No Port in a Storm

While investigating the case of a family that was evicted from public housing, Haaretz Magazine has discovered that the State of Israel is the worst landlord in the country. By charging rapacious interest rates and adding arbitrary charges to their debts, the state has turned tens of thousands of poor families into a money machine for the public coffers.

Uri and Liat Zohar didn't realize they were spearheading a public struggle. They had no idea that they and their five children would become a catch-phrase: "the family from Beit She'an." They never imagined that senior Housing Ministry officials and local politicians would portray them as liars, that media consultants would try to besmirch their character and depict them as trying to worm their way out of paying debts, or that private information about them would be disclosed in a Knesset discussion without them being given a chance to defend themselves. When they were thrown out on the street, they never expected that their town would not only fail to help them, but would even take away the tent they were living in.

The last thing the Zohars intended to do was to risk their children's well-being. All they wanted was to understand one simple thing: how the Amidar public housing company does its accounting, how it decides how much their rent will be, and why it claims that they owe it NIS 100,000. Last July they received an answer: Police officers were sent to evict them from the place they had called home for 16 years.

Uri and Liat Zohar (Yuval Tebol)
Yuval Tebol

At first the seven members of the Zohar family crowded into a small storeroom near where Uri's father lived - in another Amidar apartment. Then winter came and they were forced to move out of the tiny place. They lost the right given to tens of thousands of public housing tenants to buy the apartment in which they live, and with it the hope of a home of their own and, maybe, a normal life.

Haaretz Magazine began with a modest goal: to see whether Amidar acted properly in relation to this family and why the government bodies and the Beit She'an municipality refused to assist them. But it soon became apparent that the family's case was just one example of a much more widespread phenomenon: Tens of thousands of poor families living in public housing have become a source of income for the state that is supposed to be assisting them. And while it pursues them for debts of thousands of shekels - adding rapacious interest rates and arbitrary charges - the state itself does not know the value of its assets or where billions of shekels at its disposal are going.

Those in the higher echelons of the Finance and Housing Ministries, Amidar and the Beit She'an municipality are not particularly fazed by all this. Meanwhile, the Zohar family is homeless.

Information revealed here for the first time shows that the State of Israel cannot provide clear answers to questions involving the use or whereabouts of asserts worth billions of shekels. Indeed, for years, the Finance and Housing Ministries have been providing conflicting data regarding the number of apartments owned by the state, how many were sold and how much money was transferred to the Jewish Agency. Also, it is not clear how much money was taken in from the sale of apartments to tenants or other buyers, how many millions of shekels a year go to private subcontractors, and how much is allocated to improve the tenants' living conditions.

Haaretz Magazine's attempts to obtain exact statistics for the purposes of this investigation met with unsatisfying answers from government ministries: In a few cases, the discrepancies between the responses received amounted to hundreds of millions of shekels; in others, the answers given were incomplete and inaccurate.

Amidar housing in Beit She'an.
Yuval Tebol

The largest public housing company, Amidar (which together with Amigur manages more than 90% of the public housing assets in Israel), has lately been advertising itself on the radio as "the nation's home," is also unable to provide comprehensive information regarding its tenants' accounts. Even though this is a government company, it keeps its financial reports hidden from the public. For weeks, Amidar declined to provide information for this article, while the state comptroller and facts on the ground indicate that it is not doing everything that is required of it to assist its tenants.

And at the end of the road is the local authority to which the individual story of the Zohar family is tied: the Beit She'an municipality. It, too, operates without oversight or enforcement, despite its dire economic straits and a long list of questionable affairs concerning its financial management. As far as assistance to the Zohar family goes, there is nothing to talk about .

On the face of it, this is yet another, fairly straightforward story of a family that couldn't pay its bills and was thrown into the street. But because of their stubbornness and persistence, Uri and Liat Zohar found themselves at the heart of something much larger.

