Housing protest Jerusalem - Salman - 19.3.12
A protest in Jerusalem demanding public housing. Photo by Emil Salman
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The 150 or so protesters were armed with blaring megaphones and cheeky signs as they marched down Jaffa Road in the mild Jerusalem evening. "The people demand public housing," they shouted. The gathering crowd made the din all the louder.

This was the scene - not last summer but last week. It was a completely different kind of protest, one less careful about staying on the right side of the law.

Last summer many activists promised - or warned - that the situation could get out of hand if the social protest didn't produce concrete results. "There won't be another opportunity to approve the recommendations agreeably, without violence," cautioned Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg at the Knesset Finance Committee in October.

At the Herzliya Conference several weeks ago, Osem chairman Dan Propper declared that "we'll be seeing much-more-violent protests if the social protest doesn't succeed."

These apocalyptic forecasts haven't come true, but the prospect of an aggressive social protest still exists. In the last six months hundreds of activists throughout the country have been staging protests that could be defined as violent, aimed at helping people attain public housing.

About 200 to 300 activists are involved, most of them young and radical. They belong to a range of organizations like Liberated Be'er Sheva, Hama'abara (The Transit Camp ) and the Movement for Living in Dignity. They've been joined by the homeless themselves and people eligible for cheap public housing. Their main focus is Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Be'er Sheva and Jerusalem, but they're also present in dozens of other towns throughout the country.

They help people fill out forms for public housing, give legal advice and deal with housing officials. But there are also more militant activities; some of their demonstrations are not coordinated with the police and end with arrests. They also invade empty buildings and resist evictions.

They've even broken into the offices of the Amidar public housing company and left an "eviction notice" on CEO Yaakov Brosh's desk. In the last six months there have been 14 organized attempts to prevent an eviction, five incursions into housing-company apartments and 20 demonstrations.

Roughly half the demonstrators on Jaffa Road last week were young. Most of the others were single mothers, but they weren't there for the ideology. Many might soon be thrown onto the street.

The demonstration, licensed in this case, began in front of the darkened Amidar offices and headed toward the Prime Minister's Residence on Balfour Street. One by one, the single parents took the megaphone and discussed their experiences.

"One fine morning several years ago I was told I owed Amidar tens of thousands of shekels," says Zahava Greenfeld, 47, who has lived 20 years in an Amidar apartment in Bnei Brak's Pardes Katz neighborhood. "When I inquired at Amidar's Petah Tikva branch how I could owe so much considering my reduced rent comes to just NIS 300 a month, they refused to give me a breakdown." According to Greenfeld, "I made an arrangement to cover the debt in installments and began shelling out NIS 1,000 a month to pay it down. But after several years I discovered that the balance hadn't gone down, not even a shekel. I took out loans but the money ran out. I have an eviction order for June 12 and intend to resist it to the end. They better get ready."

Amidar responded: "Greenfeld owes NIS 76,000 and the court held that she must pay it in full. Greenfeld recently reached an agreement with Amidar on paying down the debt in installments."

Mijal Greenberg, 35, a Hama'abara activist who was once a newspaper reporter, explained the rationale behind the demonstration. "Our main demand of the housing minister and prime minister is that they immediately instruct public housing companies to stop evicting people," she says. "They have forsaken public housing, and as long as they don't build enough apartments they have no right to throw people onto the street."

But the activists aren't satisfied with just making demands. Five graduate students from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev founded Liberated Be'er Sheva. They felt that the summer protest didn't go far enough and set up their organization in October when the Be'er Sheva tent city was dismantled. "When the tents came down we decided that action must be taken to help people eligible for public housing," says Renen Yezersky, 26, one of the founders.

The new organization joined forces with the Movement for Living in Dignity, which has been active in Be'er Sheva for around eight years; they began making contact with people eligible for housing. Now, just a few months later, they have more than 30 activists and have stood down five evictions. But the group doesn't just try to thwart evictions, it also helps the needy crash empty apartments.

In other words, you took the law into your own hands.

"In principle we are opposed to taking the law into our own hands. But when it comes to housing companies, I see them as abusive companies that seek to privatize public housing," says Yezersky.

"Everything happening in Israel regarding public housing is criminal. If a mother wants to provide shelter for her children and tries doing everything proper and doesn't succeed, I couldn't care less [about the legalities]. I'll help her. If the state doesn't help her, I will. If that's what's called taking the law into your own hands, then yes, that's what I'm doing."

Most activists in the organizations share Yezersky's attitude toward Amidar and the other public housing companies. Any suggestion that the companies are simply executors of government policy and therefore blameless is rejected out of hand.

The activists, particularly in the south, say dozens of Amidar apartments sit empty. The organizations also complain about disparaging treatment at the company's offices. "Amidar isn't just an executor of government policy, it's also responsible for how it treats its tenants and those who are eligible," says Rona Moran, 28, active in the Tarabut-Hit'habrut movement linked to the Hadash party.

