When Arabs took to the streets of Jaffa last May, against the backdrop of the fighting betwen Israel and the Gaza Strip, Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, had an explanation at the ready: housing shortage.
“What we are seeing is the result of continued frustration of an entire generation of Jaffa residents who are unable to continue living there – because of a shortage of housing and the skyrocketing housing prices – and recently because protected tenants are being required by the state to buy the homes that they live in at high prices, or leave,” Huldai said.
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The Tel Aviv municipality, which also serves the mixed town of Jaffa, has limited power, since most of the land in the area belongs to the state, which allows market forces shape Jaffa into an area of luxury housing. However, over the past few months, the municipality has been advancing a number of initiatives on land it owns, which are intended to enable affordable housing for Jaffa Arabs. The city's flagship project in affordable housing, the Michelangelo Initiative, demonstrates the limits of municipal authorities to provide a bulwark against market forces, and has come under fire for effectively offering discounted housing for affluent Arab families while leaving those in real need behind.
The initiative, approved a decade ago by the city, was finally launched in April. In the center of Jaffa on Michelangelo Street 15, a five story building will be built with 32 apartments, of which 28 will be offered for sale at a reduced price after a lottery – at about 1.5 million shekels ($457,000) each, about 30 percent less than the market price – to those who meet the criteria set by the city. The requirement that stands out the most being: “An Arab Muslim or Christian resident of Jaffa.”
As of Sunday - the end of the registration period for the lottery - 380 people had signed up. The average age of the group is 34, a figure that the city says shows a “great success story.” But some Jaffa residents told Haaretz that many of those eligible gave up on the participation in the lottery once they heard of the price they would have to pay. “As soon as people heard the number 1.4 [million shekels, around $424,000 USD], they realized that they had no chance,” said Jaffa resident Khaled (a pseudonym). In practice, many of those who signed up, including Khaled, will probably not be able to afford buying the apartments. “There is a small hope,” he said. “But neither my friends nor I have a way to finance it. That’s the truth.”
Khaled is not the only one who will have a hard time paying for the apartment. “Only the optimists signed up,” said Ayman Satal, 27. Even though he is one of these optimists, he admits: “I don’t have the money now, and the truth is that I'll never have it. Maybe if I win the lottery. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a fantasy.”
Nasser (a pseudonym), also says that he and his partner are in a similar situation. A 26-year-old economist, he rushed to sign up when he discovered that he met the eligibility conditions, and only later did he realize that he couldn't afford the price. Initially, when he read that there was a 30 percent discount he was intrigued. However, "After you understand the price, you're transported back to reality,” Nasser noted. He added that the rent does not reflect the reality of the population who are “fighting for apartments here.”
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At 1.5 million shekels for an apartment in the heart of Jaffa, it may be a dream price for many Israelis, but it is still a fantasy for most of the Arab residents. Those who can afford it, could also afford a larger apartment someplace else, says Nasser.
While the inability to buy an apartment is one that all of Israeli society faces, for the Arab community the problem is much more severe because they are also a disadvantaged group, with relatively lower wages and bureaucratic challenges. Khaled says the problem is not just a lack of capital, but also low economic prospects, which mean a lower chance of getting a mortgage from the banks.
Pressured and distrustful
Ahead of the hearing of the petition against the Michelangelo Initiative, senior city officials argued that the situation facing Arabs in Jaffa is worse even than that of Jews in the older neighborhoods of the city, because the supply for them is so limited. “An Arab who prays in the mosque and wants to register their child for an Arab school can’t live in Holon, for example,” a city official told Haaretz. “He actually loses his community.”
The accepted assumption among researchers is that the gap between the economic possibilities of the residents of Jaffa and the prices of apartments necessarily paves the path to their being forced out of the city. For now, there is no clear indication that Jaffa's Arab population is shrinking, but market forces have pushed out residents out of the town. Satal says that he never wants to leave but then "in reality… I see people who are leaving – to Lod, Ramle, or Arab communities in northern Israel.”
On top of the financial difficulties, Arab residents are distrustful of the city and the establishment in general, both because of recent confrontations with security forces and the increased enforcement during the war in Gaza. In regards to the city’s initiative Nasser says that it is mainly intended “to shut people up,” to pacify the public with a small token.
Satal says about the municipality: “They aren’t really helping. Since the founding of the state all we have received is a few dozen housing units at a cheaper price, and it isn’t affordable for us.” Zaher adds: “I know that the city is trying to improve things, and personally I believe it, but in reality, the situation has become even worse.”
'Drop in the bucket'
The Tel Aviv municipality is very well aware of the feeling of emergency among Jaffa’s Arabs, in light of the increase in housing prices in the area and the sale of “absentee properties” – homes whose Arab residents left in 1948 which today house protected tenants – to private developers. It even provides aid to protected tenants who want to use their rights to buy these homes, but also in this case the discounted prices that the government offers are still unrealistic for many of them.
The veteran director general of the Tel Aviv municipality, Menachem Leiba, told Haaretz that the city is the lightning rod for the anger against the entire establishment, and that he understands it. He notes though that "in a family, sometimes the anger is against your parents even though they are not at fault.” The city recognizes that the apartments in the Michelangelo project are unaffordable for many of those eligible, and make it clear that there is no way to help them except the significant discount in the price of the apartments.
Daniel Monterescu, an anthropologist and historian of Jaffa, and the author of the book “Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine,” says that the project’s conditions and apartment prices are aimed at a specific demographic profile. “It is intended for specific families – established, middle class, with children. A young couple, for example, can’t become candidates."
While it's legitimate to direct the project towards a specific demographic, Monterescu says that "If you continue to abandon the young couples to the market forces under impossible conditions, you aren’t really putting out the fire,” said Monterescu.
When the residents Haaretz spoke with were asked about their future, none of them had a clear answer. “That’s a huge question,” said Satal. “Do you know what the answer is? Because I don’t have one.” Khaled connects this question to the riots in Jaffa: “I don’t really know what caused people to burn cars and garbage bins here; there were all sorts of reasons. But I suppose that some of what happened was also an attempt to lower the [housing] prices in the area."
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality said in response that it is the only city in Israel that is “building and populating affordable housing projects. This is even though the guarantee of housing is the responsibility of the state, which for decades has not taken responsibility for the matter. The municipality views preserving the various populations in the city as a central goal, and invested enormous sums in these projects. At the same time, it acts all the time to find housing solutions for the Arab community in Jaffa. For this purpose, in recent years a number of projects have been advanced."
“Nonetheless,” they added, “it is clear that the city’s efforts are just a drop in the bucket. Lacking government aid, the municipal resources are not enough to enable true change.”
“Still, we are doing all we can to allow the Arab population in Jaffa to buy an apartment at a reduced price. The Michelangelo project is the first of its kind to be built with municipal investment on city land. The city does not have the ability to help in financing the winners of the housing lottery, when the discount on the apartments is three times more than what the state gives.”