August 17, 2021

Summary

R

emember the summer of 2011? No fewer than seven housing ministers, six finance ministers, five governments and countless election promises and slogans have been and gone over the past decade, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of housing. There’s one statistic that’s worth examining for just a moment: in 2011, there were 62,000 public housing units in Israel. In 2022, there are 52,000. In fact, even that paltry number does not accurately reflect the number of available units, as we will soon see when we dive into the real figures, but let’s assume for a moment that it does.

It’s a simple calculation: every year, 1,000 apartments disappear, when the exact opposite should be happening. When one takes into account the fact that there are more than 30,000 people in Israel waiting for public housing (which includes 5,600 people that the Construction and Housing Ministry has approved, 1,400 elderly people waiting for accommodation and around 25,000 new immigrants), the State of Israel finds itself in a dire situation. Thousands of families, who are in the bottom deciles and are among the most disadvantaged people in Israeli society, are struggling not for the right to a fancy apartment, but for somewhere – anywhere – to live.

What about the statistics? There are far more of them than available apartments. Here are just a few from a special report compiled by the Construction and Housing Ministry in January 2019: 2,745 of the households eligible for public housing, according to the Construction and Housing Ministry’s criteria, wait up to two years for an apartment; 1,292 households wait more than two years; 597 wait for more than four years; 290 wait longer than six years; 120 households have been waiting for over eight years; 152 have waited for more than a decade; and there are 46 families who have been waiting for public housing for more than 12 years. The state comptroller, in response to the report, wrote that, “in these circumstances, those eligible for public housing are given a glimmer of hope, but the number of available apartments means that this hope has no chance of being realized.”

Hagit Meshulam, 44, from Bat Yam, has been waiting 11 years. When she was 23 and heavily pregnant, she suffered from shortness of breath. Her doctors tried to reassure her that this was simply because the fetus was pressing up against her diaphragm, but the symptoms did not pass after she gave birth. She underwent extensive testing and was given a grim diagnosis. She was told that she was suffering from berylliosis, the result of breathing in beryllium fumes while she was working as a dental technician. From a young and active woman, she became disabled. “I came down with an occupational disease that’s incurable and untreatable,” she told Shomrim. “The cells in my lungs are slowly dying. They hardly function. I can’t climb stairs, and I can’t live in a highly polluted area next to the main road. I’ve got the air conditioner on all the time.”

And you’ve been waiting for 11 years?

“Yes. For nine years, until 11 years ago, I was unaware that I was eligible for public housing. I found out that I was eligible and I submitted a request. I thought it would take a year or two until they found me an apartment. But for years now I have been top of the list in Bat Yam for people eligible for public housing. The Construction and Housing Ministry abuses and dismisses me and others like me, instead of providing a solution.”

Meshulam is raising six children. Two of them have already left home and she is a grandmother. “In a year from now, my third son will leave home and they’ll tell me I’m no longer eligible for housing because so much time has gone by.” In the meantime, the family survives on the salary her husband earns accompanying special education buses and her own disability allowance. They pay 5,500 shekels in rent, 3,900 shekels of which is subsidized by the state. The rest is paid for by the family. According to Meshulam, if the family was living in public housing, they would pay just a few hundred shekels a month – and would also be eligible for a reduction in municipal taxes. “The state helps me pay rent, but the local authority takes it back in taxes, you get it?” she says.

Meshulam worked as a dental technician for six years. “I finished high school and I started to work. I’m a talented lady, but I have this rare disease. There are only 13 other sufferers in Israel and some of them had struggles with the National Insurance Institute. We’re not a spoilt family; we live very modestly. I don’t even have a passport, because we never travel abroad. For us, a vacation means going into nature. Just imagine what our financial situation would be like if we were to get an apartment from Amidar. We would have an additional 1,000 shekels a month. That’s another item of clothing for each child. Right now, we can only afford a pair of shoes for Shabbat and another pair of sports shoes.”

Hagit Meshulam. Photo: Bea Bar Kallos
Hagit Meshulam, 44, from Bat Yam, has been waiting 11 years: "For years now I have been top of the list in Bat Yam for people eligible for public housing. The Construction and Housing Ministry abuses and dismisses me and others like me, instead of providing a solution."

52,000 apartments? Not really

Once, when the State of Israel was being built and there were millions of new immigrants arriving who needed quick accommodation, the state’s operations were expansive. Between 1949 and 1958, more than 200,000 units of public housing were constructed in Israel. Indeed, when it became apparent in June 1960that this wasn’t enough, Labor Minister Giora Yoseftal announced that the state would build tens of thousands of additional apartments for “those who do not have the wherewithal to do so themselves.”

