Once a mighty stream, Israel's public housing has dried to a trickle
The basic right to housing is not enshrined in Israel’s law books.
Any attempt to describe the shortage of public housing in this country should begin with the dry statistics: Some 2,500 veteran Israeli families, along with some 40,000 elderly immigrants, are currently waiting for public housing. But last year, the state owned only about 66,000 apartments, compared to 206,000 in the late 1960s and 130,000 a decade ago. In the center of the country, the wait for public housing is more than five years.
Since the early 1990s, the government has been trying to help people in need via the private market rather than public housing (this trend is described by policy experts and social activists as “drying up the public housing”). Instead of providing apartments, the Housing Ministry gives people money to cover part of their rent. Today, about 137,000 families receive such assistance, down from 195,000 in 2001 − a drop of roughly 30 percent. But it’s not just the number of people receiving aid that is plummeting: The size of the subsidy has also been eroded over time. That’s what happens when the government closes its eyes.
“From 2005 to 2010, there was no change in the size of the [rent] subsidy given by the Housing Ministry,” wrote former State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss in a report published shortly before the social protests erupted last July. “But according to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, there was a substantial rise in rents on the open market from 2004-2010: Average rents nationwide rose by about 25 percent, while in the central region, rents rose by more than 30 percent during this period. Given the gap that developed between the size of the subsidy and the price of rental housing, the fear arises that in practice, eligible people aren’t taking the subsidy because they can’t afford the cost of the rent in any case.”
Those words, let us remember, came from Lindenstrauss − not social protest leader Daphni Leef.
Since no new public housing was built for Moshe Silman and thousands of others in a similar situation, he had no choice but to ask the Housing Ministry for a rent subsidy. He submitted such requests four times, but was turned down every time, among other things, because he had once owned an apartment.
“The Housing Ministry’s basic criterion, which prevents it from granting aid to anyone who has owned an apartment since 1972, is a draconian condition,” said attorney Gil Gan-Mor of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “We’ve asked it several times to abolish this requirement, but without success. The state doesn’t care whether you’ve lost your assets or if you need help today. The very fact that you owned an apartment or part of one in the past disqualifies you from receiving assistance.”
And we haven’t yet mentioned the bureaucracy and the flawed handling of requests for aid. The state comptroller, who examined only a portion of these requests, found that they were dealt with via “a bureaucratic process that needlessly prolongs the response [time] and imposes a burden on those seeking aid.”
The basic right to housing is not enshrined in Israel’s law books. Similarly, the right to rent subsidies, too, is found only in the Housing Ministry’s internal regulations, and eligibility requirements are a product of annual budget talks held between the housing and finance ministries, not determined by the true needs of the population.
Proof of this can be found in a decision made a few months ago that is already being implemented: to raise the rent subsidy to some NIS 3,000 a month. That was due to the recommendations of the Trajtenberg Committee on socioeconomic reform.
The Housing Ministry is proud of this change, “which almost doubled the amount given until this point,” and costs some NIS 160 million a year. The Trajtenberg panel recommended an NIS 800 million increase over five years. But no one can guarantee that the subsequent installments will actually be implemented. Nor could the ministry say yesterday how many families will actually benefit from the increase. Activists in the field of public housing believe the number is small.
Gan-Mor said that while the size of the subsidy was indeed increased for the first time in many years, “the policy is still based on the free market, and puts the onus on renters to find an apartment for themselves [since the subsidy is given only once a rental contract has been signed]. This doesn’t always work, especially with regard to people in difficult situations, to whom apparently owners aren’t enthusiastic about renting, to put it mildly.”
“The Finance Ministry’s system hasn’t changed,” agreed Yael Hevesi, an activist who sits on the public housing committee created by leaders of the social protest. “First they dried up public housing, and then they spend millions of shekels that flow into private hands. This influx of cash will cause a general rise in [housing] prices. The solution must be a full restoration of public housing apartments.”