One of many

It's been nearly six months since the Zohar family was evicted from the public housing unit it rented for 16 years in Beit She'an, and it's still hard for Liat to describe the events of that day. Her voice breaks, she pauses for a moment, and makes an effort to smile again. At the outset, she wants to make clear that she absolutely does not want their story to be perceived as the "tale of some poor unfortunates."

"I am just one of many," the proud, articulate woman says. "Our story is one of dozens of similar stories of families here. Somebody needs to wake up and listen."

We are standing below the peeling housing-project building and gazing up at the kitchen window on the first floor, where the Zohar's former four-room apartment is located.

"They put bars on the window so we couldn't get back in again. They evicted us on July 14 and here there was another eviction," she says, pointing to a nearby window. "After they took me out, they took apart the house. Everything, all the tiles, the counters, the air conditioner. They changed everything."

An empty plastic bottle rolls between the dismal concrete entrances of the building; piles of junk sit in some of the entrances - leftovers from former tenants. A broken baby seat, punctured barrels, a burned barbecue grill. Yellow patches of grass sprout in the backyard. Locked iron gates bar entry to the alcove where the water meters and gas connections are located.

Asked if she is really asking for her debt to be forgiven, Liat gets angry. "Did I ask them to cancel my debt?" she says. "I'm not denying that I need to pay - I'm just asking for the discount that I have coming to me, according to all the paperwork I was required to bring. That's all. That they should calculate the bill according to what we really should have had to pay. Go back, do the math, look at everything we paid and which discounts we are entitled to, deduct what we paid at the time ... It's unacceptable that they won't give me any answers as to how they arrived at the total. There are criteria that logic says must apply here."

Cut-rate apartments

In order to understand what's going on with public housing today, one must go back in time. In the first two decades of the state's existence, most of the construction done involved public housing. In those years, all citizens who lived in such dwellings had the opportunity to purchase their apartments and receive various benefits. As the years passed, apartment sales decreased until they were stopped almost completely in 1994.

In 1997, the first Netanyahu government decided to privatize public housing and to transfer management of the properties to private companies. In 1998, as a countermove, the Public Housing Law, first proposed by Meretz MK Ran Cohen, was enacted. The law was intended to enable tenants living in public housing for five years or more to purchase their homes at a significant discount. The legislation also stipulated that the monies received from the sale of said apartments would be used to purchase new public housing units.

Three months after the law was passed by the Knesset, the Netanyahu government froze its implementation, as part of the 1999 Economic Arrangements Law, and it has been frozen again every year since. In March 1999, the Finance Ministry decided that in lieu of the law, the state would launch a campaign of apartment sales under the name "Habayit Sheli" ("My Home" ). The campaign, and others that followed in the 12 ensuing years, enabled public housing tenants to buy their homes. Aside from stricter eligibility criteria, the main difference between the campaigns and the law is that the income from the sales is no longer earmarked for the purchase of new apartments. In this way, Israel is depleting its public housing inventory.

Ever since the law was initially frozen, a debate has been raging, involving the public housing companies (the Amidar government company, the Jewish Agency's Amigur company, and the municipal-government companies Prazot, Halamish, Shikmona and Heled ), government ministries, the Jewish Agency, MKs and social organizations - all of trying to understand where the billions of shekels obtained from these apartment sales are going and to whom they rightfully belong. But before figuring out where the money is going, it may be worth knowing just how many public housing units there are in the country. Just how big is the real estate portfolio held by the landlord called the State of Israel?

Of houses and numbers

Not surprisingly, the answer is not known. Back in 1998, the state comptroller wrote that "the state has more than 100,000 apartments in its possession," but he did not cite an exact number and warned that "the Housing Ministry does not maintain a consolidated record of the inventory of public housing units owned by the state." In 2004, an inter-ministerial committee also warned that the figures were not precise, and in 2009, the state comptroller reported that there was still no computerized system to monitor the public housing inventory.