Back to the present and the 52,000 housing units that are allegedly available. We say “allegedly” because, according to a Shomrim investigation, some 2,500 of them are indeed registered as public housing but are not being used as such. Nine hundred of them are uninhabitable and in need of major renovations (on which, more later); another 110 apartments, most of which have two or three rooms, stand empty in the peripheries, far from the popular areas in the center of the country; and another 1,500 are in the hands of organizations, NGOs, local authorities and government departments – and are not available to Hagit Meshulam or any of the thousands of other people who are waiting.

According to Freedom of Information data for 2020 obtained by Shomrim, in Jerusalem alone, there are 128 public housing apartments that are currently occupied by bodies that do not qualify for public housing. Most of the properties in Jerusalem are taken up by two urban kibbutzim, which have not been vacated for more than 20 years. At the same time, there are 800 families in the city who are eligible for public housing and are still waiting.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel submitted an information request to the Construction and Housing Ministry last year. According to the response it received, some 800 public housing units are currently home to a synagogue and a further 150 are used by local authorities (such as Ashdod, Ashkelon, Bnei Brak, Binyamina, Tiberias, and Tel Aviv) as community centers. Some non-governmental organizations have also found a home in public housing: Akim, Na’amat, Shekel, and Enosh, to name just four. In 32 of the properties, there is a kindergarten and in 22 others a school operates. The Hesder Yeshiva in Yeruham accounts for 39 public housing units, while the Negev Yeshiva takes up 26 properties in the same town. Even the Movement for Spreading Torah takes up some of the public housing in Yeruham.

Construction and Housing Ministers Zeev Elkin (current), Yaakov Litzman, Yoav Galant and Yifat Shasha-Biton. Photos: Yitzhak Harari, Shmulik Grossman - The Knesset
According to Freedom of Information data for 2020 obtained by Shomrim, in Jerusalem alone, there are 128 public housing apartments that are currently occupied by bodies that do not qualify for public housing. Most of the properties in Jerusalem are taken up by two urban kibbutzim, which have not been vacated for more than 20 years. At the same time, there are 800 families in the city who are eligible for public housing and are still waiting.

According to official figures, government departments have also found homes in public housing: the Communications Ministry occupies three such properties in Beer Sheva and Lod, while the Religious Affairs Ministry holds five properties – two of them in the central city of Hod Hasharon. The Defense Ministry occupies 36 properties in Kiryat Arba, where the Israel Police also holds six properties in the city.

More examples? More than one hundred public housing units are occupied by local religious councils; in Kiryat Shmona, 66 properties are currently occupied by the Academic and Technology College of Tel-Hai; and some 360 units located inside Tel Hashomer and Asaf Harofeh hospitals are currently the subject of a years-long legal struggle between the Construction and Housing Ministry, the Israel Lands Authority and the treasury.

These bodies and organizations began populating public housing units in the 1950s and continued to do so until the last decade. According to records, there were changes in some of these properties in 2018 and 2019, which means that the phenomenon was not halted – even though the state comptroller wrote a harshly critical report about it back in 2013. “The apartments have been authorized for purposed that cannot be defined as ‘public use,’ and are now used as offices, or as homes for local council workers and employees of private bodies,” then-comptroller Joseph Shapiro wrote. “One apartment is even being used as a vacation home for a company that is supposed to house people. All of this comes at the expense of people who are eligible for public housing and who have been kept waiting, in some cases, for many years.”

According to a report published by Channel 2 news in 2014, not only have these apartments been given over to organizations at the expense of people eligible for public housing, but some of them were even sold to government bodies at knock-down prices, without a professional valuation, and without a tender. According to the report, the attorney general launched a probe into former housing minister Uri Ariel’s decision to approve the sale of dozens of public-housing apartments to NGOs affiliated with the national-religious camp in Dimona and Kiryat Shmona.

In 2019, the state comptroller reiterated his warnings over the phenomenon and stated that, up to that date, some 1,800 public-housing apartments – 3.5 percent of the total – had been given to public organizations. That’s a large chunk of the people who have been waiting years for public housing. The Construction and Housing Ministry, for its part, claims that it is making efforts to get those apartments back – and, indeed, says it has successfully reclaimed several hundred. It refused, however, to provide figures about current efforts to reclaim lost public housing.

