An Accidental New City Pops Up in Israel's North

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A residential neighborhood in the northern city of Harish, Israel, February 21, 2019.
A residential neighborhood in the northern city of Harish, Israel, February 21, 2019. Credit: No credit

The call of the muezzin from nearby Umm al-Qutuf echoes through Harish, wafting through half-occupied buildings, around for-sale signs for new and existing apartments and past scores of construction sites.

Billed as Israel’s city of the future, Harish already boasts blanket WiFi coverage and fiber optic connections to every home. Many areas have been zoned to permit Airbnb rentals.

The town has all the components needed for success: a convenient location to jobs and entertainment in Haifa, Caesarea and Herzilya and even Tel Aviv by virtue of its proximity to Routes 6 and 4.

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Harish also has a young and dynamic mayor, Yitzhak Keshet, as well as the enthusiastic backing of government planners.

The plan is for the residential population of the city to quadruple, to 120,000 people, and family-friendly features such as a light-rail system are on the drawing board.

“Everyone who comes here rubs their eyes in disbelief. People don’t understand what’s going on here. This happens only once every few decades,” says Keshet, looking down at the city from the city’s tallest building.

But Harish hasn’t yet come up to expectations, with many housing units standing empty and many more on sale at lowish prices. Even though he estimates the town has 500 empty apartments, Keshet remains optimistic. “It would be wrong to look at them as empty homes, Everything here is dynamic and gradually changing. All these homes will eventually be occupied,” he said.

Part of Harish’s problem is that it was an accidental birth. Planners originally envisaged it as an exclusively ultra-Orthodox town with a much smaller population of no more than 20,000. Since relatively few Haredim work, no thought was given to creating industrial zones or providing for local employment.

As home prices around the country soared, officials took a second look at Harish and quickly drew up new plans to turn it into a mixed city five or more times the size originally planned. But their efforts to create industrial and commercial zones were devised quickly and poorly. Few high-tech companies are expected to move here unless the situation improves. Many fear Harish will turn into a gigantic bedroom suburb.

The poor planning has weighed on prices for homes in the city: For the price of a two-room apartment in central Israel, you can buy a spacious penthouse in Harish. In addition, terms of government land auctions artificially created ballooning supply by requiring builders to put houses on sale in a specified time frame.

Many buyers had hoped to rent the units they bought but because of the oversupply of new homes, it’s hard to find tenants willing to pay enough to justify the investment. Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry has toughened tax rules for property investors. As a result, many are trying to sell their apartments, increasing the supply even more.

“It’s hard to see 500 homes in two years,” admitted Dorit Sadan, vice president for marketing at the property development company Property & Development. Things are different here — we’re selling slowly, five units a month on average, but we took that into account in the pricing.”

Still, the homes themselves don’t compare unfavorably with other Israeli suburbs like Modi’in and Rosh Ha’ayin in the center of the country. Apartments in Harish are roomy and population density is low (10 apartments per dunam, or quarter-acre).

Sadan says that as a result of the government’s rule, her company is building residential projects in a single stage. This is advantageous for the first buyers, who don’t find themselves living in a construction sites for years after they move in.

“From the first day, they have parks, schools and kindergartens. That happens in no other place where we build,” she said.

Ohad Saban, vice president for marketing at the property developer Dona, has been selling homes in Harish for seven years and remains optimistic.

“It’s true that demand from investors has fallen, but there’s been an increase in buyers for bigger homes. Prices are starting to rise. We started with prices of 780,000 shekels [$215,000] and today we’re getting 1.12 million. Last [month] we sold a penthouse of 1.75 million.”

Part of Harish’s problem is that few Israelis, even in nearby communities, are aware of it, said Racheli Brizel, vice president for marketing at building company Ashdar.

Unusually, the government is alert to the problem and is planning to launch a nationwide marketing campaign costing 1 million shekels, promised Nirit Michaeli, the Haifa regional director of the Housing and Construction Ministry.

Still, the city faces multiple challenges, some of them created by other wings of the government. For instance, plans for a direct road link to Route 6 have been held up by the Transportation Ministry. Beyond that, said Michaeli, the city needs a railway connection and better bus service.

There’s also an absence of local employment. One reason is that even though Harish is now planned to be a city many times its original size in terms of population, its area has not been increased.

A local planning committee recently met to discuss expanding it but no decision was made. As a result only 500,000 square meters have been zoned for employment-related construction.

“We are getting offers from manufacturing companies and entrepreneurs that want to build logistical centers or medical centers. There’s a lot of interest. A week doesn’t go buy that some businessman says he’s interested in starting a business in the city,” said Keshet.

The mayor is especially proud of the central business district, which counts hundreds of stores in generously apportioned spaces. But Dr. Rina Degani, of the company Geocartography, which helped planned the city, said there was too much commercial space. She said the key to boosting local employment wasn’t simply adding more areas zoned for offices and industry but having Harish designated a preferred economic zone by the government.

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