One question that no one seems to be able to answer is just how many apartments the state had at the start of the sales campaigns, in 1999. At a 2007 meeting of the Knesset Economics Committee, the director general of the Housing Ministry at the time provided figures showing that the state was in possession of 111,000 apartments. But according to the current Economic Arrangements Law, the Finance Ministry says that initially there were 96,000 apartments: that up to now, "about 30,000 apartments" have been sold and "about 66,000" are still being rented out.

The discrepancy between the two figures is no small matter. According to calculations, the average value of a public housing apartment is NIS 314,000. (It is sold to tenants at a steep discount. ) A difference of 15,000 units, for example, translates into a value of at least NIS 4.5 billion - and no one can say for certain whether or not the state indeed possesses this property.

Over the years, the state has provided more conflicting data. A report issued in December 2009 by the Housing Ministry's Department of Financial Information and Analysis indicates that the initial inventory of apartments, before the first sales campaign, was 98,840 (with 29,840 sold and 69,000 unsold ). But a report published a year later puts that number at 96,160 (with 31,160 sold and 65,000 unsold ). A difference of 2,320 apartments, from one year to the next. Worth some NIS 696 million.

Last month Haaretz Magazine asked the government bodies for current, exact figures. The Housing Ministry gave its answer three and a half weeks after the request was made: "Since this is a matter of sales data spanning many years, special work and a special examination are needed, and this cannot be done in the month of December." Waiting until this month was of no help either.

Amidar, too, responded only after three weeks of repeated requests, saying that it had sold "about 19,350 apartments since 1999." The exception to the rule was Amigur, which proved with its response that an organization of its size can indeed monitor the inventory of apartments at its disposal. It immediately provided the information that it had sold precisely 10,341 apartments since 1999.

A for-profit business

But this is only the beginning of the story. Public housing is supposed to provide subsidized and substantially discounted housing for those eligible for it. But seven years ago, the Housing and Finance Ministries decided to change the rent calculation method. According to the treasury, the aim was for all tenants who are not supported by social security allowances to pay rent comparable to that in the free market, so there would be no significant differences between public or private rent.

A 2006 document from the Knesset Research Institute states that "this trend runs counter to the basic definition of public housing, which is not meant to be a profit-making, self-financing mechanism, [but rather] subsidized by the state as assistance to the needy in society." The document also says that the new rent calculation methods are awkward and confusing.

But nonetheless, the state decided to turn what was supposed to be a system of assistance into a profitable business. A very profitable one. Following the move, families saw their rents raised by hundreds of shekels over the years. And so, despite their classification as veteran tenants and their eligibility to pay a reduced rent, as of 2010, they were paying, for example, almost NIS 1,000 a month for an apartment in the periphery, in decrepit condition.

Amidar is a profitable company in terms of the state coffers. At a November hearing in the Knesset, Amidar director general Yaakov Brosh said his company brings to the state more than NIS 400 million per year from rent and sales of apartments to eligible buyers. Furthermore, in the framework of the management agreement that Amidar signed with the state in 2003, making it an independent financial entity, the payments are transferred to the state, and in return the company receives a set, annual budget of NIS 170 million.

From Amidar to the Agency

Where does the money go? A small part goes to cover other budget items in the Housing Ministry, but most is designated for the Jewish Agency, owner of the Amigur public housing company. In January 1999, the Finance Ministry and the Agency signed an agreement of principles "for the compensation of the Agency for the sale of public housing." Thus, the Agency sells to the state any apartments that its tenants don't purchase. How much money has since changed hands due to this agreement? On this issue, too, the Finance Ministry does not present exact data. In answer to an inquiry from Haaretz Magazine, the ministry said: "About NIS 1.3 billion was paid to Amigur through the end of 2009. So far, NIS 111 million was paid in 2010, and another payment is expected." About NIS 1.4 billion all together. But the Agency says it was paid "about $484 million." Based on an average exchange rate of NIS 4.21 to the dollar throughout the period in question, this amounts to about NIS 2.03 billion: a discrepancy of more than 600 billion shekels! The Finance Ministry added that by the time the payments are completed in 2015, another NIS 700 million will be transferred to the Agency.

