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The Housing and Construction Ministry recently decided to provide housing and mortgage assistance to common-law couples - including those of the same sex - thereby removing one of the major obstacles to equality for alternative families.

The decision, which was made two months ago, changes the ministry's policy of granting such benefits only to married couples and common-law couples with at least one joint child.

"The housing ministry was nearly the last stronghold that persistently refused, for many years, to apply these benefits to common-law couples as well," Dan Yakir, the chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said yesterday. "This is also the first instance I know of in which straight people are enjoying expanded benefits in the wake of a gay struggle. Up to now, they have applied benefits to gays that had been given to straight common-law couples."

Over the last few years, the ACRI has been fighting for the rights of two gay couples to receive housing assistance: two men from Kiryat Shmona seeking a grant to purchase an apartment, and two female American immigrants seeking a mortgage to buy a house in Jerusalem.

Ministry spokesman Koby Bleich said the policy was changed due to recent "social and legal changes" and said some evidence of a shared household would be required.

"The background to the ministry decision is the social and legal changes over the last few years," said Bleich. "The assistance that will be provided will be identical to that received by 'regular' couples. We will demand proof that both partners have been sharing a household for a minimum amount of time."

Yakir, who has been leading the struggle against the housing ministry for the rights of common-law couples for several years, wrote to ministry attorney Noam Lefkowitz in August 2000 to say the ACRI welcomed the decision to grant a mortgage to common-law couples with a joint child, but that the change was insufficient.

"It is a first step, but it is clear it is not enough," Yakir wrote. "There is no justification for discriminating between married couples and common-law [couples]."

Lefkowitz suggested that the Knesset pass a law on the matter before the ministry changed its policy, since housing assistance can total "tens and even hundreds of thousands of shekels" per couple.