Gittit Zin
Gittit Zin Photo by David Bachar
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Ofer Vaknin
Anat Eliyahu Photo by Ofer Vaknin
Nir Kafri
Yuli Gershoni Photo by Nir Kafri

The public protest against high housing costs, which began last week with 10 tents pitched at one end of Rothschild Blvd. in Tel Aviv, has ballooned into a headline story highlighting Israel's housing shortage. What began as an action by a handful of enthusiastic young people has turned into a nationwide, middle-class movement.

It's not just the high prices that make apartment-hunting in Tel Aviv an ordeal. High demand, it seems, has turned every basement storage room into a potential rental apartment. A 30-square-meter apartment suddenly sounds downright spacious. Every potential roommate has a list of nonnegotiable demands that must be met before a lease can be signed, and that doesn't include the guarantees the landlords require, which in some ways makes them the country's real tycoons.

There are even some unofficial admissions committees operating in Tel Aviv, that have so far escaped the scrutiny of human rights organizations. Landlords demand to know nearly every detail about every potential tenant before handing over the keys: age, gender, sexual orientation, even whether their new renter is vegetarian, vegan, carnivore - and if so, of the kosher or nonkosher variety. The wrong answer can cost you the lease.

In the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kiryat Shalom, some religiously observant landlords reportedly refuse to rent to unmarried couples. "Under such circumstances, tenants have just two choices. They can either rent the place on their own, or they can lie to the landlord," one resident said. A female renter, a recent migrant from the suburb of Ramat Gan said she was refused an apartment because she was single and the landlord was looking for "couples only."

Lily, a woman Jerusalem in her twenties looking to move into a shared apartment, says that in one place her potential roommates asked her to draw a picture of a tree and a sun, a common task in Israeli psychological assessment tests for university admission or job placement. "At first I though they were joking because we had a good rapport and I thought I had the apartment in the bag, but then I saw they had a pile of 20 drawings, so I drew. Maybe it's funny, but when I didn't get the apartment I thought to myself: 'What was the matter with my tree?'" Lily said.

The financial demands on potential tenants can be astronomical. One Tel Aviv renter says his landlord, a lawyer, charged him an attorney's fee for drawing up the lease. In addition, he was required to pay property insurance, as well as a fee in the event of the early termination or assignment of the lease. The landlord also asked for pay stubs not only from the tenant but also from his parents, even though the renter was over 30.

What’s your sign?

Name: Gitit Zin
Monthly rent: NIS 3,000 including building fee
Size: 30 sq. m.
Location: Bugrashov St., Tel Aviv

At first, Zin says, she didn’t understand why her prospective landlord insisted that she send him a fax. “She wanted to see my handwriting,” she recalls. It’s not just prospective employers who are evaluating candidates with handwriting analysis in Israel, it turns out.

The fax also had to include detailed information about Zin’s background as well. “I really wanted this apartment, so I wrote it out three times, editing it carefully to sell myself the best I could.” The landlord called her after she sent it, to tell her how impressed she was, but later also asked for her birthdate − he needed to know her astrological sign, Zin says.

“It turns out she investigated me through both astrology and graphology and that’s even before the personal audition,” she said with a laugh. “When we met she even started to analyze my character a little.” ‏

Driven out by a crazy roommate

Name: Ro’i Messinger
Monthly rent: NIS 4,100
Size: 80 sq. m.
Location: Katznelson St., Givatayim

Ro’i Messinger represents another aspect of rental life in the Tel Aviv area. He decided to rent an apartment and then find his own roommates, so the choice would be his. He never imagined that he would find himself outside, couch-surfing with friends. Messinger, 25, an immigrant from Mexico, says that because he’s always had problems finding apartments because he has a dog decided to broaden his search beyond Tel Aviv.

After moving in he took pity on a woman with no place to live, who became his roommate. “But at one point she decided I was her boyfriend and began ‘sexting’ me.” Things went from bad to worse. She contacted a lawyer, while Messinger called the police over what he said was her violent behavior. He decided to move out, and has been staying at his parents’ home in Herzliya, or with friends. ‏

Everything but the kitchen sink

Name: Anat Eliyahu
Monthly rent: NIS 2,400 including municipal tax (arnona) and water
Size: 22 sq. m.
Location: Yehuda Maccabi St., Tel Aviv

“The first thing I’m going to do when I move is to post on Facebook that I have a sink in the kitchen,” Anat Eliahu, 24, says with a laugh. She studies early childhood special education at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, and after months of searching for an apartment nearby she settled for one with no kitchen sink after seeing the five other people who were willing to take it.

“At first I thought it was great but gradually I began to see the problem with it,” Eliahu says. She has to wash her dishes in the bathroom and towel-dry them because the “kitchen” doesn’t have space for a dishrack. Eliahu says that overall the apartment has been fine, noting, “in any event I’m only here to sleep.”

In a few weeks Eliahu is to move − into an apartment with a sink in the kitchen. Rental prices in Tel Aviv drove her to the suburb of Ramat Gan, but she says she’ll miss her current location. ‏

The couch-surfer

Name: Yuli Gershoni
Monthly rent: None
Size: Variable
Current location: King George St., Tel Aviv

Yuli Gershoni’s keyring has at least seven house keys. “You see these? None of them are mine.” After an extended period in California Gershoni, 22, began looking for an apartment in Tel Aviv. After looking at dozens of places, she became discouraged. “It seemed ridiculous to spend NIS 4,000 a month on an apartment with a bedroom the size of a closet,” Gershoni says. At first she stayed with an aunt and uncle.

“I thought I could take my salary for two weeks and find an apartment with it, but now it’s been three months, during which I’ve lived in around a dozen different places.” Gershoni is currently staying at the apartment of acquaintances, in return for taking care of their dog. “Friends brought me posters this week for my birthday,” she recounted, “but I don’t have anywhere to hang them. I don’t have my own wall.” ‏