And why is the state filling the Jewish Agency's coffers in this way? In its response, the Agency explained to Haaretz that the money is meant to repay huge loans taken for the purpose of absorbing the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. And so the real "social picture" is revealed: The state has turned the weakest sectors of society, the tenants of public housing, into a source of funding to repay loans used for the absorption of immigrants - instead of the money being reinvested in apartments or transferred to the Agency from the state budget.

Fine or bonus

Barbara Epstein of the Community Advocacy organization, which assists public housing tenants, points out another aspect of the system: "In 2003, a contract was prepared to formalize the financial issues between the Housing Ministry and the housing companies. According to the agreement, a company would be subject to a fine if it did not do its utmost to collect the rent from the tenants." For its part, the ministry explains that "the agreement between Amidar and the government stipulates that in the event of a collection rate above 88 percent, the company will receive a certain bonus."

Such incentives probably encouraged Amidar to increase the financial burden of its tenants, and could explain the company's tendency to issue eviction orders and open repossession files in order to press renters to pay - and thus notch up high collection rates. Generally, the tenants come to an arrangement to spread out the debt payments, with Amidar arbitrarily forgoing a large part of the debt.

"When a family comes in to make a payment arrangement, the company is prepared to cancel a significant part of the debt, and the family commits to making payments over a period of many years," explains Epstein, who has been present at the preparation of many such agreements. What that means in fact, however, is that "in addition to the rent, the families have to pay another sum that, although it's part of the debt, can make their payments amount to half their monthly income."

This was what happened to the Zohar family. Their debt to Amidar at the time of the eviction stood at NIS 107,000; NIS 48,000 of that was not for rent per se, but for other expenses, such as gardening or for interest and linkage. Over the years, a number of repossession cases were opened against the family and several eviction orders were issued. The last time that happened, Uri and Liat refused to pay about NIS 10,000 to get the order canceled (the director of the Beit She'an Amidar branch insisted upon a payment of 10 percent of the debt at that time ), without knowing why the company was ignoring the fact that they were eligible - so they believed - for a much bigger discount on their rent. Amidar claims that the family "has been well-informed in writing and in many conversations" about the debt. Amidar's allegations upset Liat. She insists on the fact that over the years, in the many talks she had at Amidar's offices, sometimes even with the manager of the branch, it was never explained to her what it was she was paying for and how her rent is calculated. "Take our file at Amidar and our file at the welfare offices, and look at the paperwork they contain. God help me, we are asking Amidar to expose our whole file and they refuse. Why do they refuse? This is our right. It outrages me - everything should be in those files."

In the past three months, with the help of Haaretz Magazine, the family has tried to obtain a full and accurate description of its debt situation. Amidar referred the family to attorney Gal Amir, a private lawyer who is handling the repossession proceedings against them for the company (see box ).

Regarding the Zohars' debt, too many differing answers were also given. A brief response provided by the company in early November said that "the family has been refusing for seven years to pay an ongoing debt to Amidar in the amount of NIS 98,774." A week later, a warning letter sent to Haaretz from the office of attorney Yaakov Weinroth, who represents Amidar, said the family had not paid its debts "for eight years."

But the documents attorney Amir sent to the Zohars show they did pay a good deal of money to Amidar: In 2003-2004, for example, they paid NIS 11,000; in 2006, NIS 16,000 was transferred to cover debts and to cancel an eviction order; and in 2009 another NIS 3,000 was paid. True, this is only a partial payment, but one can see the tenants have indeed paid something.

Lost amid the data

Lost amid conflicting data and lack of transparency is a family that is trying to survive. Liat was born in Tiberias; Uri in Beit She'an. They are in their mid-thirties, both second-generation public housing tenants. Uri grew up in a family of 11 brothers and sisters. When asked about his past, he speaks very quietly, almost inaudibly. His mother had to take care of the children, his father came and went.

