As Housing Crunch Deepens, Haredim Spill Into Secular Communities

A rapidly growing population and few purpose-built communities leave ultra-Orthodox families scrambling for shelter

A tiny structure located in a single parking spot under an apartment building in the center of Bnei Brak serves as the home of two young parents and their infant son. With a window, kitchenette, bed and tiny bathroom, the space can barely be described as livable, but the couple pays 3,000 shekels a month to live in it.

The family’s predicament isn’t unique. In fact, nine other families share the building’s parking lot, some with two or more children, all paying at least as much rent. The situation at other buildings on the street is no different, with every parking spot serving as a makeshift ground floor apartment.

All this provides a glimpse of the housing crisis facing the ultra-Orthodox population, which has forced thousands of families to make homes out of storerooms, driven the “Haredization” of non-religious neighborhoods and created countless needless quarrels.

Notwithstanding the occasional headline about a new bonanza of affordable housing and exorbitant benefits directed exclusively to the Haredi public, the real estate crunch for the sector remains acute. Haredi cities, including Bnei Brak, Elad, Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit, and Jerusalem’s Haredi neighborhoods, are all filled to capacity and new communities just aren’t being built. The result is Haredi families increasingly moving into mixed neighborhoods, a process often seen as a “takeover” by older residents.

A 2012 survey by the Geocartography Research Institute found that 9,185 Haredi couples in Israel marry each year, meaning the sector needs almost that many new housing units annually. And this figure will certainly rise, since the Haredi population doubles every 20 years.

The Haredi population’s special needs require appropriate urban planning. For example, the Haredi objection to using elevators on Shabbat, even if they are programmed to stop at every floor, rules out high-rise apartment blocks. And the Haredim need religious facilities such as synagogues, kindergartens and mikvehs. But this type of planning has not taken place — either when the Haredi parties were in the government or since. According to the Israel Builders Association, just 3,000 of the 30,000 apartments built annually in recent years have been earmarked for the sector.

Some 47,000 new housing units were built for the Haredi sector from 1990 to 2010, says Avraham Kroizer, adviser to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Haredi issues. The Housing and Construction Ministry says the sector needs 80,000 new apartments by 2020, of which 3,000 have been built, or perhaps slightly more.

“This, and nothing else, has led to the Haredization of neighborhoods in many areas,” Kroizer says. “In meetings concerning mixed neighborhoods, I usually say, ‘Dear friends, as far as I know, Shimon Bar Yochai isn’t buried in Kiryat Hayovel, and there isn’t any center of religious-Haredi attraction there.’ All in all, they’re old apartments, dilapidated student apartments, project housing that the non-religious are selling to improve their standard of living. Haredi families want to buy just to have a roof over their heads in Jerusalem.”

The Haredi stereotype remains one of an unwanted minority that brings poverty, neglect and religious coercion wherever it settles. The inclination these days is to call for barring Sudanese and Haredim from neighborhoods, says Haredi journalist Yossi Elituv, editor of the Haredi weekly Mishpacha magazine and a board member at Channel Two. “This is a racist approach by people unwilling to live with those who don’t share their skin color,” he says.

With hardly anywhere else to turn, young Haredi families are being forced to look toward mixed cities and neighborhoods. This is where people like Pinchas Zalzman, principal of the Neot Hapisgah real estate firm, and Rabbi Mordechai Bloi enter the picture by seeking out cheap neighborhoods with appropriate facilities and advising families where to move.

“We examine the price level and ask about the neighborhood’s composition,” explains Zalzman. “If there is an Ethiopian population, which doesn’t easily pick up and leave, for example, we have no chance of buying up a quantity of apartments. Of highest importance are abandoned public institutions, synagogues without worshippers that can be easily reestablished. We aren’t interested in conquering [neighborhoods]. I am just looking to apartments for my people who have nowhere to live.”

“Doubly screwed”

Every time a city or neighborhood undergoes a mass Haredi influx, it sets off a new round of fighting in the war over religion so familiar to the Israeli public. The solution preferred by everyone is to set aside separate Haredi towns or city districts and thereby eliminate the friction.

But according to Yaki Reisner, vice-president of Z. Landau Construction & Engineering, there are no projects being built for the Haredi sector. Not only are too few tenders put out for the sector, he explains, it is also simply a matter of purchasing power: The Haredim haven’t been spared the devastating effect of soaring real estate prices.

