Just a few weeks before Israel holds another election – its fourth in two years – Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Arye Dery have been working together in a final effort to ensure significant new homes are built for their ultra-Orthodox constituencies. The two have pushed through plans across Israel in predominantly ultra-Orthodox locales, from Arad and Dimona to Acre and Kiryat Gat, and a new ultra-Orthodox town called Kasif – with the hopes that development will continue even if they leave office.
Proof that this is their goal can be found in a interview Litzman gave several weeks ago to the Korat Gag, the magazine of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia: “This is a historical opportunity with Haredi ministers in charge of both the Interior Ministry and the Housing Ministry,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who will be the next housing minister and what he thinks about the housing crisis in the ultra-Orthodox community – a crisis no one denies, by the way – as we solved the problem and the plans are moving forward.”
In the interview, Litzman listed his successes on behalf of his public, including a program offering grants for first-time buyers in outlying areas, the “reduced-price housing” plan, which replaces Mechir L’Mishtaken (Buyer’s Price) program, and plans to build tens of thousands of new housing units on behalf of the Haredim. Litzman said that before leaving office, he and Dery worked to make strategic appointments to ensure the projects would continue, namely Yanki Quint as head of the Israel Land Authority.
“I told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that my condition for entering the government as housing minister was a program offering 100,000 shekel grants for new buyers of second-hand homes in outlying areas, and if the program didn’t pass, I wouldn’t cooperate with the coalition,” Litzman said.
Litzman acknowledged that the grant program currently has a limited budget, and is valid for a short list of communities, but said the principle is what matters. “We got our foot in the door a moment before the government collapsed,” he said.
But the efforts don’t end there, TheMarker found.
The ministers’ efforts have focused on Arad, a city in Israel’s south with 7,000 ultra-Orthodox residents – about one-quarter of the population. Many of them are Gur Hasids, Litzman’s own sect. The ultra-Orthodox community and the non-Haredi residents have been at odds over the religious nature of the city’s expansion.
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The conflict centers around the A5 quarter, where 1,900 new apartments are planned on state-owned land. The plan, which was approved in 2016, calls for housing that suits ultra-Orthodox needs: Buildings of up to nine floors; a certain percentage of small, inexpensive apartments; plenty of schools and plenty of distance from the secular neighborhoods in Arad’s center. Arad Mayor Nissan Ben Hamo has objected to the plan since he was elected.
Ben Hamo said that the plan runs contrary to the principle of urban development by calling for new housing on the edge of the city, which will require money to create more infrastructure, instead of developing empty lots within the city. “A5 is a plan for suburban neighborhoods that was born in sin, as part of the previous coalition. Everyone knew it was earmarked for the Gur Hasids and not for Arad’s general development, but no one halted its approval,” he stated.
Ben Hamo has been advancing a municipal development plan based on urban infill – better utilization of empty areas and higher density within the city.
In fact, it was the Housing Ministry itself that chose Arad as one of eight southern cities for urban infill. And yet, a few weeks ago the Antiquities Authority contacted the Arad municipality to start coordinating work in A5, and the government’s infrastructure development company, Arim, published a call for bids to develop the neighborhood. Ben Hamo said this was all done without coordination with the municipality, as is accepted practice, and was presented as a done deal.
Until now, the municipality’s focus had been on improving the built-up areas, he said, noting that housing prices in Arad are up 30% for the past few years while neighboring Dimona and Be’er Sheva have an abundance of apartments and declining prices.
Ben Hamo said he protested to ministry officials. “’What’s wrong with you? We’re working on other things together. Why advance a plan within the municipality without working with the municipality? Why push us out of our own city?’” he said he told the official. “The senior official told me in response, ‘What can I do? The minister said so, it’s an order from the minister.’”
After the contentious plan was put aside for five years, it’s untenable that an emergency government set up to combat the coronavirus pandemic is the one advancing it now, Ben Hamo said. “Up comes an emergency coronavirus government, it advances a plan behind our back and allocates funding at lighting speed, while the local authority is objecting, a moment before an election? If our investment in strengthening Arad falls apart, it will be their fault.”
