A Home in Central Tel Aviv for $26,600? Four Who Found Cheap Digs

These Israelis have found creative ways to cope with the high cost of housing and live from little to nothing.

Gili Melnitcki
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Vered Makdusi and the bus she lives in, Tel Aviv, January 2017.
Vered Makdusi and the bus she lives in, Tel Aviv, January 2017. Credit: Eyal Toueg
Gili Melnitcki

Vered Makdusi lives in a prime area of Tel Aviv, just a 10-minute drive from the center of town, and her home cost just 100,000 shekels ($26,600), including renovations. Roy Erez has a magnificent sea view facing every direction from his home in Ashdod, for which he paid just 270,000 shekels. Hadas Hatucha and Shahar Smuliansky just moved out of Tel Aviv’s Rabbi Kook Street, and they pay nothing at all for the homes they live in.

With housing prices rising quickly and the average home in Tel Aviv now costing 3.16 million shekels for four rooms – a 17% jump from a year ago – the cost of shelter is now beyond the reach of many Israelis. And renting is no bargain either. But these four Israelis found creative ways to get around the problem – Makdusi lives in a converted bus, Erez on a small yacht, and Hatucha and Smuliansky work as serial dog sitters.

Makdusi, who holds down three jobs, shares her 30 square meters (323 square feet) of space with her dog. The bus they call home cost her 24,000 shekels, and she spent another 75,000 shekels or so adapting it and fixing it up.

Before her impromptu lifestyle, which the authorities prefer to dub “illegal dwelling,” she rented apartments in areas outside central Tel Aviv – Hadar Yosef and Bnei Brak. “It isn’t that I woke up one day and decided I wanted to live in a bus,” Makdusi says.

“I stewed over it a long time, looked at alternative forms of living in Israel and elsewhere, and constantly heard that voice asking – who needs to live in concrete? Why should I have to pay my whole life for this thing?”

Makdusi’s neighborhood consists of 13 people living in two buses, five mobile homes, three trucks and a GMC van. The most expensive dwelling there is a 2016-model mobile home that cost a cool 180,000 shekels. The van cost a few thousand, bought from a garage that was glad to get rid of the beast.

Makdusi was the pioneer, arriving three months ago; the others collected around her, she says. Makdusi admits that her more distant neighbors who live in actual apartments – that cost them many millions of shekels – aren’t uniformly thrilled at their makeshift neighborhood.

But, she says, the alternative residents took pains not to be a nuisance, and while her neighbors pay mortgages, her only cost is getting her home tested for roadworthiness once a year. She’s still working on fixing up the bus, most critically, the dividers around the toilet are being built.

Serial dog sitters Shahar Smuliansky and Hadas Hatucha, January 2017.
Serial dog sitters Shahar Smuliansky and Hadas Hatucha, January 2017.

The thing is, at any time a city inspector can order her to move the bus to one of the few areas designated for such mobile homes in Tel Aviv. In fact, she has to move it every few weeks – even a few meters – so it isn’t considered illegal construction.

The mobile neighbors have to refill their water tanks every few days, mostly tapping friends, whom they pay for the water. Visiting friends is also an opportunity to charge the generator, though many have installed solar panels on their mobile homes.

Neither flushing the toilet nor disposing of garbage is trivial. Ordinary homes have pipes and other amenities; mobile homes have to solve those problems for themselves, and there are no designated sites for emptying mobile-home sewage in Tel Aviv, Makdusi says.

It’s a dog’s life on Rothschild

Hatucha, 29, an industrial engineering student, and Smuliansky, 27, a sustainability and economics student, have to move every few weeks, but they say the work of packing up all their things many times a year is offset by the experience of different neighborhoods and meeting new people.

“We just ended a glorious month and a half living in a rooftop apartment on Rabbi Kook Street with an amazing dog,” Smuliansky says. Before that they stayed in a place in Florentin in hipsterish south Tel Aviv. Hatucha fell sick and they went to the parents for a couple of weeks, but now they’re looking for their next semi-squat. Maybe on ritzy Rothschild Boulevard, with its cafes and tourists.

That’s how the two have lived in Tel Aviv for two years without paying a shekel in rent, city tax or bills. They find places to stay, where they take care of pets or whatever, via a Facebook group they run on subletting in Tel Aviv with animals.