"No one made sure you went to school, or did homework," he recalls. "We would wander around, steal, get into fights."

As a teenager, he was sent to various institutions for juvenile delinquents, where his talents were eventually discovered. "Because I was good with my hands I became a carpenter. I did renovations, construction, plumbing. My last year [at one facility], I went out to work every day at a garage at the Haifa port." He then returned to Beit She'an. Ever since he met Liat, he says with a bashful smile, he hasn't gone back to the things he did as a kid. "I used to fight for my childhood. Now I'm fighting for my children," he adds.

After a few years of unemployment, for the last couple of years Uri has been studying to be an authorized car mechanic and works from a tiny garage he rents in the industrial zone. He is barely able to support the family with the modest profits. After the Zohars got married, they lived with his parents, and submitted a request for a public housing apartment. They were deemed eligible, and moved in when their eldest daughter was three months old. Since then they have had four more children, and have lived in the housing project for 16 years.

Most of their argument with Amidar hinges on their eligibility for a rent discount. For one year, 2004, Amidar was apparently persuaded of their eligibility, and their rent was just NIS 44 per month. But since then, the rent has ranged from NIS 630-950 a month. Uri and Liat continued to insist that they should receive a discount. They say Amidar has ignored their claims for years.

Amidar insists that in the years you didn't pay, you did not present the necessary documents to prove your eligibility for the discount.

Liat Zohar: "We submitted reports every year. I often brought all the paperwork. And in the welfare office, too, the social worker submitted reports to Amidar every few months. We brought documents and pay stubs from her. And every time I went to see if had reached the committee, they said, 'No, the paperwork is out of date now, you need to do it again.' It's a game. And in the meantime we've been paying what we can."

Amidar and the Housing Ministry say that you have two jeeps and that you earn a good living.

Uri Zohar: "We have two vehicles that I assembled myself; one I bought without an engine, and the other is going to be junked in two years. Together they're not worth NIS 20,000. I have a lot of debts, hundreds of thousands of shekels, and not just to Amidar, but I get by. Sometimes I give up a lot of things in order to get through the month, but there's no choice. My children will go to school. Before I put a cigarette in my mouth, I buy their sandwiches, their books - whatever they need. And my children will come before Amidar's demands. You can't push the children into this debt, to the point where they won't eat, won't drink, won't go to school. That's the simple calculation."

Blackened budgets

Amidar, the country's largest public housing company, requires its tenants to reveal all of their financial information, and even argues with them about its accuracy. It issues eviction orders because of debts of just a few thousand shekels. And meanwhile, it conceals its own financial data. Anyone wishing to review the reports that the company submits to the Government Companies Authority will find that many sections have been blacked out. At the request of Haaretz Magazine, the authority presented a copy of the company's most recent financial report (2009 ), but the financial sections here were also blackened. The authority relates that "permission to omit part of the financial report was obtained on the basis of what was seen as the company's reasonable request, with the authority's approval."

Attempts to understand the figures that were not hidden were also futile. In 2006, the state comptroller wrote that "Amidar's reports suffer from a lack of transparency that does not enable a reader of the reports to assess the profit or loss incurred by the company." Amidar told Haaretz that "in principle, all rent that is collected from the tenants goes to the state. This amounts to NIS 120 million to NIS 160 million per year. Before the (management ) agreement went into effect (in 2004), part of the rental income went to the state and part to Amidar."

No information on the total rental income since the time the agreement was signed was provided.

One of the interesting sections that is obscured in the reports has to do with the sums paid by the company to others with whom it works: building contractors who do renovations and repairs; lawyers who handle collection and lawsuits against tenants; security companies; gardening and cleaning companies; property appraisers and more. How much money goes to them? The figures cannot be discerned.

