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The growing demand for housing of Israel's rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox population, coupled with special features of this community, creates unique challenges for urban planners and the real estate industry.

The Haredi community will need 100,000 new housing units by 2025, according to a study commissioned by the Housing Ministry.

Two weeks ago, TheMarker reported a ministry plan to transform Harish, in Wadi Ara, into an ultra-Orthodox community with 30,000 residential units. The same article said the ministry is also considering the creation of a new, ultra-Orthodox city in the northern Negev, near Kiryat Gat.

"The [demand] is actually much larger because, in every decade, the number of units required to meet the needs of families in the ultra-Orthodox sector doubles," Rabbi Pinhas Salzman, one of the owners of the Neot Hapisga and Mishkan Haaretz construction companies, says. "If, a decade ago, 2,000 units were needed per year, current demand is 4,000 units per year, and in another decade it will reach 8,000."

Israel's Haredi population is now 600,000. According to Salzman, it is growing by 7 percent a year, creating a housing demand 35 percent greater than the rest of Israel, relative to its share of the population.

Salzman says the Haredi housing crunch can lead to acute social friction. The population of Bnei Brak is spilling into adjoining neighborhoods in Ramat Gan, while entire areas in Ashdod are being purchased by Haredi families. The expansion of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community into new neighborhoods is no longer news.

The term "haredization" may be politically incorrect for ultra-Orthodox migration into non-Haredi neighborhoods, but Salzman says secular fears could come true. He says the ultra-Orthodox community wants swift state action to build new Haredi-only cities.

Jerusalem is at a crossroads. As the secular exodus from the capital continues, Haredim are moving into formerly secular and national-religious neighborhoods such as Ramot, Neveh Ya'akov, Sha'arei Hefetz and Ramat Eshkol, at a growing pace. However, the number of young, ultra-Orthodox families that cannot find suitable housing within the city is also increasing. They are forced to turn to neighboring ultra-Orthodox cities (Modi'in Ilit and Betar Ilit) or ultra-Orthodox sections of cities like Beit Shemesh, Petah Tikva and Ashdod.

"Jerusalem has a population of 730,000 and it is growing annually by 1.7 percent," Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rabbi Yehoshua Pollack says. "The grandiose Safdie plan has not yet been approved and, according to estimates, the city's future land reserves [with space for 20,000 housing units] will provide a solution of only 10,000 units for the ultra-Orthodox sector. Most of the new apartments are for wealthy foreigners and Israelis, Pollack said. "Prices are skyrocketing, so it's hard for a young family to buy an apartment in Jerusalem."

"As a Jerusalem native," Pollack says, "I am embarrassed when I see that my friends have to work for 10 years to pay for an apartment. We have become a hotel where rich foreigners buy apartments for occasional visits. The Haredi cities have become expensive because they have become the second homes of wealthy, foreign, Haredi nobility," Salzman concludes.

About 150,000 residents live within Bnei Brak's 7,300 dunam (1,825 acres), making it one of the most crowded cities in the country. Between 80 percent and 85 percent of the city's population is ultra-Orthodox. "We have almost reached the outer limits of future residential land reserves. We are implementing two or three final plans to construct 750 residential units," acting mayor and Yaakov Asher says.

The limited housing supply has created two trends. Some Bnei Brak residents are moving to relatively distant communities (mainly Modi'in Ilit, Betar Ilit, Elad and Ashdod), while others are buying homes in adjoining neighborhoods in Ramat Gan and Pardes Katz.

"Young [Haredi] couples now tend to buy two to three room apartments averaging 70 square meters, mainly in secular neighborhoods like Tel Giborim and Pardes Katz where prices are relatively low," David Chervonitz, owner of RE/MAX VIP realty in Bnei Brak, explains. This has led to growing demand in these neighborhoods and a concomitant price increase of between 30 and 40 percent in two years. Chervonitz says these neighborhoods are about 30-percent ultra-Orthodox now. Asher says Bnei Brak must act to enable the expansion of existing properties while reducing red tape.