Dog owners traveling abroad who don’t want to put their loved one in a kennel or trust neighbors let Hatucha and Smuliansky stay in their apartment free in exchange for TLC for the dog. Their shortest dog-sitting stint was four days, their longest three months. When bereft of shelter, they once stayed in a hostel for eight days, but it was owned by a dog owner.

Roy Erez, who lives on a boat at Ashdod Port.
Roy Erez, who lives on a boat at Ashdod Port. Credit: Eyal Toueg

Smuliansky says he lived in South Africa for two years and became hooked on freedom. Paying 5,500 shekels rent plus utilities for an apartment in Moshav Rishpon didn’t make him feel particularly free; he had become a slave to the rent.

Hatucha joined the adventure after meeting Smuliansky. During one of their first dates, he invited her “home” and she thought the living room was oddly askance with his character – it had a massage bed in the middle of the floor. Then he explained he was just dog-sitting.

“I looked around me and didn’t see a dog. I wondered if I should run for my life,” she laughs. (The dog, as it turns out, was being taken care of by its owners, who had come back early but let the sitter stay in the apartment as contracted.)

Two years later she says she feels warmth for people who trust them to come live in their home and watch over their pup. Some people want to get to know them well first; others take a minute. And sometimes Hatucha and Smuliansky reject an apartment, perhaps because of some horrible smell, or a dog that clearly has emotional issues.

Sometimes they do pay some sort of rent for a place, though the highest so far was 1,500 shekels a month, a quarter of what the usual tenant paid. Sometimes they charge money for their services, the maximum being 100 shekels a day. It frees them, as students, from depending on their parents, says Smuliansky – and often to live like kings while about it, Hatucha adds.

One corollary is they don’t accumulate many possessions. There’s freedom in that too. Yes, they hope one day to have a fixed abode, but not today at Tel Aviv’s prices. Smuliansky for one attests that he won’t rent a place until he can do so affordably, and mortgages aren’t for him – his parents have been slaves to their mortgage bank for 30 years and it has made their lives miserable.

So even if he decides to move into somewhere permanent, he’ll rent, unless he buys for investment purposes.

“Somebody has an economic interest in us being in that loop, thinking that a home is the be-all and end-all and that life’s purpose is to pay the mortgage,” Smuliansky says. “That isn’t right for our generation, which wants much more room to change.”

Roy Erez and the boat he lives on in Ashdod Port, January 2017.
Roy Erez and the boat he lives on in Ashdod Port, January 2017.Credit: Eyal Toueg

And that’s not even considering all those who want to leave Israel. Hatucha notes that she and Smuliansky turned down an offer to house-sit in Paris, mainly because they didn’t have the money for the flight.

Unless you get seasick

Erez, 38, works on a farm near Ashdod and maintains boats at the city’s marina. He took to the boating life after watching his parents struggle with housing costs when he was growing up. The thought of borrowing mortgage money to buy a home, and getting into bed with the banks as it were, frightened him.

“One day I saw a guy living on a boat with his wife and son,” Erez says. After realizing it didn’t cost much, he was on board with the idea, too. The alternative was to live in Tel Aviv and rent, making some rich landlord even richer while being dependent on his whims.

“I didn’t want to wait for my pension to buy a boat, and when I realized it could be a sustainable economic solution I went for it.”

He began living on the floating flat with a Thai woman named Nam, who unfortunately turned out to suffer from seasickness and went to follow a different star.

The boat cost him 270,000 shekels and yes, he had to borrow from a bank for the pleasure, but all should be repaid in two years. It’s a sailing vessel with two rooms, a showerette and a kitchenette. The garden is the sea and if he doesn’t like the neighbors, he can sail away.

Anchoring the thing in Ashdod Port costs 1,400 shekels a month, including tax and utilities (docking in Tel Aviv or Herzliya costs a few hundred more). Erez maintains the boat himself and says one small space heater does the trick for staying warm in the winter.

Ten other families live on boats in Ashdod Port. One has two children who go to school every day and a dog who barks when he thinks a thunderstorm is approaching.

Erez doesn’t need to be rich to see the world, he says. Last year he sailed to Italy. He’d rather keep driving his 1993 Renault and be able to sail to Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where he notes that a group of Christians suspect they originated with a lost tribe of Israel. Some keep kosher and pray for Israel and its soldiers.

Erez plans to marry in June and live with his wife and kids on the boat, especially as schools don’t teach much about nature. The rat race doesn’t leave quality time to think about the meaning of life, but on the boat you’re closer to nature, he says. And if everybody lived like that, maybe we wouldn’t be running around ruining the planet.

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