As if that weren't enough, data regarding the actual use of the budget are no less confusing. According to the Finance Ministry, in 2010, Amidar was allocated NIS 170 million. In 2009, says the ministry, the company used up its entire budget. But according to the accountant general, who works on behalf of the treasury, in 2009 there was under-use of approximately NIS 86 million in the agreement with Amidar. In other words, about half its budget was not even used. According to the Housing Ministry, in 2009, 73 percent of Amidar's allocation was used.

The conclusion is alarming: It is not clear what sort of oversight, if any, exists of Amidar's expenses. The Housing Ministry, which is supposed to oversee the company, says: "Amidar operates independently or by obtaining services from private parties ... And Amidar is the one that supervises them."

And the price is paid by the tenants.

From March to September 2009, the state comptroller randomly inspected 35 public housing apartments, 27 of them managed by Amidar. The comptroller found that "30 had maintenance and construction defects. In a majority (25 ), more than one defect"; 10 were found to have potentially life-threatening hazards; and 10 more had serious hazards that "if not properly taken care of, will become more serious and eventually life-threatening."

The comptroller also said: "Some companies have not done anything to repair the defects and some defects were only dealt with long after the period of time stipulated by law. Some companies did not properly document the dates of the work." The comptroller added an even more serious criticism: "Most of the [companies'] reports ... do not reflect the true state of the apartments and therefore their credibility is called into question."

At the conclusion of the harsh report he published in 2010, the comptroller wrote that "the conditions of tenants in public housing are severe and damaging to human dignity. The Housing and Construction Ministry ... should guide the companies as to how to handle the findings of visits made to the apartments and to supervise their execution. But aside from oversight that focused on checking the identities of the tenants, none of the necessary inspection was done." He went on to say that "the Housing and Construction Ministry did not properly fulfill its governmental duties, including its duty to faithfully and efficiently manage the properties in its possession."

The present ministry director general, Mordechai Mordechai, admitted two months ago before a state oversight committee that in regard to the housing companies, "there was a justifiable complaint, that there is not enough supervision, there is not enough guidance from the ministry ... in terms of record-keeping, apartment inventory, the times of visits, tenants' complaints."

Locked out

The night before her family's eviction, Liat Zohar couldn't sleep. That morning, their neighbor, a widower with four children, was evicted. In the evening she called reporters and organized a demonstration. "We decided that the whole neighborhood would stick together. Put up signs, burn tires. Within an hour we were at the mayor's house, almost 300 people." When they got home, she started getting the household ready for the eviction.

At six in the morning, she made food for the children. At 9:30, the evictors arrived. The children were at home; it was summer vacation. Because of the demonstration, police officers and firefighters also arrived.

Liat Zohar: "I expected them to bring someone who would take the kids out of the way, but there was nobody there from the welfare department or from Amidar - only police who took it upon themselves to talk with the children. The eviction truck arrived and we had to calm the children. It was very hard for my oldest daughter. She said to me, 'Mom, you're embarrassing me.'"

At 11, movers came in with the police. "It was an awful scene," she says, falling silent for a long time, fighting back tears.

Liat says she sat on the floor but did not resist the eviction. "I think my children lost their faith in me. I was supposed to protect their home. My children were pulled away from the walls of the house; they held on and didn't want to leave. The policewoman became a psychologist and started distracting them; the officers had tears in their eyes."

Do you think things could have been done differently?

Liat Zohar: "Afterward I realized that I should have resisted. I took a lot of criticism from my children. It was hard. You're helpless. My oldest daughter wouldn't let anyone enter her room. Not the evictors or the police officers. She's an orderly person; she wanted to remove her things herself and she did it herself. It didn't take very long, because we didn't resist. Until you've experienced it, you have no idea how hard these situations are." And what happened after the eviction?

