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A tenant in a building with three entrances in a city in central Israel discovered a novel way of financing the renovation and whitewashing of the entrance hall outside his apartment. He appointed himself to the building's "entrances committee" and began collecting money from the other tenants for the renovation and whitewashing of the entrances.

Most of the tenants apparently accepted his request without objections and paid him what he asked. One of the tenants, however, who claimed that the entrance to his part of the building was in good repair, refused to pay for the renovations. He wrote in protest to the Association of Better Housing, claiming that he had never participated in appointing such a strange committee and that the representative of the new committee was imposing himself upon the other tenants and was planning to renovate only the entrance to his apartment.

Although this incident is quite irregular, it bears witness to the power and freedom that rests in the hands of house committees (va'adat bayit). In many cases the tenants of a building pay committee fees monthly, without receiving any accounting as to how their money is being spent, beyond the regular running and maintenance expenses, which include elevator maintenance, janitorial and gardening expenses.

Shlomi Or, assistant director-general of the Association of Better Housing, says that house committees operate on a voluntary basis and help with the maintenance of the building and its exterior. Even so, complaints are often received from tenants regarding the misuse of funds and abuse of power on the part of the committees.

"In some cases," explains Or, "there are power struggles between the tenants of a building and in certain cases the complaints relate to real problems."

Dozens of justified complaints

The association receives dozens of complaints each year from tenants claiming they have been harmed by their house committee's actions. About half of these complaints turn out to be justified. In some cases the complaints concern overly high fees and wasteful use of the tenants' money, while others concern the committees' disregard of damage being caused to the apartments due to defects in the building or through negligent maintenance.

A tenant in one of Jerusalem's prestigious neighborhoods, for example, discovered that rats had entered his apartment via the sewer and had gnawed his new plumbing system, which was only six months old. The gnawed pipes leaked, damaging his apartment. The tenant paid NIS 500 to have the damage repaired and NIS 250 for an exterminator's services.

The tenant asked the house committee to fix the damage after he discovered that the rats had entered the building due to the committee's negligence in maintaining the sewer outlet outside the building. When the committee refused, the tenant decided to repair the damage himself and deduct the cost from his monthly fees. This same tenant, by coincidence or not, also claimed that the committee refused to repair the roof, which had been damaged following the removal of an antenna. The tenant claimed that the roof was consequently cracked and that rainwater seeped in, causing his ceiling to swell. The tenant claimed that he had asked the committee several times to repair the roof, but to no avail. In his letter to the association, the tenant noted that he felt he was free to have the roof fixed himself and to deduct the cost from his house committee fees.

Attorney Sammy Yisrael, the legal advisor to the association, says that it is against the Land Laws to refuse to pay house committee fees, which must be paid unconditionally. Yisrael explained that the purpose of the law is to preserve order and to protect house committees from tenants who decide not to pay their fees whenever there is a dispute. Non-payment of house committee fees can incur lawsuits.

"One has to understand that the committee is a legally elected statutory body," says Yisrael, noting that the moment a committee does not fulfill its duties, the tenants can demand a meeting of the committee by collecting the signatures of 30 percent of the tenants. "If the committee does not convene a meeting within 14 days, that same 30 percent of the tenants can choose to replace the committee," explained Yisrael.

If a tenant finds damage in his apartment that he feels is connected to the committee's activities, he can ask to committee to fix the damage. If the committee refuses, the tenant is entitled to fix the damage at his own expense and be reimbursed by the committee.

Even so, non-payment of house committee fees is a very common form of protest among tenants who feel slighted and frustrated. This is how one tenant in an 11-unit apartment building feels and she has been refusing to pay committee fees for the past year and a half. In her building all the tenants are asked to pay the same monthly fee, NIS 100, but she feels this is unfair to her because 5 of the 11 apartments, including hers, have two-rooms, while the other 6 are five-room apartments.

The tenant claims that the tenants in the two-room apartments should each pay 5 percent of the total monthly maintenance expenses while those living in the five-room apartments should each pay 12.5 percent. The tenant is also demanding a detailed account of the committee's revenues and expenditures for the past 18 months and an explanation of the basis on which the monthly fees are calculated. She feels that the monthly expenses should not exceed NIS 600.

The owner of an apartment in Ramat Gan is also refusing to pay house committee fees until she receives a detailed account of how her money is being spent. She has. She wrote to the association through a lawyer, explaining that she had been asked to pay a certain sum in addition to the monthly fees and is demanding to exercise her legal right to examine the receipts and account books maintained by the house committee in order to determine whether or not she has to pay the sum.

Improper management

Sometimes the demand for a detailed accounting stems from suspicions that the house committee is squandering the tenants' money. Five families in a Jerusalem building claim that the committee's poor management of the tenants' money caused excessive expenditures and submitted a proposal to the committee, in which they have voting power, to lower the fees. "It is regrettable," they wrote in their letter to the association, "that those who were elected are unwilling to listen to a simple request."

Other complaints against house committees concern outgoing members, who are often accused of negligent bookkeeping or of refusing to hand over the cash box and books to newly elected committee members.