None of this convinces members of the Public Housing Forum. They claim that, when it comes to the removal of people from public housing, government policy makes it easier for the Construction and Housing Ministry to evacuate impoverished families, using various and spurious arguments, than to show any kind of determination to recover the thousands of apartments being occupied by public bodies. “The Construction and Housing Ministry acts with all its force against disadvantaged families, who often find it hard to even pay for legal representation, yet it ignores a crime: thousands of illegal tenants who took hold of public housing and refuse to move out,” says Danny Gigi, the chairman of the Public Housing Forum. “There’s absolutely no justification for a person in a wheelchair waiting for an apartment in Jerusalem, while the Admor of the urban kibbutz in Jerusalem decides that, since he’s doing good for the neighborhood, he and his family deserve to live in public housing.”

It should be stressed that some of these properties are not coded ‘brown’ in terms of their zoning. In other words, they are properties that are designated as public housing, but not all of them are suitable for accommodation (even though each one could be renovated and rezoned). Someone well-versed in the Construction and Housing Ministry’s policies explained to Shomrim that one of the problems is that there are some local authorities that are not releasing these properties because they don’t have enough buildings designated for public use. There are also difficulties removing synagogues, since, in most cases, there’s no legal body to turn to and no one who can request of the congregants that they evacuate the property. Some of the properties are also occupied by various NGOs, which provide community services; evacuating them from the properties could raise questions about the ramifications of their future activity.

Either way, each such property, which is registered as public housing but is not used as such, is one less apartment for someone who needs it and one more family that will have to wait even longer for suitable housing. This is a responsibility that that state is not meeting.

“Hundreds of helpless families have approached us, telling us that they’re afraid they’re about to lose the roofs over their heads and that they could find themselves thrown out onto the street because of the Construction and Housing Ministry’s eviction policies,” says Meital Cohen, an activist with the Public Housing Forum. “I got one phone call from a tearful widow, the mother of four small children, whom the ministry decided to evict from the home she was actually born in. That’s just cruelty. If the Construction and Housing Ministry were genuine to look for solutions for families on the waiting list, then it would evict all the illegal occupants – like the urban kibbutzim, the hospitals, and the NGOs, who have taken over public housing.”

900 uninhabitable apartments

To be eligible for public housing in Israel, people must meet the criteria set by the Construction and Housing Ministry just to get onto the waiting list. When their turn arrives, they move into one of the apartments managed by Amidar – a public company that was established in 1949. Amidar is responsible for the vast majority of such apartments, while some are operated by Amigur, Shikmona, or Halamish. Alternatively, the applicant received a government subsidy to help pay rent in non-public housing. It is believed that up to 400 households join the waiting list every year. Given that there are not enough public-housing apartments at hand, the government subsidizes rent for around 170,000 households, at an annual cost of some 2 billion shekels.

One cause of the shortfall, as mentioned above, is that some 900 public-housing apartments stand empty and are not used to house eligible families since they are not in any fit state and are in dire need of thorough renovation. Amidar, which manages the majority of these properties, has complained about the lack of funds for renovation for years, saying that the government is deliberately withholding funds and that’s why the housing situation is so dire. The Construction and Housing Ministry points out that, “after a period where a year-on-year budget was used, whereby renovations were only approved in life-threatening circumstances, the number of uninhabitable and unusable apartments rose. During budget discussions, Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin proposed an increase of 170 million shekels for the upkeep and renovation of public housing in 2021 and an additional 196 million shekels in 2022. Once the budget is approved by the Knesset, these funds will be made available, in accordance with the priorities set out.” The full response from the Construction and Housing Ministry appears at the end of this article.

How does it work? According to its contract with the state, Amidar is obligated to conduct “breakdown maintenance” and it offsets those expenses after the work is done with the Construction and Housing Ministry, which, in turn, must set aside the funds for the maintenance. If the Construction and Housing Ministry does not have the funds available, the Amidar work order is not opened and the renovations are not carried out, according to one source who is well acquainted with the workings of these companies. According to Amidar’s annual report from 2019, it dealt with around 174,000 calls from residents about apartment maintenance – about a third of the total number of calls to its service center.

2011 Israeli social justice protests in Tel Aviv. Photo: Reuters
As of August 14, 2021, there are 110 public-housing apartments in Israel that are habitable and have been standing empty for more than three months. However, they are not in areas where there is any demand. There are, for example, 35 empty apartments in Dimona, 18 in Yeruham, 16 in Ofakim, 14 in Beer Sheva, and 11 empty apartments in Mitzpeh Ramon.

