If you own an apartment in an older building in the center of one of Israel’s major cities, you may soon receive a surprising notice from your municipality, as thousands of homeowners in central Tel Aviv have recently.
“As per municipal bylaws, the property owner must maintain the proper appearance of the property’s exterior and carry out the renovations necessary to prevent the exterior from becoming rundown and neglected,” the letter informs the addressee – in a preface to a list of actions to be undertaken in this framework: painting, repairs, removal, installation, sealing off of problematic areas and so on.
When you finish rubbing your eyes in disbelief, knocking on neighbors’ doors, making a phone call or two and checking with contractors, you’ll learn that you can expect to shell out a hefty sum as part of this scheme, from tens of thousands to up to 100,000 shekels ($31,250) or more.
Those managing the upgrade initiative have no idea how many residents have received orders to fix their buildings' façades
For now, this initiative is being rolled out hesitantly by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality – and it's already running into some problems.
For its part, the Jerusalem Municipality, which in the 1980s fought to get the façades of buildings on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall renovated and upgraded, in some cases with the help of local business owners, is also considering a similar plan. In the past few years, the municipality has not demanded that property owners/residents undertake the façade face-lifts, except with respect to a few commercial structures downtown, for which it also offered limited financial assistance.
In other cities around the country, the focus is on urban renewal projects as the sole means of improving the appearance of buildings and streets.
The carrot and the stick
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Tel Aviv's city hall launched the initiative in question in 2018, after updating a 2011 bylaw. Hundreds of notices demanding that property owners finance façade improvements were reportedly sent out at first. City officials admit that there has not been any follow-up, but note that while about 1,000 buildings have received notices to date, only half or less (“hundreds,” as per their estimate) have actually been renovated.
Shortly after it began, the upgrade campaign came to a near-halt, due to the start of urban renewal projects and work on the city’s light rail system, which has wrought chaos and paralyzed many streets, and also due to the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the middle of 2021, when the health crisis seemed to be abating somewhat, the municipality launched a renewed assault. A city council meeting approved the move, and Mayor Ron Huldai announced a scheme calling for the upgrade of some 1,000 buildings a year. In an attempt to encourage action on the part of property owners and tenants liable to take a financial hit, the city also announced it would offer them loans and grants. The budget allocated to assist them, however, is minuscule compared to the anticipated outlay for the work itself: a total of 10 million shekels per year for upgrading 1,000 structures, each year. This works out to 10,000 shekels per building, in addition to a 5,000-shekel grant to each person carrying out the requisite face-lift. But the real cost of that is some 50,000 shekels in the best-case scenario, and could soar as high as hundreds of thousands of shekels per building if there are also strict demands relating to its preservation. Groups of homeowners in shared apartment buildings can also apply to the city for a 50,000-shekel no-interest loan, providing they meet certain criteria.
Huldai has announced that the grant to residents in south Tel Aviv neighborhoods will be double. While this may sound as if the mayor is displaying social sensitivity toward these individuals, the municipality has not actually sent out any notices about façade improvements to people living in the less-desirable neighborhoods in the south and east, and those responsible admit that there are no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.
The city’s Ezra & Bitzaron Housing Company has been tasked with providing aid and guidance to those receiving demands to do renovations. In a statement to the press, company CEO Eli Ginsberg said: “Sometimes there are recalcitrant tenants. We won’t wait for three people like that to join in: We’ll put out the money for the renovations, and at the same time file a claim to get the money back.”
Unknown number of upgrades
The face-lift project was launched with great fanfare – and baffling sloppiness. Although it has ostensibly been going on for five years and is due to benefit from an influx of 100 million shekels from the city budget over the next decade, those managing the upgrade initiative have no idea how many residents have received orders to fix their buildings' façades, how many have heeded the demands and begun work, and how many of these projects have been completed in accordance with regulations.
There is one figure that city hall can provide: the number of cases in which the court accepted the city’s demand to carry out the renovations itself – and bill the property owners for it. This has happened twice, both times regarding buildings on Hayarkon Street, along the sea. And in both cases, the city did not follow through on its threat. Rather than do the work and subsequently sue the owners for payment, the municipality chose the rather questionable tactic of requesting that the court appoint an attorney-receiver to be in charge of overseeing the improvements. This turned out to be an unnecessary move; the dispute was resolved without the receiver’s involvement.
