Analysis

The Real Housing Crisis in Israel Is in Its Arab Towns

Little available land, not enough builders, a low-rise housing culture and red tape are among the culprits

Yafi'a
Eyal Toueg

We’re riding in the car of Imran Kanana, the mayor of Yafi’a, trying to reach the highest point in this town of 20,000 to see the view. It’s not easy. The streets of this community near Nazareth, whose official name is Yafa an-Nasseriyeh, are barely wide enough for a single vehicle. Yet all the streets are two-way and also used for parking and by pedestrians, as there are no sidewalks. So over and over again, Kanana has to stop, often to back up and maneuver in order to facing traffic. In addition, children in their uniforms are pouring into the streets at the end of the school day. Kanana doesn’t get aggravated. He’s used to it.

The traffic situation in Yafi’a is typical of Arab towns in Israel, and of villages throughout the world that were laid out when all transportation was two- or four-legged. But the crowding here is much worse than in a typical Greek or Italian village, say.

The main cause is the housing shortage in Israel’s Arab communities. That shortage was also the underlying cause of the uproar that followed the demolitions in January of 11 unauthorized buildings in Kalansua, and the tragedy a week later in Umm al-Hiran, in the Negev, where the demolition of illegally built homes sparked riots and ended in the deaths of an Israeli police officer and a Bedouin resident, in circumstances that are still not entirely clear.

The Finance Ministry refused to provide current figures on home demolitions in Arab communities, but according to sources up until 2009 an average of 220 illegally built houses were razed every year by Israeli authorities. The numbers have declined since then, due to both a lack of police resources and a rise in the number of legal challenges to demolition orders.

In January 2016, a team led by Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminitz submitted a number of recommendations for streamlining the handling of illegal construction. The group’s report revealed that about 450 illegal structures are demolished throughout the country each year.

In Yafi’a, the mayor cannot recall any demolitions in the past few years, but he still feels the housing crisis acutely.

“The crisis here is profound. Pretty soon we’re going to explode. I can feel it. Relatively speaking, the situation here isn’t the worst, but I still have people knocking on my door every day asking, ‘when will be able to build? When will we get permits?’ People get so discouraged that they decide to take the risk and build illegally,” says Kanana.

“My father, who remained in the village in 1948” — a reference to Israel’s War of Independence, when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes in what Palestinians term the Nakba, or catastrophe — divided his land among his children, and then my father divided his portion among me and my siblings – 400 square meters each. I have nothing left to distribute to my children.”

Kanana believes the housing crisis is the main reason for the economic gap between Israeli Arab society and the majority Jewish community: The lack of available land makes it harder to establish industrial zones and sometimes limits the construction of new schools.

“Why don’t they see that investing in housing and education in the Arab sector should be a top Israeli priority? If you invest in these things, people won’t turn to extremism, and their participation in the economy will grow,” says Kanana.

“When the town is allowed to grow, the amount of property taxes collected goes up. When you invest in housing, the middle class grows. But we’re not progressing toward equality. Israeli Arabs have given up their national dream. They gave up a lot of rights, too. They gave up on the land that was taken from them in 1948. ... But now, let’s live here and start a new chapter,” Kanana says

Since Israel’s founding, about 600 new Jewish communities have been established but not a single new Arab community has been built.

Needed: 5,000new homes a year

According to a report issued in June 2015 by an interministerial team that was appointed in 2014 to examine the housing shortage in the country’s Arab communities, just 2% of Israeli home sales were in Arab towns, even though these communities contain around 18% of the country’s housing stock.

“The Arab community needs 5,000 new housing units per year,” says Kais Nasser, a lawyer who specializes in zoning and housing law and advises Arab municipalities. “On average, no more than 1,400 building permits are approved each year, so we’ve got a shortfall of more than 3,000 housing units per year. To go through all the stages to obtaining building permit, a person can wait 25 years.”

The shortage is causing the cost of building lots and homes to skyrocket. In its report the team, known as the 120 Days Committee, noted that in one new neighborhood in Nazareth, the average home cost 190 average monthly salaries, compared to a national average of 139 average monthly salaries.