"You don't think about what will happen the moment after, you're living right in the moment. I found myself sitting in the neighborhood, it was broiling hot, the children were with my sister-in-law, my husband was sitting on the side with the neighbor who was evicted the day before. Suddenly there's this silence. In my mind I'm thinking I want to go back home - and only then, when all the fuss has died down, does it hit me that they took my home. That they locked us out and that there's a guard in front. That there's no way back in."

After three weeks in the Beit She'an City Hall plaza, the Zohar family broke back into their home. When the police arrived, Uri barricaded himself in with a gas canister, and only turned himself in after hours of negotiations. For expenses due to the break-in, Amidar charged them NIS 449.

When Uri returned from house arrest at his brother's place, the family moved into a small storeroom that had been converted into a room, in his father's house, which is also owned by Amidar. The whole family slept on two double mattresses that took up nearly the entire cramped space. In the small yard, they set up a portable toilet and shower. The difficult conditions also affected the couple's relationship.

"Uri always tells me, 'Whatever you do, I'm behind you. You want to do something, then do it, but don't come complaining to me afterward,'" says Liat. "I I've taken on a responsibility and I'm not sure where it will lead me, and it's weighing on me. This struggle has become a very emotional thing."

As we walk in silence between the buildings of the housing project, Liat suddenly says quietly, "Maybe I'm not being okay about all this - but where are my children? And the other families? Where is the other side's responsibility? We're asking for what we deserve. For families not to be thrown into the street, for them not to reach this kind of situation. We're demanding explanations for everything that happened. No one talked to us about it. Someone should talk to us. What we're asking for is to be able to live our lives in dignity."

Aharon Shem-Tov assisted in the preparation of this article.

A public housing scandal

The state does not know how many apartments it owned in 1999, when it launched a sales campaign.

• According to Housing Ministry data from 2007, it had 111,000 apartments in its possession
• According to a ministry report from the end of 2009, it owned 98,480
• According to a ministry report from the end of 2010, it owned 96,120
• According to the most recent Economic Arrangements Law, it owned 96,000
• The gap between the highest and lowest figures: 15,000 apartments − worth NIS 4.5 billion
• The gap between data in the ministry reports: 2,320 apartments − or NIS 696 million

It’s not known how much money the state paid the Jewish Agency when buying occupied Amigur apartments.

• Finance Ministry: From 1999-2010, NIS 1.4 billion was paid to the Agency
• The Agency says it received $484 million ‏(at least NIS 2 billion‏) from the state
• Gap between the figures: 600 million shekels.
• The state comptroller: The agreement was signed without a proper government decision and with no Housing Ministry input or proper budgetary assessment

It’s not known how much of the Amidar budget was used − in 2009, for instance

• The Finance Ministry: The 2009 budget was used in full
• Accountant general report: There was under-utilization of NIS 86 million ‏(50% of budget‏)
• Housing Ministry: 73 percent of the budget was used.

Instead of pursuing its original “social” vision, Amidar subsidizes the state.

• Every year Amidar transfers some NIS 400 million to the state coffers.
• Between NIS 120 million and NIS 160 million come from rent, the rest from sales
• In return: Amidar receives a regular budget of NIS 170 million.
• The result: Amidar tenants’ payments are not used to help the needy acquire apartments, or to finance renovation of long-time residents’ homes

The state is giving Amidar incentives to place burdens upon the tenants

• In the past 7 years, rent in public housing has risen by 100s of shekels to keep up with trends in the free market
• According to its agreement with the state, Amidar is subject to a fine for rent collection rate below 88%
• A collection rate higher than 88% entitles the company to a bonus

Each year Amidar issues hundreds of eviction orders

• The cancellation of such an order costs a tenant thousands of shekels, which go to private lawyers
• In reaching an arrangement with tenants over debts, Amidar forgoes some of the debts, but still meets its goals

Amidar conceals financial reports from the public

• Portions of the financial reports of the government companies are blacked out
• State Comptroller: The reports do not make it possible to tell whether the deals yielded a profit or loss
• Among other things, Amidar conceals how much money goes to private outsourcing ‏(lawyers, contractors, etc.‏)

Who’s keeping tabs on Amidar?

