Demand for Public Housing Spikes, but Israel Wouldn't Let That Change Its Plans

Over 4,000 eligible families are on the waiting list, but more than 1,500 apartments are instead being used as synagogues, clubs and preschools

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Public housing complex in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, 2018.
Public housing complex in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

The waiting list for public housing in Israel includes 4,129 families, but the state continues to lease 1,550 apartments meant for subsidized residential use to public bodies such as local authorities, government ministries, educational institutions, charities, associations and so-called urban kibbutzim, which use them as public sites such as synagogues, offices and preschools.

This data is being published here for the first time, after it was given in part to Haaretz and in part to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, in response to a freedom of information request submitted to the Housing Ministry.

In the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Motzkin, for example, a public-housing apartment has been leased to the city since 1983 for a “municipal club.” A 49-year-old resident with a disability rating of 100 percent has been on the waiting list for more than two years. For years, she suffered abuse from partners.

“I lived on the street, I went back to a violent partner because I didn’t have a home, I had to choose between the street and getting beat up,” the woman told Haaretz this week. “I barely make my rent, 3,000 shekels ($903) a month for two rooms, and I am angry that instead of helping me, they give a public-housing apartment to the city. Why does the city need another building? My economic situation has been bad my whole life, since way before the coronavirus, now everything is harder. But no one cares.”

Attorney Reut Shaer, the director of ACRI’s hotline, said the figures show that a huge number of properties are given for free or leased at below-market prices to a wide variety of public and private organizations that have nothing to do with public housing. “That is not an accident,” she says. “These are enormously valuable resources that belong to the poorest residents of the state, and instead of going to them the Housing Ministry is handing them out, in a process that is not transparent and has not been made public, according to unknown criteria, as if it were the ministry’s private property.”

In February, before the coronavirus crisis, 3,691 families were on the waiting list, after meeting the ministry’s strict qualifications. Many of them have been on the list for years. The apartments are meant for low-wage earners who cannot afford to buy or rent at market rates. Eligibility is determined according to the applicant’s socioeconomic status, including their physical health and their earning potential. Eligibility is limited to single-parent families with three or more children, two-parent families with three or more children that rely on income support and people receiving a disability allowance. Many families living in poverty are nonetheless ineligible for public housing.

Haaretz has now learned that between March and November 438 families were added to the list, representing a rise of about 12 percent n the number of families on the list.

A 2013 state comptroller’s report took the Housing Ministry to task for its failure to provide subsidized homes to eligible people and to instead “subsidize governmental bodies ... as well as private organizations, in violation of the regulations that the ministry itself created.” The state watchdog ordered the ministry to return to the public housing supply the apartments that were being used for other purposes – but to little effect.

In fact, the newly available data shows that the situation has only worsened since then. In 2013, the public housing waiting list numbered about 2,500 families, and about 2,300 public housing apartments were rented out to public bodies. In the seven years since the report was issued, the number of families on the waiting list nearly doubled, but the ministry returned only 760 apartments to the public housing stock.

Even if some of the apartments served an important purpose, this was done at the expense of eligible families. Of the 1,550 apartments, 821 are used as synagogues, 150 as clubs and 32 as preschools. Around 40 are in use by associations that operate group homes and halfway houses, and 120 by urban kibbutzim. Around 360 are on the grounds of Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer and Shamir Medical Center, Tel Aviv and Tzrifin (formerly Assaf Harofeh Medical Center). Their future is being determined in a mediation process between the Finance Ministry and the Israel Land Authority.

An apartment meant for public housing used as a synagogue in Jerusalem, November 24, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

An assistant attorney general acting as arbitrator recently ruled that the 337 properties rented out to Sheba Medical Center are not part of the public housing stock. They will be razed as part of the hospital’s development plan, and the ministry will receive 26 million shekels in compensation that will be earmarked for public housing.

In a statement, the Construction and Housing Ministry said it is currently using all the tools available to it to return 976 additional residential units to the public housing stock. “Since 2016, a total of 2,700 units were purchased for public housing, at a combined cost of about 3.5 billion shekels.”

The statement added that the ministry helps some 175,000 households at a cost exceeding 2 billion shekels a year, and that the aid to eligible households can be as much as 3,900 shekels a month. “In the past three years the Construction and Housing Ministry has been working in a number of ways to increase the public housing stock.”

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