Another example of the ministers’ unusual involvement in housing development is the plan to build an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Kiryat Gat. That plan calls for 11,000 apartments suited to the ultra-Orthodox community in the western part of the town. The plan was submitted to the planning committee in 2016 and marked for fast-tracking, but it was mostly shelved since then, mainly due to the dispute between Dery and Litzman over whether to create an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood or a new city called Shapir in the area instead.
The debate over Shapir remains, but in the meanwhile the Kiryat Gat neighborhood is advancing. In June, Dery signed off on the transfer of 2,300 dunams (568 acres) of land from the Shapir regional council to Kiryat Gat in order to develop the neighborhood. The Kiryat Gat municipality was also promised 2.2 billion shekels in order to ensure that the neighborhood would be an integral part of the city.
In November, Litzman and Dery had the national planning board sign off on a revision to the neighborhood plan that would make it suitable it to the ultra-Orthodox public, to be advanced by the national planning board, with another national planning authority offering guidance. While the Interior Ministry says the matter is merely procedural, it appears that two national planning bodies were put behind the project to ensure that it goes through quickly with minimum opposition – and on the eve of an election, no less.
Six weeks after the national planning board was handed the plan, the neighborhood was rezoned for 11,000 housing units, up from 9,400; the area was expanded to 5,100 dunams; building height was limited to five or six floors; and single-family homes were written out of the plan. The national planning committee is set to meet to approve the plan next week.
The responses within the ultra-Orthodox community itself are mixed.
“Litzman and Dery won’t be able to give the community the prices it wants in Kiryat Gat. That’s nearly impossible,” a source told TheMarker. “They’re fooling their own community, throwing sand in the eyes of anyone waiting for inexpensive, fast housing.” The source noted that it could take three to four years just to prepare the land for construction, and that new apartments in Kiryat Gat currently sell for 1.2-1.4 million shekels.
You can’t bend the market to sell the homes for the 600,000-800,000 shekels apiece that the ultra-Orthodox public wants, the sources said. “But they want accomplishments to present at the ballot box.”
Meanwhile, Litzman told the ultra-Orthodox press that the first call for bids to develop the new city of Kasif would be published in the first quarter of the year, and that people could move in starting in three to four years. The city is slated for 35,000 apartments for the ultra-Orthodox community.
However, sources told TheMarker that plans for the city have been frozen, and that the ministers decided to focus on the new neighborhood, which would likely bring results sooner.
Litzman has been trying to advance Kasif, most recently pushing to have the plan approved at a cabinet meeting, but he was halted by Dery and Moshe Gafni, primarily due to a dispute among the ultra-Orthodox leadership. The plan for the city states that it would be home to 100,000-125,000 people. “Creating a segregated ultra-Orthodox center in the Negev would enable a very large supply of accessibly priced homes with low development and land costs,” the proposal states. A large volume of homes could be sold for 500,000-600,000 shekels apiece – prices that are nearly unattainable in cities that are not exclusively ultra-Orthodox.
Meanwhile, in January, a journalist with the Kol Barama Haredi radio station published a photo of Rabbi Israel Menachem Alter, the son of the Gur admor, with other rabbis and wrote: “The meeting launching the Dimona community.” Dimona has seen a large influx of ultra-Orthodox families over the past decade, accounting for 18% of buyers between 2014 and 2017, and the surplus of Mechir L’Mishtaken reduced-price homes in the city has pushed older homes there under 700,000 shekels apiece, creating opportunities to buy there for Litzman’s grant program. Since November, some 90 homes have sold there for less than 700,000 shekels. Sources told TheMarker that while the new homes are mostly bought by secular families, the older homes attract the ultra-Orthodox.
Litzman’s office stated in response: “This is another ridiculous, transparent, tendentious attempt to present the Housing Ministry’s work as politically biased. The housing crisis in the ultra-Orthodox community is clearer now than ever, and the minister does not intend to apologize for his attempts to solve this crisis or those of other communities.”
The Interior Ministry did not respond.