Secular Israelis Snapping Up Homes in Town Planned for ultra-Orthodox

Campaign offers bargain prices before the Haredim move in to Harish.

Raz Smolsky
Raz Smolsky
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Raz Smolsky
Raz Smolsky

It's a chilly evening in the Sharon region moshav of Porat. Hemi Bar-Or and Noam Hillel are meeting with real estate investors at someone's home. The two are leaders of the campaign against ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Harish, the city planned for Wadi Ara, and they're trying to persuade non-Haredim to buy there.

Neither is technically a real estate professional: Bar-Or is an artist, and Hillel works in high tech, but over the past several years they've become excellent salesmen. After speaking with hundreds of people interested in buying into Harish, they know exactly what's motivating the masses: The low prices there.

"In Afula, homes are more expensive and it's also farther north. There's no reason that prices in Harish won't become as least as high as those in Afula," says Bar-Or. "The next wave of tenders will pull up prices because there will already be an urban bloc."

Hillel and Bar-Or explain why Harish is like Modi'in - Israel's last planned city - and like every other missed opportunity in Israel's real estate scene. They note that most people didn't buy homes in Caesarea or Shoham before prices shot up there. All the people present at that meeting seem to have done their homework, and all are convinced that Harish is a good buy. It seems like Bar-Or and Hillel can check off another 10 homes sold.

"These are very attractive prices for such apartments - when the cost per 100 meters of construction, not counting land costs, can reach NIS 450,000 nowadays, and development fees are NIS 70,000," says Moshe, who is hosting the Porat event. "The question is who'll move into the neighborhood. If it's half Haredi and half non-Haredi that's just fine, but if it's more than half Haredi, then that's not as good because of the poor quality of construction in that community."

Bar-Or later says: "I'm a painter, not a real estate professional. Some 150 people have been signing with me a month and I myself don't believe it. They're coming to us because they know we're not machers. They know they're entering a partnership. I'm not here to profit at your expense, but in order to be your neighbor, and we'll build the community's school together."

How much interest are you seeing among secular people?

Bar-Or: "Over the past three years we pulled together 1,000 interested in buying, and over the past month another 1,500. Every day 60-100 people sign up. We have a sales center on Kibbutz Barkai and today I set up three new phone lines there, since one line wasn't enough. People are calling daily and signing up online. Every week we hold a sales event.

"Three weeks ago we held an event on Kibbutz Ma'anit and I realized something. There were nearly 150 people there from Tel Aviv, people from Herzliya, two from Be'er Sheva and you realize that people from around the country came to Ma'anit at 8 P.M. - a kibbutz they hadn't known existed beforehand. At one point we thought that the big difficulty would be the Haredim, but we learned that the price sells itself. People don't want and cannot take out million-shekel mortgages, and in order to make that down payment they need to raid their parents' savings."

Bar-Or moved to Harish about six years ago, and since then he's found himself at the center of a storm. The government intends to turn that sleepy town into a city, and it turned out that the city wasn't meant for just anyone - it intends to make it into a city for the Haredim, with 25,000 households. Bar-Or petitioned the court, which ruled that tenders in the planned city had to be open to everyone.

Before the Jewish holidays in September, the Israel Lands Administration published the first tenders to sell land to contractors, and that's when the real race began. Bar-On is frantically signing potential secular buyers in order to create a critical mass.

"These past four years have been very interesting. I came to Harish because it's quiet, next to a forest and cheap."

How did you find the community?

"I wound up here in 2006 because my wife wanted to move to the Pardes Hannah area due to her sister, who lived at Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva. I was skeptical about the job opportunities there. We figured that at first we'd rent, and were offered a house in Harish for NIS 1,000 a month. The town seemed strange, since it had the infrastructure of a city but lacked the houses. But on the other hand, it was cheap and we had a forest next to our house. As renters, we didn't care how developed the town was. After a few months, our landlord offered to sell us the house for NIS 400,000. We figured something was certain to happen with all that infrastructure, and the town would grow. And the price was so low that there wasn't much risk."

