An Israeli court on Monday criticized the way public housing tenants' claims were investigated, saying the methods employed by the Construction and Housing Ministry were harmful and invasive.
Tel Aviv District Court Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen called on the ministry to stop the practice of making rounds, in which agents for the public housing companies Halamish, Amigur and Amidar visit tenant homes and query neighbors and relatives to verify tenants’ claims.
“The life circumstances of those seeking public housing are not easy,” the judge ruled. “I believe the Housing Ministry must seriously consider the current practice and ask itself whether the way in which it makes rounds does justice for a population that can’t afford [housing] and is forced to turn for help.”
Agmon-Gonen based her ruling on an appeal filed by Liran Azran, a 27-year-old Tel Aviv resident who had notified the ministry that he was eligible to remain a tenant in a public housing apartment that had been occupied by his grandparents. He said he had lived in the apartment from 2008 to 2012, which entitled him to continue renting the unit for another four years.
To back up his claim, Azran presented affidavits from nine family members and seven neighbors in the building to a Housing Ministry committee – and later to the court. The ministry rejected all of them and declined to let him appear before the committee to present his claim. It ruled that he wasn’t eligible to remain in the apartment as a continuing tenant on the grounds that he hadn’t actually lived there for the four consecutive years he had claimed.
The ministry based its decision on rounds made by Halamish agents and on older affidavits submitted by Azran family members saying that he hadn’t lived in the apartment, including a 2009 statement by his grandmother. Azran claimed that his grandmother made her statement out of fear she would lose her rights to public housing if he were known to be living there.
Azran took the ministry to court in an appeal that focused on which evidence should be given greater weight – the one collected during the rounds or the other presented by Azran. The Housing Ministry told the court that it believed the visit should be given greater weight because it was conducted in real-time. Azran's affidavits, the ministry asserted, were insufficiently detailed, didn’t include specific dates and were prepared by someone who had a clear interest in helping Azran.
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However, the judge didn’t accept those arguments and ruled that the ministry’s decision to evict Azran must be reversed and his claims reexamined, giving greater weight to the affidavits he submitted.
“When such a key right claimed by a person is denied, at the very least all the evidence he has presented should be weighed,” said Agmon-Gonen. “So long as a right being asserted is among basic human rights – and no one will dispute that the right to housing is one of them – an administrative decision must be based and anchored more on evidence the applicant submits, even if the evidence is administrative.”
In regard to Azran's affidavits, the judge stated: “It can’t be claimed, without any investigation or testimony from at least some of those who signed affidavits, that all 16 of them, seven of whom are not relatives of the plaintiff, lied in statements in which they were obliged to tell the truth. I believe that it cannot be claimed automatically vis-a-vis family members and most certainly not vis-a-vis friends, neighbors and acquaintances.”
The judge criticized the policy of making rounds and said it caused arguments between tenants and their friends and relatives.
“One of the main obstacles facing people living in poverty in the exercise of their rights is the almost built-in mistrust the authorities have for their claims. Invasive investigations also cause damage by creating mistrust between people living in poverty and their immediate environment,” she wrote.
Because of this built-in difficulty, she added, the Housing Ministry must reconsider many of its practices, including such visits.