Take the case of A, an elderly woman with intellectual disabilities who loved with her son in an apartment where, every time they used the water, sewage would rise up through the pipes. Without running water, the woman’s son would bathe her using wet wipes. Then there’s L, who had to turn to the Justice Ministry for help because her apartment was riddled with rising damp, cracks in the walls, broken windows, and doorframes, which put the family at risk and were a severe safety hazard.

How did the apartment fall into such a state of disrepair that it posed danger to occupants? Some have tried to pin the blame on the residents themselves, but, in the real estate industry, responsibility rests with the property owner. Is it possible that Amidar does not have the funds to maintain the properties it manages? According to the company’s 2019 financial records, obtained by Shomrim, Amidar had equity capital at the time of 636 million shekels, of which 97 million shekels were liquid.

These records also indicate that Amidar signed a lucrative contract, whereby it rented out one of its most desirable properties – on the main road in the very heart of Tel Aviv – with the Dan Hotel Group, which has its main offices there. The company also has a policy of subsidizing university studies for its employees. In the five years leading up to 2016, the company also spent 12.6 million shekels on marketing and advertising, rather than on maintaining and renovating apartments. This information was revealed in an article in Haaretz in 2017, following a freedom of information request by the Movement for the Promotion of a Fair Society. It was also reported that then-housing minister Yoav Galant instructed Amidar to stop spending money on marketing and advertising and, instead, to spend it on renovating apartments.

Dimona before Jerusalem, Yeruham before Hadera

As of August 14, 2021, there are 110 public-housing apartments in Israel that are habitable and have been standing empty for more than three months. However, they are not in areas where there is any demand. There are, for example, 35 empty apartments in Dimona, 18 in Yeruham, 16 in Ofakim, 14 in Beer Sheva, and 11 empty apartments in Mitzpeh Ramon. The full list appears in Hebrew on the Construction and Housing Ministry’s website.

Why does the Construction and Housing Ministry not sell the apartments it cannot populate and, with the money, buy or build apartments in high-demand areas? According to the ministry, the waiting list for public housing is determined according to the applicant’s town of residence; in other words, people are put onto waiting lists for apartments in their place of residence. In some towns, there is a years-long waiting list, while, in others, there are empty apartments because there’s a relatively short waiting list. The ministry does allow people on the waiting list in towns where there is a shortfall of public housing to move to areas where there are empty apartments.

However, it is not realistic to expect people waiting for an apartment to relocate to far-flung communities. Hagit Meshulam is a perfect example. “I wouldn’t rule out moving to a different town, as long as it’s close to everything I need,” she says. “I am an outpatient at Ichilov Hospital, my loving and caring family is in Bat Yam – but if I were offered an apartment in Yavneh, for example, I wouldn’t have any problem with that. But an apartment is Dimona or Kiryat Shmona is no use to me. How can my husband find work there? And if we’ve got no income, what will we eat? Drywall? The housing minister has to manage things in a lot smarter way.”

An examination of the state of public housing by town reveals outdated patterns, which may have been suitable at a time of mass immigration to Israel, but which are totally inappropriate for the country today. In Dimona, for example, a town with a population of 35,000, there are 2,571 public-housing apartments. In Jerusalem, with a population of close to one million people, there are just 2,559 apartments in the public housing pool. Similarly, in Yeruham, which has 10,000 residents, there are 597 public-housing apartments. In Hadera, with ten times the population, there are just 540 such apartments. In Kiryat Gat there are 1,558 apartments, while in Haifa – which has a population almost five times the size – there are 1,509.

According to a report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, which was presented this month to the Knesset’s Finance Committee by the Construction and Housing Ministry, some 10,500 public-housing apartments have been sold to their tenants since 2014 – in accordance with the so-called Ran Cohen Law, which allows public housing residents to purchase their homes at a reduced rate – but just 2,280 new public-housing apartments have been bought. (The law, incidentally, is due to expire in mid-2023). This means that, for every five apartments sold, the companies managing them have purchased just one replacement – reducing still further the number of available dwellings.

Hagit Meshulam. Photo: Bea Bar Kallos
“Hundreds of helpless families have approached us, telling us that they’re afraid they’re about to lose the roofs over their heads and that they could find themselves thrown out onto the street because of the Construction and Housing Ministry’s eviction policies,” says Meital Cohen, an activist with the Public Housing Forum.

