Israeli State Panel Offers First-ever Solution to Arab Housing Crisis

Newly-released report suggests retroactively approving some illegal building and reorganizing land registration and ownership.

Ofer Vaknin

For the first time ever, an Israeli government team has documented the extent of the land and housing shortage in Israel’s Arab communities and proposed recommendations for ending it.

The report, six months in the making and released Tuesday, recommended tax breaks, the retroactive approval of illegal building and better organizing land registration and ownership.

The head of the Finance Ministry’s budgets department, Amir Levi, who headed the panel, said the recommendations aimed to address the special problems facing Israel’s Arabs, who account for about one-fifth of the population, in finding and building housing. The government is also grappling with the wider problem of a housing shortage and soaring prices throughout Israel.

“The team’s work has created important tools that will allow for an increase in the supply of housing in minority communities while taking into account its unique characteristics and advancing a modern and flexible real estate market,” Levi said.

The committee identified the main problems behind the severe housing shortage in Arab communities as weak local government that failed to collect sufficient revenue in the form of taxes and fees to fund planning and infrastructure development. Illegal building further complicated planning efforts, the panel found. In fact, in most cases the committee saw little evidence of any planning at all.

Adding to the problems is the reluctance of private land owners to sell or develop their assets. Unlike in the Jewish sector, most available land isn’t controlled by the government. The result, the committee found, was that even in large Arab cities, residential construction was haphazard, with parents building houses for their adult children adjacent to their own homes.

“Of the 4,770 households, 2,000 don’t have a building permit and they are connected to electricity illegally,” the head of the Ara-Arara Local Council, Mudar Yunis, told TheMarker about the two Haifa-area villages. As a result, he said, residents are constantly paying fines and in some cases face jail time.

“We’re 30 or 40 years behind in the areas of planning,” Yunis said.

About 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) of the 12,000 dunams combined that Arara and the adjacent village of Ara once controlled were lost when the two were merged into a single local council.

Today, said Yunis, the community has little room to grow, with an army firing range closing it in on the north, nature reserves to its east and a highway to its south. “You try to plan inside the sardine can they’ve given us. The government is rushing to expand our jurisdiction,” he said.

The extent of the housing shortage in the Arab sector can be seen in zoning and construction data for 2005-09. Nationwide, planning authorities approved the building of 200,000 housing units in those five years, of which 70% was eventually sold to contractors for development. The Arab sector accounted for only 30,000 units, or 15% of the total, and only 20% ended up being tendered.

The shortage has already caused home prices in Arab communities to climb. There is very little data on home prices in the Arab sector where home sales account for just 2% of the nationwide total even though housing in Arab towns accounts for about 18% of Israel’s total housing stock.

The committee noted that in one new neighborhood in Nazareth, Israel’s biggest Arab city, the average home price was the equivalent of 190 average monthly salaries, compared to a national average of 139.

While the 190-month figure is lower than in central Israel, Israeli Arabs are on the whole poorer than Jews. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that the great majority of Arab towns fall into the lowest deciles of socioeconomic development — all but four in the lowest three deciles.

With the natural increase of the Israeli Arab population forecast to grow by 54% over the next 20 years, compared to 30% for the Jewish population, the housing shortage in the country’s Arab communities will only grow worse, the committee said.

The Levi committee did not deal directly with the issue of retroactively approving illegal home construction in the Arab sector, which only the attorney general can address. But it was clear from the panel’s conclusions that unless some of the construction was officially registered it would be difficult to deal with the bigger problem of the housing shortage.

In terms of planning, the committee found that only four Arab cities — Nazareth, Taibeh, Tira and Abu Basma — even have local planning and building committees. The rest received planning services from regional councils, which had the effect of undermining the power and authority of Arab municipalities.

There are a number of constraints to rezoning undeveloped land for residential purposes, the committee said. Much of the available state-owned land lies outside Arab municipal boundaries and the terms of the National Master Plan prohibit residential building on it. Israeli Arabs who own land privately tend to view property as a family trust that is not to be sold.

The Levi panel recommended the enlargement of the area of jurisdiction of Arab communities, the introduction of subsidized training for city planners in the Arab sector, the extension of zoning variances to developers who are prepared to begin building immediately and the construction of more housing that is meant to be rented out.

With reporting by Tali Heruti-Sover.