The Trials and Tribulations of House-hunting in the Holy City

This being Jerusalem, finding an apartment to purchase is not going to be easy. But I am a Jerusalemite, and in Jerusalem I will stay.

Our quest for the holy grail is on. We have put it off long enough. Our mission is clear.

We will not rent a pricy apartment for another year.

Even if we have to beg, borrow and steal in order to make the down payment – which we probably will, considering the size of our nest egg – we will find an apartment to buy before our contract runs out at the start of the summer.

This being Jerusalem, it’s not going to be easy. The price of apartments in Israel's capital bears no relation to what people earn, due in part to the well-known phenomena of Diaspora Jews who have been convinced that the ultimate investment in the Zionist project is to acquire an apartment in the holy city, even if they only visit it once or twice a year. The other side of the problem is the developers who cater to them, by grabbing nearly every available lot, barricading it with corrugated tin, and erecting a sign announcing the latest luxury project. These ubiquitous sites make my heart sink, because they're always out of our budget. The people of Israel were up in arms about the lack of affordable housing 18 months ago, demonstrated by people taking to tents around the country. But a day before the elections, you’d hardly know it.

To make matters worse, we’re spoiled. We live in a lovely, three-bedroom, ground-floor apartment with a spacious patio and garden in Baka – where one now hears as much English and French on the street as Hebrew. This neighborhood of south Jerusalem, which was a smattering of stately Arab homes until 1948 and became something of a slum for decades afterwards, has now become one of the most desirable locations in the city. There are some old shikunim (public housing projects) wedged in between the villas, townhouses, and luxury apartments. But what’s more noticeable is the shiputzim, such as the renovation project down our street which is turning a dilapidated old Palestinian house into a stone-and-glass fortress, protected by electronic steel gates. Above our heads, our wealthy neighbors are adding a new floor to the entire building, doubling their space and subjecting us to so much unbearable noise and dust that it’s proven to be more of a threat to my quality of life than any Qassam or Grad rocket hurtling towards Jerusalem.

And so back to our conclusion: we must move, and it’s high time we buy. But for people without a sizable family fortune to tap into, the options are limited. For us, there are three main options. 1. We could move to a Jerusalem neighborhood near or over the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 borders. 2. We could buy an apartment that is much smaller than we need, is vastly below our current standards, or is in a far less desirable neighborhood. 3. We could leave Jerusalem altogether.

1. This is the issue that frustrates me most, because were I choosing between staying in Manhattan or moving to Brooklyn or Queens, I wouldn’t also have moral and ethical dilemmas to pile on top of the financial ones. Here, my Haifa born-and-bred husband and I are in total agreement – the Israeli system makes it financially attractive for people to move to the settlements. Given our political views, it’s unthinkable that we ever would. But my lefty husband says Gilo is a not a settlement – though in the eyes of the international community, it is. As a compromise, I’ve agreed to look at a few places in Armon HaNatziv, the new go-to neighborhood for many “young families” like ours. It’s a gray area, he points out, because it was actually a UN-held neutral territory between 1948 and 1967 – not Israel and not Jordan, according to the 1949 Armistice agreement.

2. We could live in smaller quarters, with no spare room to use as an office or guest room. But with two children in about 85 square meters, things already feel tight. We could move to a run-down, unrenovated apartment on the third or fourth floor of an old building with no elevator and no balcony, slashing our quality of life. Or we could move to a neighborhood in the Katamonim, which is supposedly gentrifying. “I’m open to that,” I insist. But every time I visit, I find myself wondering at how much it looks the hardscrabble neighborhoods I’ve come across over the years – in Gaza City, Cairo, and Baghdad.

3. Finally, we could just do what so many other sane people have done: leave Jerusalem. There are other beautiful places to live, other fascinating cities, other nice communities. In some of them, we could buy a house for the amount of money we’ll probably spend on buying a Jerusalem apartment in a building of whose appearance I will likely feel ashamed of when my American family comes to visit.

But apparently, somewhere along the way, I became a Jerusalemite. Not an actual Israeli, perhaps not a true Middle Easterner, but a Levant-dweller who needs access to East and West, who now likes the mountain air more than the coastal humidity, who sees the desert vistas and the landscape of domes and towers and citadels not as a tourist, but as pieces of the quotidian landscape that informs life here. And then there are our wonderfully diverse friends – our various literary, journalistic, spiritual and cultural communities. Ecologically, my husband loves having his own compost pile in the garden, and city life helps him maintain his resistance to becoming a two-car family. Gastronomically, I love being able to eat the most authentic kubbeh soup in West Jerusalem, and the most asli (original) hummus in East Jerusalem, and discovering the dozens of delicacies in between, some of them highlighted in Yotam Ottolenghi's "Jerusalem," a cookbook so sumptuous that I don't just browse my recently purchased copy, I ogle it. I’ll always love an escape to the beaches north of Tel Aviv, a hike in the Negev, a weekend in the Galilee when the spring flowers are in bloom.

I love 100 other cities in the world. But at the end of the day, I come home to Jerusalem. I keep choosing it, despite its ugly parts, despite the many people here who want nothing to do with me, the way you choose to stay in a family despite the things about them that drive you mad.

If that’s the case, I suppose the problem is not just the foreign investors and greedy developers. Part of the problem is people like me, who insist on staying.

Daniel Bar-On