Self-immolation Escalates Public Housing Dispute

Housing and Finance Ministries argue over numbers, blame one another for lack of public housing in Israel; Knesset housing lobby holds conference on social-justice issues.

The Housing and Construction Ministry and the Finance Ministry are trading accusations over which of them is responsible for problems with the government's public housing policy.

The dispute has become especially pointed since Moshe Silman set himself on fire at Saturday night's protest in Tel Aviv, leaving a suicide note saying the state's refusal to grant him public housing left him no other way to avoid homelessness.

The Finance Ministry has bitterly opposed legislation that Housing Minister Ariel Atias has tried for a year to push through the Knesset that would allocate 5% of all residential construction on state land for public housing.

The Finance Ministry says the proposal is too expensive and will not address the needs of those entitled to public housing, but Atias has accused the Finance Ministry of disseminating misleading data.

On Tuesday, the Knesset's housing lobby held a conference on social justice issues that was marked by repeated outbursts from activists in attendance. "This government wants to suppress the protest," shouted activist Benny Ben-Avraham.

Jerusalemite Vicky Vanunu complained that although she is a single mother, she is not entitled to public housing. She demanded that an agency be set up that would address the housing problems of low-income people and said those facing housing problems must be part of the decision-making process.

The Finance Ministry said it would be a mistake to augment the country's public housing stock either by building or buying new units, calling it an expensive step that lacks the required flexibility. A senior Finance Ministry official favored the current approach of providing monthly government subsidies of up to NIS 3,000 to those entitled to them so they can seek housing on the open market.

"The cost of Atias' bill," the official said, "would involve a loss of huge revenues to the state from land and housing that we wouldn't see in any event for five, six or seven years. Ultimately it would be an investment of sums similar to what they would have invested in buying new housing at state expense."

Atias' bill was considered three months ago by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which chose not to support it due to a Finance Ministry estimate that it would cost about NIS 4 billion to implement.

Although Atias denies this, Finance Ministry sources said the only state land reserves where new housing would be built are in Yavne, Rosh Ha'ayin and Modi'in. "If I am from Holon [just south of Tel Aviv] why would the state suddenly decide that I have to move to Rosh Ha'ayin [to the east of the city]?" a senior Finance Ministry official groused.

"The Housing Minister doesn't have to decide for those who qualify where they live, so in this case too, giving rental assistance is better and more flexible." He also took exception to the provisions of a 1999 public housing law, which he said reduced public housing stocks from 100,000 to 66,000 units, according to his ministry's data.

Atias disputes the Finance Ministry's contention that his bill would cost the state NIS 4 billion, saying in practice it wouldn't increase state expenditures at all because the plan would be funded through land sold to developers in the same way that they pay for infrastructure such as schools in new neighborhoods.

The housing minister said state land sales last year far exceeded expectations, coming in at NIS 7.36 billion instead of the projected NIS 4.7 billion. In denying treasury allegations that the land to be sold would only be in Modi'in, Yavne and Rosh Ha'ayin, Atias insisted it would include new construction all over the country.

Although the Finance Ministry is touting monthly housing subsidies instead of new public housing, over the past decade the state has cut its subsidies and tightened up criteria for eligibility. As a result, tens of thousands of families have lost their eligibility for subsidies.

In the battle of the numbers between the two ministries, the Housing Ministry claims that from 2001 to 2008, the number of households eligible for housing subsidies fell from 195,000 to 136,500, and that the numbers began to stabilize in 2009 at around 137,000 to 139,000. As of January, the figure stood at 137,700.