“When you do a sales campaign in Rosh Ha’ayin to sell apartments for 1.1 million shekels and 3,000 people sign up, this doesn’t just signify a housing shortage but purchasing power distress as well,” says Reisner. “In Modi’in Ilit, [Haredim] were buying apartments 20 years ago at $48,000, and even then it choked them financially. Each set of parents put up $15,000 [not a trivial sum considering the many children a typical set of Haredi parents needs to marry off], the newlyweds took a $10,000 mortgage, and the matter was settled. In Elad, apartments already cost $75,000 10 years ago. In Beit Shemesh after Hefziba [the construction company that went bankrupt in 2007] folded, we sold three-room apartments for 570,000 shekels, which today cost 1 million shekels. But Haredi purchasing power hasn’t kept pace.”

The solution, according to Reisner, is simple. “Buy into every neighborhood where apartments cost up to 400,000 shekels,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where. Go to Tiberias and buy for 400,000 shekels.”

The price for not building Haredim their own cities or neighborhoods is having them move into mixed or secular neighborhoods, says Zalzman. For example, the couple mentioned earlier living in the Bnei Brak parking lot has already bought an apartment in Kiryat Haim but is waiting until others join them there.

Israel’s original sin was using the Haredi population as a tool to strategically settle the country, according to Elituv. “There is an unwritten pact between the Haredis and Israeli government,” he says. “The governments sent them to the frontiers, so from the outset they weren’t meant to live in the heart of the country. In 1990, the government found Betar Ilit and sent these people with their fedoras and beards to settle such places. Afterward, they sent them to Immanuel as emissaries for Uzi Landau and the rest. Unwilling emissaries, it should be noted, since all this doesn’t interest them. And after we’re done settling the territories they want us to deal with the Bedouins.”

“They used us as cannon fodder,” says real estate developer Rabbi Menachem Carmel. “We were good for demographics, to populate settlements where we went, not for ideological reasons, but rather from desperate need. But when we ask for normal solutions nobody talks to us.”

“Modi’in Ilit and Betar Ilit aren’t ideological settlements,” says Kroizer. “But look what’s happened now: We’re doubly screwed as both Haredi and settlers, and Modi’in Ilit is suffering from the construction freeze.”

“A ticking time bomb”

“The problem is that it’s easy to target a ‘secular population’ but not a ‘religious population,’” according to Reisner. “There is a new project in Kiryat Gat with buildings 12 stories high. Why? Because they don’t want Haredis — they said so explicitly.” Just providing parking is a deal breaker, he says, because a Haredi won’t pay 250,000 shekels on a parking spot for a car he doesn’t have.

“You need to know how to build for Haredim,” says Bloi. “A Haredi needs a sukkah no matter what floor he’s on. He has no need for all the parking that regulations now require, because he doesn’t have two cars: He doesn’t even have one. He needs public parks for the children and schools, not sports fields or community centers.”

Despite their complaints against the government, in Haredi circles, they say the time has come for some soul searching. “My own regrets concern the Haredi lack of success in exploiting their purchasing power in the field of housing and the failure of the non-profit method,” says Reisner. “Haredi purchasing power is substantial in certain areas. Haredi supermarkets were once the cheapest, because the Haredi sector knew how to exercise its purchasing power. But in housing it hasn’t succeeded. Another regret is that for the past four years, Haredim held all the levers and controlled everything connected with construction — The Finance Committee, the Housing and Construction Ministry, the Israel Lands Administration, deputy Finance Minister — and still couldn’t manage to launch [the new city of] Harish through a tender restricted to the religious public — because they were afraid to.”

Others are also voicing the opinion that having Haredi officials at the helm of government agencies dealing with housing actually stood in the way of resolving the situation. Many express longings for Meir Sheetrit who, as housing minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, established Betar Ilit, as well as for Sharon himself.

“We are in favor of benefits for young couples whoever they are,” says Kroizer. “We don’t have any illusions. It’s not like they aren’t building at all in Israel these days. The government is handling the entire housing issue out of stupidity, not ideology. But my sector has grown 6 percent every year. I have needs. I am a citizen with equal rights, so find me a solution. It’s a ticking time bomb.”

The Housing and Construction Ministry’s response is that in recent years, hardly any sales of land have been directed at specific sectors. “The tenders are open to the general population, and the winners are developers or non-profits who are interested in the land and believe they can sell the homes to their defined target market,” it said. “The character of neighborhoods and settlements is no longer set in advance but according to whoever acquires the land and their target market. But it is clear there are localities where the buyers are expected to come from the Haredi public.”

The ministry and Israel Lands Authority are trying to plan things so that neighborhoods are adapted to all sectors and that the homes and public spaces are suitable for the general and Haredi publics regardless of who wins the tenders.

Tomer Appelbaum