Go South, Young Men (And Women)

Sleepy Ofakim has begun opening up new plots for building, in the hope a younger population will make the desert city bloom

Sleepy Ofakim has begun opening up new plots for building, in the hope a younger population will make the desert city bloom

Alberto Denkberg

At the end of last year, the southern town of Ofakim began to see a thaw in its nearly frozen real estate market. After three years in which no land was offered for sale for construction, plots for almost 100 housing units changed hands in the town of 27,000. The Afikei Orot non-profit's Marhivim Ofakim ("broadening horizons," a play on the name of the town ) company spent about NIS 13 million for plots in the Mishor Hagefen neighborhood for 70 units, and the Uzan Brothers firm purchased land for 26 single family homes in the Shapira neighborhood for about NIS 850,000. The two transactions were signs of stirring in the market after a long hibernation.

When most people hear Ofakim they think of its two more famous neighbors, religious Netivot and a bit further away, rocket-scarred Sderot. Ofakim was founded in 1955 as an urban center for the surrounding villages and received municipal status as a city in 1995. The city has an area of about 10,000 dunams and has a mostly traditional or religious population. The municipality estimates that about a fifth of city residents are ultra-Orthodox. About a third of the inhabitants of the town, however, are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

For the past three years, the city has been run by a committee appointed by the Interior Ministry after the interior minister at the time, Meir Sheetrit, removed the elected mayor, Avi Asaraf, following deficiencies in the city's management. A former Ashdod mayor, Aryeh Azulay, was appointed head of the committee in 2007. He announced his resignation in July of 2008 and was replaced by Zvi Greengold, who gained fame as a tank commander on the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and remains at the helm in Ofakim.

Greengold says repeated cuts in state assistance to city hall have seriously affected city operations. About a month ago, city workers didn't receive their salaries and launched work sanctions.

About a week later, they got their pay, but Greengold says the underlying problem has not been solved, because the municipality counts on state funding for a substantial portion of the municipal budget. He says state aid is essential to improve conditions in the city and must be fully reinstated. The finance and interior ministries, however, don't agree.

This month, Greengold will mark two years on the job. He says positive developments are occurring in town, although the crisis at the municipality clouds prospects for its continued development. Greengold believes the most serious problem facing the city has been the drain of young people, who leave behind less financially productive population groups and no prospects for leadership. The city hopes opening up new housing developments will bring young families to Ofakim that will help turn the city around.

Greengold's plans require major investment and the expansion of municipal services to make the city more attractive. The municipality has been working to cultivate future leadership in town among the city's younger generation, and Greengold says the results are becoming apparent.

"A group of young people that was sitting on the fence and even left the city is returning and getting involved, and that is reflected in community activities and at the center for young people that we established," he noted.

Buy and build

About two months ago, a lottery was held for 70 half-dunam lots in the Mishor Hagefen neighborhood. In contrast to similar efforts in the past in which there was little interest from buyers, this time 500 bids were received. Ultimately all of the plots were acquired by the Afikei Orot non-profit, a national religious organization whose members include physicians from Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva as well as high-tech business people and other professionals.

Afikei Orot was established 13 years ago by Moshe Ohayon in an effort to encourage residents to stay in the town and encourage others to move there.

"The non-profit has a national religious character, but our only membership criterion is not publicly violating the Sabbath, so we also have those who don't wear skullcaps," Ohayon says.

Ohayon explained that the members of his organization came to the conclusion that the best way to further their objectives was to buy land and build homes. They divided the project into two segments to maximize the number of people who would participate.

The organization offered the public the option of building their own homes or to go through single contractor who had a number of different models available. The second option enabled buyers to save on planning and construction costs. To encourage young couples to participate, Afikei Orot established an assistance fund with contributions provided by members of the business community.

Afikei Orot members bought the lots at NIS 180,000 to NIS 230,000 each, including development costs. It is estimated that construction costs would start at NIS 650,000 for a unit in a small two-family complex and would range up to NIS 800,000 or 900,000 for a 200 square meter private home on a plot of land.

On Ofakim's main commercial thoroughfare, Herzl Street, and in the adjoining area, apartment buildings with three or four-room row house apartments built in the 1950s were selling until a few years ago for NIS 120,000 to NIS 160,000. Recently prices for the units have skyrocketed to NIS 200,000 to 250,000, due in large part to the influx of ultra-Orthodox residents as a result of housing shortages in places like Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. In neighborhoods of Ofakim that are attracting these newcomers, 3-room apartments that sold for NIS 250,000 just six months ago are now selling for NIS 320,000 to NIS 360,000.

Trains, planes and the ultra-Orthodox

Because Ofakim developed from north to south, the southern Shapira neighborhood is the most modern. Single-family homes have been built there by individual homeowners and at the initiative of developers. Uzan Brothers bought lots in the neighborhood about five years ago and developed a row of private 100-square meter homes that in the initial sales phase were already selling for NIS 700,000. The firm is now building 135-square meter houses for up to NIS 950,000.

"In the last 10 years, we've built 200 units here," said Yoram Uzan, one of the firm's owners. "I have already believed in this city for many years and we built our first offices here, too, in 1989. At this point, there is a shortage of housing for young couples here, because we are the only ones building here, so I am not surprised prices are going up."

Another company that has shown a modicum of interest here is Y.H. Dimri Building and Development, which has hundreds of dunams of land in the southeast part of town, not far from the Hatzerim airbase.

The firm is completing preparations for a neighborhood of 1,155 private houses, based on plans to pave a 6-kilometer highway which would lead past Hatzerim and provide a fast and direct route to Be'er Sheva.

Currently the trip to Be'er Sheva takes about 20 minutes by car. The new highway would cut the travel time and lead directly to employment centers in Be'er Sheva.

Among efforts by the Ofakim Municipality to encourage development is action on a new master plan for the city. City engineer Hezi Bleistein says he would like to see the town expand eastward, which would provide better utilization of the city's large urban park as an attraction for new residents.

Ofakim Park, through which the Patish and Ofakim streams flow, includes a beautiful Jewish National Fund grove of trees that stayed green even in this summer's extreme heat. The municipality sees the grove, which features an Ottoman-era fortress, as the lungs of the city and planned a neighborhood of about 5,000 houses on individual plots of land nearby. City Hall wants the population to double to nearly 60,000 residents.

The city also sees a direct rail line from Ashkelon to Be'er Sheva through the north of Ofakim as essential. Greengold notes that a railroad station is due to be built just 300 meters from the center of town. The city is counting on improved access from Ofakim to Be'er Sheva as part of the vision for the future, in which Ofakim would become a Be'er Sheva exurb.

The plans for Ofakim are dependent on a number of factors, including competition with Sderot and Netivot, state assistance to the town and transportation infrastructure in the area. There are also internal factors such as Ofakim's growing ultra-Orthodox population, which might dissuade secular and national religious families from putting down roots there. Another factor which is essential to the development of the town is the municipality's ability to provide good services, particularly through the development of a strong educational system.

And the state of the real estate market is also a factor. The upturn in the market in the center of the country has spread to the south, to places like Ofakim, but a real estate slowdown could just as easily affect plans for the town.