Tel Aviv Landlords Are the New Slave Drivers

We can’t raise the capital needed to buy a home, so we are doomed to go on renting, helping the landlords raise that very capital for their own kids.

An illustration showing cotton pickers with high-rise apartment buildings in the background.
Roei Regev

1.

A conversation with my landlady:

Hello, Edna, how are you?

Hello, Tahel, I’m fine, thanks.

Glad to hear it. I wanted to talk to you about renewing the lease. I’d like another two years.

Yes, I was meaning to get in touch with you in June. Not before June, I said, but at the beginning of June.

Great, looks like I beat you to it.

Well, it’s like this. There are two things. First of all, we’re doing Tama 38 [a national plan to encourage reinforcement of buildings against earthquakes]. That means evacuation and reconstruction of the building. All the tenants will be evacuated in the next two years. I don’t think there will be a problem in the coming year, but you never know. I’ll put the evacuation clause into every lease.

In other words, we could be evacuated at any moment?

Yes, but with prior notification. The second thing is the rent. I was very generous with you during the past two years. I gave you a good price. I was a sucker, you could say, and didn’t raise the rent. You tell me if that’s not true.

You know very well that I was a sucker.

Uh, I really think that 4,500 shekels [about $1,200] for a two-room apartment of 55 square meters is an excellent rent to receive.

No! It’s very cheap, everyone around here takes more. I was very fair, I gave you a friends price, even though you weren’t friends of mine. But now, you understand, it can’t continue.

I understand that you feel you have to raise the rent.

No! It’s not me. I give the money to my brother, he comes to take it in envelopes every so often. I can’t cheat him and say that this is the price of the apartment, when the apartment is worth more.

And I already have someone who wants the apartment for 5,500 shekels. I’m not just saying that.

Yes, I hear you that it’s very important for you to get more money, so I am trying to think what I can do. The thing is that my salary hasn’t gone up and I am raising my baby in this apartment, and stability is important for me. I really would rather not leave in the coming year.

The girl who wants to move in is also a single mother. The date of entry suits her. I’m not saying this to pressure you, but she said she wants it, and she is also my daughter-in-law’s best friend.

Okay, what I think I can do is to pay an extra 5 percent in the coming year and another percent in the year after, if the lease continues and we’re not evacuated. That way there will be a gradual increase.

What? No, that’s not enough. It’s not even close. We can get 5,500.

I will be sorry to leave.

You were good tenants. I’m not saying you weren’t. But I’m a wonderful landlady! Wonderful! You didn’t hear from me for two years! Isn’t that so?

Wonderful!

Yes, listen, but about the Tama

We will only make money from the Tama. What do you think, that we’ll lose? The [construction] company goes on paying us rent as though there were tenants. Even though there won’t be any! And afterward, well, we know all about that, the apartment will be big and luxurious. We’ll be able to get plenty of money for it

Ummm, sorry to interrupt, but I don’t see how that has anything to do with what we were talking about.

So we don’t lose from the Tama, what did you think?

I didn’t really think.

Look, about the money, I understand. You think I don’t understand? I didn’t go through it? Sitting and doing calculations, bills. But those are your calculations, I can’t be involved. Decide what you can, take a few days. Maybe you can ask your parents, they must have a little money.

My parents

And you have a little boy, he must be delightful, the wallet opens when there’s a grandchild. I know. I help my children no end. Tell them you need and they’ll give for sure. For grandchildren they do everything.

So think about it! Email me.

Okay.

Take a few days!

2.

After that conversation I fell into a funk of very gloomy thoughts about my real estate situation. Thoughts that even terrorism didn’t eradicate from my mind. I wondered whether my landlady is really a sucker. Why is she even occupying herself with such a thought? Maybe landlords are in a mental state in which they construe being fair as a sign of sucker-hood? There’s no way of knowing. Like raises in executives' salaries, neither of these have any connection with reality. It’s one tremendous fantasy of the real estate market. So, how is the question of fairness related to the ability to realize a dream? In the face of the dream of realizing profits, the landlords will always come out as suckers. Accordingly, the burden on the tenant community in every contact with the owners is to reduce the extent to which those owners feel they are suckers and to make sure that that word, with its offensive insinuations, doesn’t enter their head and damage their frame of mind and self-esteem.

I also concluded from the conversation that most landlords are like the plantation owners in pre-Civil War Virginia: The only thing that interests them is to squeeze out maximal profits at the expense of their slaves’ lives. By “slaves,” I mean the community of renters – more precisely, those among the community of renters who have no choice but to rent because they don’t have the initial capital needed to buy an apartment and to take out a mortgage. And what is the reason that these men and women lack that capital? It’s sheer bad luck, which is experienced as searing guilt: These days, to be born into a dynasty that hasn’t accumulated transferable capital is a sort of mark of shame.

Maybe renters’ guilt about renting is also the reason that even in the new legislation that is supposed to be enacted – the first law that addresses the market of apartments for rent, whose sponsors are MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union/Labor) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) – a clause requiring rent-control was omitted. Those with vested interests in real estate must have worked hard to obtain that omission. After all, they naturally don’t want the funding they’re getting to stop flowing in. Someone has to work and supply them with money regularly so that they will be able to help their own children.

And, damn it, if that really is the situation – why doesn’t the community of tenants unionize, demonstrate solidarity, become politically active and launch campaigns of resistance and refusal? Why is it that someone will always be found who’s ready to pay the fantastical rents demanded by the real estate market? I can think of a few reasons, but the main one is the lack of a central platform around which to organize. Not in the bureaucratic sense but in terms of fantasy: Renters of apartments can’t claim anything because they don’t own anything and don’t even fantasize about being owners of anything.

In the situation of a free market in which ownership is the only condition for being able to make a claim, lessees find themselves caught up in a cruel, genuinely existential paradox. Rental prices – which have nothing to do with the economic reality of a dying labor market or of a government that does not control increases in rents or ensure a supply of worthy apartments for long-term leasing – translate into one fact: an unmoored life. Frequent moving from one place to another, getting mired in debt, depression and stress. And above all, a situation in which renters have become transparent.

The economic oppression to which apartment renters are subjugated is aggressive. It has implications for self-identity, the approach to relationships, and perceptions of reality and of time and place. But like every form of economic oppression, it is publicly invisible. It’s more attractive to talk about terrorism or to argue about nationalist, religious or ethnic oppression than about types of economic oppression. And anyway, the situation of the renters can be shrugged off by citing the recommendation of Bill Gates, who once fantasized about what he would do if had to live on $2 a day. He says he’d raise chickens as a solution to poverty. Maybe that recommendation should be introduced into the new rental law: Every renter will get a chicken from the state.