Beit Shemesh may be the most salient example of forced contact between secular and ultra-Orthodox residents, in an absence of an organized policy to address the residential needs of the Haredi community. In recent years, the city has become the conspicuous locus of public, legal and even physical clashes between various communities, an object lesson of planning that fails the needs of the population.

"Integration between groups is very important to Israeli society," Beit Shemesh urban planner Daniel Tzarfati notes. "But one must remember that allocations to public institutions in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are 30 percent greater than those for the secular public, and thus, the housing mix is also more complex than three-room to four-room apartments designed with future additions in mind."

After 800 ultra-Orthodox families moved into the town in the 1990s, Beit Shemesh, which was planned as a secular city, is now home to 70,000 residents - half of them ultra-Orthodox.

Land reserves around Beit Shemesh could supply 20,000 additional units, and everyone knows who will live in them once they are built. "Declarations about a diverse population are nonsense," a figure in the ultra-Orthodox real estate industry said this week. "The secular, young generation certainly won't settle in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, and planning should already take the needs of the ultra-Orthodox sector into account."

In recent years, public and government attention has focused on the secular city of Modi'in. Yet, only three kilometers to the north, the largest, Jewish settlement in the West Bank independently sprung forth. Modi'in Ilit now houses 35,000 residents; an additional 15,000 units are in the approval pipeline.

In 1996, the minor settlement of Mattityahu was established. It was later joined by Kiryat Sefer, the Brachfeld Estate, Ganei Modi'in and others to form the most successful ultra-Orthodox local council in Israel. "Another classroom [of children] is born in the settlement every week," local council head Rabbi Yaakov Guterman says, reflecting on the settlement's astounding 11.9 percent population growth and average family size (7.8 children), the basis for urban planning.

"In addition to natural growth, young families come here from Jerusalem because of the high prices [in the capital]; from Bnei Brak because of crowding; and lately there has been a palpable trend in which parents are following their children here," Guterman adds.

Guterman notes that residents are drawn by the lack of governmental constraints, due to the fact that the land is privately owned; by intelligent planning that takes the population's needs into account using the "growing apartment" model, and above all by the ultra-Orthodox population's vital need for proximal employment sites. This is provided by a technology park with seven companies that offers benefits for working mothers, including a NIS 1,000 monthly salary bonus for five years, and assistance with funding for afternoon day care. "First we settled. Then we established a city," Guterman says. "Every day we have a little miracle."

Betar Ilit was the first city created by the state specifically for the ultra-Orthodox. Located in the West Bank, it was established in 1988 in complete collaboration with ultra-Orthodox leaders - a factor that was crucial to its success. It eventually became home to 7,000 families.

Sharon Hasid, deputy director of marketing for the Hasid Brothers construction firm, says the city is still growing. He notes that secular construction companies are also attracted to the opportunities there. Hasid explains that marketing is controlled by the Housing Ministry and swiftly implemented, through non-profit organizations. The mix of housing models is predetermined (40 percent three-room apartments, 30 percent four-room apartments and 50 percent five-room apartments). Construction costs are relatively low due to the reliance of Palestinian labor. According to Hasid, the results are ideal for young couples, who can obtain a new, three-room apartment with an option to expand for $90,000.

The state support has had a positive effect, but the city's fate may depend on the future of settlement in the West Bank. Land reserves permit the construction of an additional 6,000 to 7,000 units, but re-zoning is subject to government considerations regarding future construction in the settlements.

"The black sheep" of ultra-Orthodox cities, Elad, was also the product of a cabinet decision. In 1998, the city had 28,000 residents, about 6,500 families. Despite being in a relatively good location in the center of the country, Elad lacked state backing. It became a negative example of urban planning and implementation in the ultra-Orthodox sector.

In recent years, many of the city's more well-off residents have left it, to be replaced by poorer ones. It has a surplus of four-room apartments, and has gotten bad publicity as a result of criminal activity. Some blame the lack of a screening procedure for potential residents as well as disproportionate, poorly timed marketing campaigns for the problems. However, the community's negative image actually derives from the fact that, unlike in Betar Ilit, in Elad the Housing Ministry failed to cooperate closely with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox target population.