Solutions to Israel's Housing Crisis Are Worrying Environmental Planners

The government has renewed initiatives to build new cities in the country's open spaces, but planning experts disagree.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Harish. Plans are for 3-room, 80-sq.m. dwellings for NIS 450,000 or less.
Harish. Plans are for 3-room, 80-sq.m. dwellings for NIS 450,000 or less.Credit: Nimrod Glickman
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Israeli planners have been breaking their heads in recent years to figure out how to ensure continued construction and development while preserving the country's land reserves.

For some in government, however, the reality appears to be entirely different. They act as if the country has massive open spaces that can be filled with endless new towns and settlements.

TheMarker reported last week that the Housing and Construction Ministry is examining the feasibility of establishing two new towns between Kiryat Gat and Sderot.

While the planning is still in its preliminary stage and has not been presented to any planning committee, it represents the continuation of an extensive trend of planning and building new cities and towns in recent years.

That trend is deeply concerning to environmental planners, who fear for the effect of such building on the country's existing cities and, just as importantly, on its remaining open spaces.

The previous wave of establishing new towns, which saw the establishment of urban or semi-urban communities such as Modi'in, Shoham and Elad, was more than two decades ago.

In the years since, the national planning bodies have followed a policy of opposing new cities or communities, preferring to make effective use of remaining land reserves and strengthening existing urban areas.

In recent years, however, government initiatives to build new cities have been renewed. At first, they were connected to an attempt to find housing solutions for the ultra-Orthodox community, which needs about 100,000 additional apartments by the end of 2025.

The first step was to turn the suburban community of Harish into a town earmarked primarily for the ultra-Orthodox. The town is in the process of being built currently, though now it is intended for all population groups.

That doesn't mean that the ultra-Orthodox have been forgotten. About six months ago, the National Council for Planning and Construction approved a master plan for a new ultra-Orthodox city named Kasif, to be built west of Arad. It will cover an area of about 5,000 dunam and have 50,000 apartments.

The goal of the new city, according to government documentation, is to provide a housing solution for the ultra-Orthodox and encourage settlement in the Negev.

"A study conducted by the Housing and Construction Ministry found that council heads in the metropolitan area of Be'er Sheva were disinterested in the massive absorption of ultra-Orthodox in their cities," according to the documentation.

"The explanation was that the cities were not geared up for the economic burden of absorbing a low socio-economic population and that the demand for an ultra-Orthodox way of life would be a burden on the social security system and deter settlement by quality populations."

Not only the ultra-Orthodox are due to get new keys soon. This year, the Israel Lands authority began the process of planning a new town, named Bat Harim, which will be established alongside Tsur Hadassah south-west of Jerusalem.

The plan, which is a revival of one from the past, envisions a community of 14,000 apartments on an area of 11,000 dunam. Part of the land allotted for building will disrupt the continuity of open spaces in the area, which includes the nature reserve of Har Sansan.

Meanwhile, the Housing and Construction Ministry is planning a city in the eastern Sharon which will include the communities of Kochav Yair and Zur Yigal alongside an additional area on which 4,000 new housing units will be built. The plan is dependent on the transfer of municipal land from the South Sharon local council to the new town. A state committee setting the new municipal boundaries has not yet completed its work.

In the Galillee, the master plan for the first new Arab city to be built since the founding of the state was recently approved. It will be built adjacent to the existing village of Jadida-Makar and will have some 8,000 housing units. A tender for the detailed planning of the project was published by the ministry a few weeks ago.

Giving impetus to all the recent construction initiatives is the deepening housing crisis. In many places, it is easier for the state to allocate new land for building than to deal with the complexities of building in existing communities, which involves process such as the removal of old housing to make way for newer and larger buildings.

Another reason is that some of the municipal councils are opposed to additional housing units because the costs of providing services to the new residents are higher than the municipal tax they will pay, increasing the economic burden on the councils.

"We are acting primarily to strengthen existing communities and build on existing plots alongside them," the ministry said this week. "That policy is expressed in umbrella agreements [in which local councils receive financial assistance in return for extended building] for 20,000 housing units in Be'er Sheva, 20,000 in Ashkelon and more.

"The ministry also regards preserving open spaces as being important. But, as part of our commitment, we are obliged to plan for the long-term. In order to prepare for future years, we are looking into land reserves that are close to existing communities and which could be suitable for different types of housing."

But many planning experts and officials in the Environmental Protection Ministry are following the planning of new towns with concern.

"Today there is a large backlog of land resources that have already been earmarked for construction and existing urban areas that need renewal," said Prof. Eran Feitelson, a planning expert from the Hebrew University. "What's happening today is that the Housing and Construction Ministry, which is meant to deal with building, urban renewal and public housing, is dealing with planning.

"What is needed is a national program for housing and land planning until at least 2025 that will not relate only to the current crisis but also to the needs of the next generation. It needs to be done by the Planning Authority in the Finance Ministry.

"There's no need to plan for new cities, which will be like a stone thrown into a well which no one knows how to remove afterwards."

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