The first property, at 136 Hayarkon Street, was sold and then renovated by its new owners, who converted it into a hotel as part of the Rimonim hotel chain. The second structure, at 132 Hayarkon Street, was ultimately declared to be in dangerous condition, and after a legal battle, its owners decided to tear it down and sell the empty lot.
A success abroad
Ordinances requiring that property owners maintain and preserve the façade of their buildings are common in many cities in the West and are usually strictly enforced. In the European Union and the United States, people who refuse to cooperate may face lawsuits and major fines. In central Tel Aviv, hundreds of building façades have been renovated in the wake of orders dispatched by the municipality, but in at least half the cases – by some estimates – there has been significant resistance, mainly due to the heavy cost to homeowners, and the city has had difficulty enforcing its demands.
Some Tel Avivians who have received the notices claim the municipality makes demands for changes that are not covered by law, which often sparks disputes over design among people who own apartments in a shared building. For example, it was for this reason that representatives of owners of properties in a building on central Dizengoff Street informed the municipality that the demand for all the window frames to be made uniform was just not doable. “The window frames are not part of the jointly owned property. They are the private property of the owners of the individual units in question. Unfortunately, the representatives or the owners of the other units do not have the authority to compel the owners of these apartments to make changes to their private property,” they wrote the municipality.
In another building on Dizengoff Street, where some of the balconies have been enclosed, homeowners received a letter ordering them to close off the rest of the balconies – a demand that also requires that those owners obtain a permit. In both cases, on Dizengoff, the residents would like to cooperate with the municipality and find a solution, but the costs of the renovations are anticipated to run as high as 100,000 shekels per apartment.
According to attorney Moshe Raz-Cohen of Raz-Cohen, Prashker & Co., and attorney Doron Tal, representing the property owners in one of the buildings recently sued by the Tel Aviv municipality, in many cases, a dispute arises because the law requires that the façade be maintained in a “proper” condition – but the city seems to think that “proper” also means “uniform.”
“It’s not clear that the tenants can be legally be required to maintain a uniform building façade, since this is a flaw that is not related to poor maintenance,” Raz-Cohen says. "But even presuming that this assumption is not true, the problem is that there have to be criteria for how the costs are determined and paid. Perhaps owners of apartments that don’t face the street could pay less? Perhaps when agreement is reached to adapt the overall design of the building to that of one of the units, the owner of that unit should also have to help cover a share of the expense?
“The decision to leave all the discussions to the property owners and tenants is flawed. The municipality’s approach raises a lot of difficult questions, and there’s no way in the world all the people involved will be able to come to an agreement on them. Some of the city’s demands have to do with the public domain, so it is appropriate for the municipality to bear part of the expense of renovation. In many cases, the residents can reach a compromise with the municipality that substantially lowers the cost of the improvements.”
The city responds
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality responds: “Since the institution of the city bylaw in 2011, hundreds of buildings in the city have been renovated. From 2018-2021, 1,000 notices were sent to buildings on the following streets: Ha’aliya, Allenby, Yefet, Nahalat Binyamin, Sheinkin, Dizengoff, King George, Masaryk, Gordon, Frishman, Ben Yehuda and Ben-Gurion Boulevard. The streets on which the renovations have been completed or are near completion are: Sheinkin, Bograshov, Bialik and the Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall. In 2022, the municipality will work to enforce renovations on the following streets: Pinsker, Zamenhof, Reines, Hayarkon, Yehuda Halevy, Ahad Ha’am, Sderot Hen, Yehuda Hamaccabi, Bnei Dan, Weizmann, Shlomo Hamelekh, Hanevi’im, Yehoshua Bin-Nun, Jabotinsky and Nordau Boulevard.
“The municipality considers the proper and appropriate preservation of building façades throughout the city to be a matter of public import. Contrary to the assertions made here, the municipality’s demands are determined in accordance with the law. These are obligations that are incumbent upon the property owner by law. Given the public importance [of this project], the municipality in recent years has also begun to act to enforce the renovations by virtue of the city's bylaws.
“Property owners and developers are under no obligation to be in contact with Ezra & Bitzaron, that is up to their discretion. In addition, the municipality meets with residents who wish to undertake the renovations, to explain all the demands that were sent to them and to reach agreement regarding the scope of the work in question, with the aim of reducing the costs as much as possible. However, this generally requires the consent of all the residents.”