After the Bar-Ors settled in Harish, several of their friends followed, as did Bar-Or's wife's sister. This group, of a higher socioeconomic class than the older residents, is at the core of the fight for a non-Haredi Harish. The town currently has about 300 homes, including 50 single-family homes. Most residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

"In 2007 we decided to contact the ILA and the Housing Ministry to develop the town, and received strange responses along the lines that they tried to do so over the years, but four tenders failed. We found out that the last time they'd tried was in 1999."

When and why did you create the movement Harish Hayeruka [Green Harish]?

"That's when Harish Hayeruka began. We created a community association to encourage young couples to move into Harish, and that was well before Housing Minister Ariel Atias presented this as a Haredi city-to-be. We aimed to bring 100 couples into a neighborhood of single-family homes. My partner Noam Hillel and I spent every Saturday morning at a junction with cookies and juice where cyclists would pass by, and tried to get them interested. We wanted to prove to the Housing Ministry that we had 100 people interested, and to show there was potential. After a few months we had 300 people, and after two years we had 1,000."

When did you realize that they wanted to make Harish Haredi?

"In 2007 or 2008 we started to figure out that they'd planned a large city, since documents started filtering in about major roads being planned, 25,000 housing units, and rumors that the city would be for Haredim. More documents appeared, including a presentation on the Housing Ministry's website about a Haredi city. And if you look at the districting about the public buildings, you see separate schools for girls and boys, yeshivas and mikves (ritual baths ). At the moment the plan is for only 10,500 housing units due to pressure from other communities Menashe region."

What was your action plan?

"We set up a campaign center with the Menashe regional council. We started to understand the scale of the situation, and several residents decided they'd each dedicate a work day to our campaign. Now it's a full-time job for me - maybe even more. The center pays me a salary, from donations from moshavim, kibbutzim and environmental groups.

"We knew that telling planning committees that we opposed the plans wouldn't do anything, but we wanted to exhaust all our options in order to get to court. After three years, we did so. We petitioned on behalf of Harish's residents, and a few months ago Judge Yael Willner rejected our case because the Housing and Construction Ministry committed to open sales to everyone, and to let plans be adapted to suit other communities' needs. This paved the way for everyone who wanted a piece of Harish.

"Before the holidays the ILA published the first tender, which is set to close in mid-November, for 4,670 housing units. Since then our center has been working to sign as many secular people as possible to buy here."

What are the prices?

"NIS 600,000 for a 3-room, 90-square-meter apartment, and an extra NIS 100,000 for every extra room."

How are the prices so low?

"The tender was tailored to a Haredi population so the terms are very attractive. For instance, Harish has been declared part of a natural priority zone. There's no minimum land price, and the development cost is being subsidized - NIS 70,000 per housing unit. There's an exemption from local authority fees and eligible people can get a NIS 50,000 grant."

Who's signed with you?

"We have a group of kibbutzniks whose houses were privatized so they can't live there anymore. Another typical group is people improving their housing situation. One man from Netanya has three kids and lives in a 3-room apartment, and said his mortgage is killing him. Here he can buy four rooms and afford the mortgage. And there are investors, though they're limited to one apartment each. One Kfar Sava man is buying apartments for both his children, since he can't afford to buy for them in Kfar Sava.

"There are groups. One group from Pardes Hannah is motivated by environmental considerations. They want to move into a high-rise, on the condition that they're all together. They're 30-40 families. We have a group of 30-40 academics from the Technion who also want a cluster of buildings."

Are the ultra-Orthodox a risk factor?

"I don't see any risk factors. Worst case the homes won't appreciate. But I think that even by the second tender, they'll be selling for NIS 100,000 more. Within three years I expect these apartments to be worth NIS 1 million. Everything will be new - infrastructures, schools. In Hadera such homes cost NIS 1.1 million, and there everything's very old."

There's no risk that Harish won't be built?

"They'll build all 4,600 units. There's demand in Israel."

Harish. Plans are for 3-room, 80-sq.m. dwellings for NIS 450,000 or less.Credit: Nimrod Glickman

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