Israel Ending Program to Quake-proof Buildings Next Year

National Planning Administration says program created more problems than it solved – but critics say this will leave buildings unprotected and raise housing prices

Adi Cohen
Gili Melnitcki
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A crack is seen in a building column after an earthquake in Tiberias, 2018.
A crack is seen in a building column after an earthquake in Tiberias, 2018.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Adi Cohen
Gili Melnitcki

Israel’s National Planning Administration signaled on Wednesday that it is planning to wind down its Tama 38 program, which is designed to encourage homeowners and builders to reinforce buildings against earthquakes.

The announcement was expected for some after the program sparked criticism and after permits making use of its incentives have been on the decline since 2014. Nevertheless, the planning administration’s announcement quickly elicited sharp criticism, on the grounds that it leaves Israel without a program to quake-proof buildings and might also create another surge in housing prices.

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Israel lies in an , but it was only after 1982 that regulations were enacted requiring new buildings to be quake-resistant. Tama 38 (a Hebrew acronym for National Master Plan 38) was launched in 2005. It encourages reinforcement of older buildings through a package of incentives for homeowners and building contractors in which the cost of reinforcement is covered by giving builders tax breaks and the right to add an extra floor to buildings undergoing renovation.

Critics have said, however, that the program was being used in areas where the financial incentives were attractive, mainly in the greater area, where housing and land prices are high but where the earthquake threat is relatively low. Where Tama 38 is mostly badly needed, it was barely used.

In addition, Tama 38 has been employed on a building-by-building basis rather than as a comprehensive solution to the earthquake threat. As a result, many towns and neighborhoods in the center of the Israel have been overwhelmed by new construction for which there was no infrastructure or local services.

The National Planning Administration, which made its position known in a letter to the Israel Bar Association, said it was this second reason that was behind its decision. “It is preferable to promote urban renewal projects in a more sophisticated way while providing for public needs and other aspects of planning that will contribute to improving the welfare of the residents,” it wrote. “This is in contrast to the granting of a specific permit on a single lot or building.”

The planning administration said Tama 38 would effectively come to an end in May 2020, when its current five-year term expires, although it may continue on a limited scale in the years ahead.

Avraham Lalum, a bar association vice president and a leading lawyer on urban renewal issues, said even though the decision wasn’t final, it was inevitably going to be put into force unless someone higher up acted. “This is bad decision that could lead to tragedy,” he said. “The government needs to intervene immediately on its use. Whole sectors rely on Tama 38. Buildings will be left with no [earthquake] solution if all around them there are buildings that were reinforced under Tama 38.”

Although applications for Tama 38 have been growing, the number of building permits issued under the program has been in decline – from 1,072 in the peak year of 2014 to just 633 in 2018, according to the Housing and Construction Ministry’s Urban Renewal Authority.

Nevertheless, the authority’s deputy director, Einat Ganon, noted that urban renewal plans accounted for 15 percent of Israeli housing starts last year and 14 percent of home sales. Most of those starts were made through the Tama 38 program. Without it, she warned, home prices in the greater Tel Aviv area would skyrocket due to the reduced supply of new homes.

“We can’t give up Tama 38 without creating a practical alternative,” she said. “ We view Tama 38 as one of the most significant tools for advancing urban renewal in the center of the country, above and beyond its important role in strengthening and protecting buildings and preserving human life.”

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