For a brief moment this past summer, the issue of public housing had its day in the sun. That is when it was revealed that government policies over the past decade had brought about a severe shortage of public housing units: In 2011 there were 2,340 families eligible for public housing, but only 313 apartments became vacant that year.
This statistic can be found in a report prepared by the Knesset Research Center and published during the summer. According to the report, in 2011 there were 75,000 public housing units, compared to 108,000 in 1999 - a drop of some 30 percent in 12 years. In the center of the country, those eligible for public housing - of whom there are fewer these days because of tougher eligibility criteria - a family can wait five years to get an apartment.
One of the most painful findings in the report relates to the question of what was done with the NIS 2.75 billion received from the periodic sell-off of public apartments - some to their occupants and some to the public at large. A 1999 government decision stipulated that the proceeds from the sales of these apartments would be used to finance permanent or long-term housing solutions for public housing candidates.
According to the report, the Housing and Construction Ministry received 56 percent of the revenues (NIS 1.54 billion ), while 40 percent went to the Jewish Agency as part of an agreement the agency reached with the treasury. The remaining 4 percent were for commissions and various assessments.
Of the funds received by the Housing Ministry, NIS 680 million were allocated to housing-related projects, including NIS 205 million for the purchase of apartments - some 7.5 percent of the total revenues from the public housing sales.
NIS 438 million was transferred to the Finance Ministry, NIS 187 million to two government-municipal housing companies and NIS 237 million remained in the Housing Ministry's coffers. These funds were used for, among other things, paving an access road to Ma'aleh Adumim and funding the construction of public institutions. Even the biggest supporters of these projects would be hard-pressed to explain what they have to do with public housing.
On July 7 of this year, MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ) proposed setting up a parliamentary inquiry committee that would examine what had happened to the money from the sale of public housing units over the years.
"They sold more than 37,000 apartments but the money never was used to build or buy public housing apartments," he told the Knesset plenum.
Under his proposal, the parliamentary panel would ascertain what the current public housing needs are and how to meet them; determine the scope of renovations needed in existing public housing units, and also attempt to learn a thing or two from the international community's vast experience with public housing.
Housing Minister Ariel Atias (Shas ) asked that a vote on Khenin's proposal be delayed a few days while he looked for other solutions to the public housing crisis. Unfortunately, by then the Plesner Committee, which was attempting to formulate legislation to enable the draft of Haredim and Arabs into national and military service, had grabbed the public's attention.
When the debate on Khenin's proposal resumed on July 11, Atias didn't even show up. Minister Without Porfolio Meshulam Nahari of Shas presented Atias' response: "The housing and construction minister sees no need for a parliamentary committee of inquiry on the proceeds from the sale of public housing, since all the facts of the matter are open and known to all."
Khenin responded: "If anyone had any doubt as to why a parliamentary committee of inquiry on the question of public housing is necessary, we've just gotten our answer. This is how the government conducts itself on this issue."
The proposal to form an inquiry committee was voted down, 22-11. Those voting against it included eight MKs from the Likud, five from Yisrael Beiteinu, four from Shas, three from United Torah Judaism and MK Zevulun Orlev from Habayit Hayehudi.