• Housing Ministry director general: There’s no oversight of the inventory of apartments or of dealings with tenants
• Ministry: Amidar independently selects its contractors
• 2010 State Comptroller’s Report: “The Housing and Construction Ministry did not properly fulfill its governmental duties, including that of faithfully managing the property in its possession”

Spreading rumors

In October, the Knesset’s Committee for Children’s Rights held a hearing on poverty. Bracha Arjuani, chairwoman of the Housing Rights Association, told the committee the story of the Zohar family. From the minutes of the discussion, it is evident that Arjuani was unaware that MK Orli Levy-Abekasis ‏(Yisrael Beiteinu‏) − who took part in the hearing as a member of the committee and as chairwoman of the Lobby for Children and Youth at Risk − is the sister of the mayor of Beit She’an ‏(she is also the daughter of former Foreign Minister David Levy‏).

When Arjuani spoke of the situation in Beit She’an and remarked that “there’s a family Mafia there ... and they all gang up on the same family [the Zohars]” − Levy-Abekasis reacted angrily and the two engaged in a harsh exchange. The MK scolded Arjuani for her chutzpah and claimed she had assisted the evictees, “people who aren’t willing to pay even NIS 200 of their own money.” When Arjuani said that maybe they didn’t even have NIS 200, the MK replied, “but they can afford to send their kid to school on the kibbutz for NIS 2,000 a month ... If someone won’t pay NIS 200 a month in rent, they shouldn’t send their child to [kibbutz] school.” Then she apparently left the room.

One of Liat and Uri’s daughters does go to a kibbutz school, but the sums cited by Levy-Abekasis, who herself lives on Kibbutz Mesilot, have no relation to the facts. The rent the family was required to pay was not NIS 200 per month, but ranged from NIS 700 to NIS 1,000. They do not pay NIS 2,000 for school, either per month or per year.

MK Levy-Abekasis, who stressed that she is dedicated to social struggles, told Haaretz that “because of the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, I will not comment on any specific questions.”

Check, please

The Zohar family asked Amidar for a complete record of payments since it first moved into its apartment 16 years ago. The private lawyer handling the case for the company forwarded information for 2002 only. It was not a clear report, but rather took the form of illegible documents appearing on and printed from computer screens − products of Amidar’s accounting program.

It soon became apparent that the company’s figures don’t add up. At Haaretz’s request, the company provided a document summarizing all the outstanding debts of the Zohar family. Amidar replied that the Zohars owe NIS 59,000 in unpaid rent. The cumulative interest and linkage charges are NIS 21,326. But on the bill the family received at the same time, the interest and linkage charges are NIS 5,000 higher, plus there was an additional charge for “miscellaneous” expenses ‏(NIS 5,425‏) and VAT ‏(NIS 2,185‏). All together, there is a discrepancy of about NIS 13,000 between the two bills, issued at the same time.

In reply to a query from Haaretz, Amidar said the interest and linkage is “calculated in accordance with the accountant general’s guidelines” and that the “miscellaneous” section “includes proper usage fees, legal expenses, interest and linkage adjustments and VAT.”

Other figures don’t make sense either: Haaretz was told the charge for “gardening” was NIS 3,025, while the family was sent a bill for NIS 3,615. Amidar says the charges are for “gardening or garden rehabilitation.” But during some years, the family was also charged for “yard care,” which Amidar explains is done in the cases of “buildings that do not have a garden.” And so the family was charged simultaneously for gardening and for yard care, since they don’t have a garden.

The tenants, who often have difficulty keeping track of and understanding all the bills they receive, are the ones who pay for this chaos. If they fall seriously into debt, they are invited to work out a payment arrangement, at which time a large discount is usually given, but it is impossible to work out precisely what relation it bears to the actual debt. Apparently, it’s always better to keep your head down and pay, than to lose your home.