“In rural communities of up to 10,000 residents, a one-dunam (around one-quarter of an acre) residential building lot can cost 500,000 shekels (around $125,000),” says Nasser.

“In larger towns, with a livelier housing market, such as Shfaram or Kafr Yasif, a half-dunam costs $500,000. I have a friend in Nazareth who recently paid 2.4 million shekels for a 400-square-meter lot. Add to this the fact that half of Israel’s Arabs are below the poverty line, and you see that only the wealthiest families can afford to buy land. And after you’ve paid all that money for the land, you still have to add construction costs.”

Aren’t building costs lower in the Arab community?

Nasser: “Not particularly. A two-family home, each apartment 120 square meters of floor space, will cost a million shekels to build.”

Much of the crowding in Yafi’a and places like it derives from the government’s last major attempt to tackle the housing issue in the Arab sector. A policy instituted in the 1980s and ‘90s allowed for the addition of two stories to existing two-story buildings. These villages are now filled with four-story homes, many of them housing large extended families, but the infrastructure was never meant to support this.

“The decision to build higher rather than to preserve the rural character has led to the present situation, in which we’re neither a city nor a village,” says Kanana.

Another reason for the Arab housing crisis is that this type of building, which suits large extended families who want to live in close proximity, has been copied in new neighborhoods as well, so that there is also a severe shortage of high-rises of over 15 floors that could increase the housing supply.

“The building density in the new neighborhoods is generally eight units per dunam. Our mentality prefers free-standing homes, where four or five families live together,” says Mahmoud Taysir of the Umm al-Fahm chamber of commerce.

“But it is becoming more common for people to share housing with people they don’t know. I hope that this year we’ll be able to promote more multistory construction. People are beginning to understand the need for this,” Taysir says.

“We’re drawing up plans for a new neighborhood that would include 4,000 apartments. Half is on state land, and a large portion will be marketed through the [government’s] Mahir Lamishtaken, or Buyer’s Price, program,” he says.

Back in Yafi’a, the mayor points out a multistory residential project on the outskirts of the town. “These were built eight years ago and people snapped them up. People say, ‘Better to buy a 90-square-meter apartment and live here than to have to go somewhere else,” says Kanana.

The transition to high-rise apartments could also help to accelerate the profound social changes taking place in Israeli Arab society. As one figure from the community who asked to remain anonymous put it, “Arab society is changing. When it was still a patriarchal culture, there was discipline within the family and siblings didn’t fight when they lived together. That’s changed and today there are feuds. The brothers and their wives fight over the balcony and the parking. If people had a choice, they’d rather live with strangers. They know no one will barge into their house without knocking. Instead of living four or five families on a half-dunam, people would rather live in nice neighborhoods without having to know all the neighbors.”

The Arab housing crisis has been around for many years, and usually only comes up on the public radar when it takes on a political-nationalist tinge. A number of plans have been tried in recent years, including Cabinet Resolution 922, passed in December 2016, for economic development of minority communities, with an allocation of 15 billion shekels for the Arab sector.

The basis of the differences in planning between the Arab and Jewish sectors has to do with land ownership. 93% of the land in Israel is state land. Half of the remaining 7% that is privately owned is owned by Arabs. But nearly all of the land within Arab communities is privately owned, and the small amount of state land within Arab jurisdictions is in communities that are removed from the country’s main population centers.

That’s not a problem when it comes to building a private home, but establishing a neighborhood consisting of several large apartment buildings means putting together multiple parcels of land, with multiple owners, and apportioning the new apartments among the landowners. In Israel’s Arab community, the idea of swapping your land for apartments in a building project or for a different parcel of land is not easily accepted.

As can be seen from the Israeli property market as a whole, problems that have built up for decades cannot be quickly solved. But in the Arab community, where demolition orders are pending for a large number of buildings, put up without the proper permits, the pressure for an immediate solution is great.

Nearly all of Israel’s Arab communities now have approved master plans. The next step — detailed plans that define building rights and lot lines — is much more complicated. Only a few communities have reached this stage.