Activists from the Forum for Public Housing want to know what happened to the money from this public housing and why funds were not used to build or buy new apartments, thereby increasing the supply in high-demand areas. They also want the criteria for eligibility expanded and for the urgent construction of public housing. Mainly, however, they are calling for a change in policy, and for the State of Israel to look outward, to learn that public housing in the rest of the world is an integral part of the housing market, which helps not only the poorest sectors of society but also the middle classes, which can act as a factor in driving down housing prices and moderating the market. On the flip side, someone closely involved in the financial behavior of Amidar says that the Ran Cohen Law allows people to buy their public-housing apartments at discounted prices that do not reflect their market value – making it harder for the company to add new apartments to its supply.

Is the situation likely to change any time soon? The government recently approved the state budget for 2021-22 (which still needs to be approved by the Knesset), and, apart from an increase in the funding for building or building 1,700 public-housing apartments over the next two years, that budget is also supposed to fund the addition of 3,000 housing units for the elderly. There are currently 12,300 apartments in 122 retirement homes, which house elderly people who meet the criteria. There is also a problem of a long waiting list among senior citizens, with 1,400 currently waiting for an apartment to become available.

In Bat Yam, the hometown of Hagit Meshulam, there are 231 elderly people on the waiting list – in addition to 184 families. Shomrim will continue to follow this story.

Responses

Construction and Housing Ministry: “Working to increase the number of apartments” | Amidar: “A large chunk of our budget is earmarked for investment in public housing”

The Construction and Housing Ministry said in response: “There are 4,300 people waiting for public housing and another 1,400 waiting for alternative apartments. In order to meet the demand for apartments, the ministry is selling apartments in towns where there are vacant apartments and no waiting lists.

“The apartments that were allocated to bodies that are not people eligible for public housing were done so in accordance with the past policies of this ministry – policies that are no longer applicable. Over the past four years, the Construction and Housing Ministry has worked on several fronts to increase the number of available public housing units, to use their house eligible citizens, and to restore them to the ranks of public housing. During the past two years, we have reclaimed 400 apartments that are now home to eligible families and legal proceedings are underway to reclaim an additional 190 apartments.

“After a period where a year-on-year budget was used, whereby renovations were only approved in life-threatening circumstances, the number of uninhabitable and unusable apartments rose. During budget discussions, Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin proposed an increase of 170 million shekels for the upkeep and renovation of public housing in 2021 and an additional 196 million shekels in 2022. Once the budget is approved by the Knesset, these funds will be made available, in accordance with the priorities set out.”

In response to the specific case of Hagit Meshulam, who has been waiting for more than 10 years for public housing, the ministry said: “The Construction and Housing Ministry is aware of and has been keeping tabs on the case of Mrs. Meshulam and her family since 2011 when she was found to be eligible for public housing. She is currently at the top of the waiting list and, in order to make life easier for her while she waits, she is given rent relief of 3,900 shekels a month. The family was offered two apartments, in accordance with its eligibility: in 2016, they were offered a four-bedroom, first-floor apartment, and, in 2019, a second-floor apartment with an elevator. The family, for their own reasons, rejected these offers.

“Before these apartments were offered to Mrs. Meshulam, a medical committee was asked to determine their suitability, given her medical condition, and found no reason that a woman in her condition could not live there. It should be stressed that public housing is a scarce resource in Israel in general and in the center of the country in particular. Purchasing such apartments is done in accordance with ministry policy. In Bat Yam alone there are 184 families on the waiting list, of whom 54 are waiting for a four-room apartment. That said, the family can ask to be put on a waiting list in an adjacent town and the request will be considered by an exceptions committee.”

Amidar’s response: “The company operates in accordance with a management agreement and budgets provided by government ministries and seeks to optimize the service it provides the public. Beyond these budgets, a substantial proportion of the company’s budget is spent on investment in public housing. Over the past five years, we have invested 120 million shekels of our budget in improving the stock of public housing and the welfare of residents.

“As for the management of public housing stocks, the company puts up for sale, via open tenders, unwanted apartments – and uses the money to buy apartments in areas where there are waiting lists. This is an ongoing activity.

“We view with the utmost importance the restoration of public-housing apartments that are being used by public bodies; for several years, we have been working with the Construction and Housing Ministry on an expedited framework for reclaiming these properties and, so far, we have successfully reclaimed more than 500 apartments.”

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