"We could accept such a statement if we saw Amidar doing its utmost to minimize the anguish caused," she says. "But what we've seen over the past year shows exactly the opposite. Tenants have huge debts thrown at them without being shown the details and get trampled on by an army of lawyers. Amidar's behavior is appalling and humiliating. It's a profit-oriented mechanism."

Companies caught in the middle

During the social protest, Moran and her friends didn't pitch their tents on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, but rather in the city's poorer Hatikva quarter and in Holon's Jesse Cohen neighborhood, in what the activists called "lack of choice" encampments.

"We already began activities related to public housing last year when we held a conference in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, which brought together victims of public housing from all over the country," Moran says. "We concentrated on the not-so-simple task of forging connections between Jaffa and the Hatikva neighborhood."

The mainstream social-protest activists couldn't deny her the credit for putting public housing back in the spotlight after a decade of oblivion. There were some disturbing developments during that decade. Since the Public Housing Law was passed in 1998, tens of thousands of units were sold, especially in the more desirable areas. The public housing companies now hold just 67,000 apartments, down from 110,000. But the needy population has swelled.

The apartments were sold to families that needed them. But although the more than NIS 2 billion flowing into the treasury was earmarked for building and buying more public housing, not one shekel was spent.

After the wake-up call last summer, Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias came out in favor of increasing the public housing supply - not through state-initiated building like in the 1950s, but by requiring developers to set aside 5% of every new project's units in exchange for government benefits. The Finance Ministry, though, was opposed, and even the Trajtenberg Committee on socioeconomic change didn't mention it.

Amidar, however, strongly supported increasing supply, so it can't understand why the activists are singling it out as the bad guy.

The sentiment is mutual. "We're pleased that public housing is finally back on the agenda," says senior Amidar executive Eran Cohen. "But some are pushing it in undesirable directions and ultimately doing public housing an injustice, because when we see pandemonium, protests and squatters, what does the treasury say? They say: 'Why do we need such a headache?' And this is our greatest worry. We can create a winning partnership as we have with older and much more serious associations like Yedid, but we can't accept the fact that organizations like these are taking the law into their own hands.

"We're caught in the middle. On the one hand we have a terrible shortage of housing, while on the other we have the treasury that thinks the entire public housing issue is an obsolete project."

One of the organizations' main claims is that people you evict have nowhere to go, so you yourselves are creating homelessness.

"What we hate most in this job is evicting families, although all types of people maliciously claim otherwise. No Amidar employee wakes up in the morning saying: 'Goody. Today we're going to throw a family out of its home.' The problem is that when someone illegally squats in an apartment he prevents another eligible person from moving in. So should that eligible person live on the street? Would that be right? The equating of one with the other is terrible, but it's there.

"Whoever is at the top of the waiting list is the one who's eligible after being checked and found the most in need of an apartment based on the various criteria. So if the person in the 30th spot on the list is squatting in the apartment meant for the person topping the list, he's denying housing to someone in a much worse situation than himself. What these activists don't realize is that by squatting they're doing an injustice to another family. We already have a problem with the number of apartments, and these organizations just make it worse."

How do you explain the deep resentment toward you?

"I don't know how to answer that. Amidar is entrusted with handling public housing, and when there are evictions, the ones whose signatures are on the orders are us. The question is, what do they expect - that we have hidden apartments?"

One thing they claim is that you do. Even the state comptroller found in 2009 that hundreds of homes throughout the country sit empty.

"There can only be two reasons now for having an empty apartment. One, it was evacuated and is being prepared for a new tenant to move in. But in the meantime people see an empty apartment and start shouting.

"The other case is ground-floor apartments being saved for tough cases like disabled people. Previously there was a policy of the state preferring to leave homes empty if they required massive repairs costing over NIS 100,000 - and that's what the state comptroller's report dealt with. But since then a budget for renovating them was found and they're in use now. So this whole myth of empty apartments is hardly relevant anymore."

Maya Zagov, 42, a single mother of four who also took part in last week's demonstration, is far from satisfied with these explanations. She says that for seven years she has been deemed eligible for public housing. But even though she was fourth in line when the summer protests broke out, now she's 11th.

"I have two sons in special education because of the damage done by all the evictions," she says. During the protests she joined a group of single mothers who set up a separate tent city in Jerusalem's Independence Park.

She rents an apartment in the Katamonim neighborhood and is now receiving a NIS 2,500 monthly supplement for six months as part of an agreement for disbanding the encampment. This income comes on top of the NIS 2,200 a month she earns caring for the elderly, and the NIS 2,000 a month she receives in income support.

"They got us to shut up now for half a year, but we're continuing, and in the summer we'll go back out there," she says. "This time it will be much more serious."