Seeking apartments in Tel Aviv
Activists Lilach Rubin and Tomer Varon. We've lost our way with all this free market, Rubin says. Photo by David Bachar
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People seeking to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv say things have never been so bad. Amid escalating prices, landlords are taking advantage of the diminished supply and offering places unfit for human habitation. They’re inserting draconian clauses into leases.

The Facebook initiative the Tel Aviv Tenants Association is the revenge. The page, currently with 2,900 members, aims to restore some sanity into the market.

The creator of the initiative is Lilach Rubin; her landlord told her on the day her lease was up for renewal that the rent would be rising. The short notice left her with no option but to pay – but she launched her page.

“One evening I saw on the rental advertising website Mi’pe Le’ozen [Word of Mouth] a 60-square-meter apartment for NIS 7,000 a month. I wrote the landlord and told him that it was too expensive and that he should lower the price because I wouldn’t pay that much,” she says.

“I got 70 likes and a hundred supportive messages. The landlord got scared and took out a new ad, but with the same asking price! My heart sank. I then wrote: ‘Aren’t you all fed up? Let’s unite and do something about this. How much more can we take?’”

So at 2 A.M. on a July night she launched her Facebook group. Within three minutes the group had 200 members. After this maneuver, Rubin was blocked from the Word of Mouth site, which has tens of thousands of members.

“How can they block me? This site spawned from the social group of a woman who was looking for an apartment on a commercial site called Citywall,” Rubin says. “I don’t mind the commercial aspect of it, but there should be appropriate disclosure. Many of us are blocked on these pages. Someone is trying to stop us.”

Michal Cohen, the founder of Citywall, the first social-network advertising site in Israel, says she “doesn’t know who’s behind the Facebook tenants association and they haven’t been in touch with us. They’re welcome to contact us – we’re happy to cooperate with any Facebook page.”

Also the enemy: real estate agents

Another member of the association is 28-year-old economist Dor Friedman, who moved from Ramat Gan to Tel Aviv a week ago after checking out 18 apartments.

“When I looked for an apartment in Be’er Sheva there were only four,” he says. “I almost finalized a deal somewhere but noticed at the last minute that if I left before the end of the year I would pay a double penalty. I couldn’t provide a substitute tenant and would have had to pay $4,500. The landlord wasn’t willing to compromise on this.”

Real estate agents are also the targets of Rubin’s Facebook group. “These days you call a landlord and get no reply. Then an agent calls and offers to help. That’s how they snare customers. Our goal is to serve as agents,” she says.

“First of all, we have to unite in order to combat the outrageous prices. We want to develop a united negotiating stance. It’s a jungle out there. One landlord wanted NIS 4,500 for a two-room apartment, and we brought him down to NIS 4,000. We’ve only had positive feedback – there’s a consensus around our struggle. We’ve lost our way with all this free market.”

The association recommends a common lease for all rentals that will replace the capricious ones devised by landlords. It’s also trying to set up a price list, similar to the one in the car industry. Beyond the Facebook presence, the association has organized meetings in the real world, too.

“We initially want a holding operation,” Rubin says, adding that social activist Daphni Leef supports the initiative. Rubin, who took part in the social protest two years ago, wants something different. “We’re striving for the short term,” she says. “We can’t wait for the government to build housing. We want to live today.”

I suggest to her that despite her group’s efforts, there will always be people who take the next apartment they see due to exhaustion.

“The despair stems from being on your own. You see places on your own and have no one to talk to. No one sees your lease,” she says. “Now you have someone to talk to. This housing bubble will burst and the renters hold the pin that will prick it.”

Naming and shaming

Another site, Tin Apartments, is run by two anonymous people in the computer industry who call themselves 20 Meters. They actually name and shame dubious landlords, though they wouldn’t reveal their own names to Haaretz.

They each lived in unsavory apartments and decided to look for something together. They saw 20 subpar apartments.

“We saw unbelievable things, with people trying to get away with all kinds of nonsense. We went to one apartment where the owner said he’d forgotten to mention that there was an agent involved. We didn’t see one and were expected to pay for nothing. It sounded like a protection racket,” one of them says.

“One place was advertised as a roof apartment, but when we got there it was only a roof with some shabby tin structure that may have been used by drug addicts. The landlord told us not to worry, he’d put a door up. We decided to try an agent. We saw a really nice place for NIS 3,000 a month, but then the agent told us that there would be an extra monthly management fee of NIS 250. The ad said there was a garden but it was all paved over.

“One person asked for a NIS 6,000 deposit but said we’d only get half back at the end. When we asked why, he said he’d need it for fixing the place up when we left. I laughed in people’s faces. We got complaints about sexual harassment – I’m not sure we’ll publish their names.”

He notes, however, that some tenants aren’t fair. One asked for NIS 10,000 for leaving behind her furniture, which was completely dilapidated.

“Nearly every place had something weird about it. That’s when we decided to open a page on Facebook,” he says. “We recommend boycotting 10 to 20 apartments so the owners lose money. That way we’ll establish a deterrent factor. It’s we the renters who drive the market. That way we can have fair negotiations.”

The Tin Apartments people also have complaints against Word of Mouth, which has blocked their access as well. But unlike the tenants association, the Tin Apartments people are against social protest, defining themselves as capitalists.

“We believe in market forces,” one says. “We want to unite and struggle within the existing setup.” I ask them if it would be worthwhile to fight for rent control.

“We’re not socialists and don’t want the government’s help,” one says. “Consumers have a lot of power in the free market. The problem is that they don’t use their power.”

But even though they looked at 20 apartments, the free market didn’t really help them. One of them tearfully told me that he had moved back to his parents’ apartment in Petah Tikva.