Dead-end Housing

About a month ago, Allah Sheikh-Yussef left his home in Lod to spend the evening in Tel Aviv. During the evening, he spoke with his mother several times but when she contacted him at midnight, he did not answer. In the early hours of the morning, the police informed her that her son had been stabbed to death near Tel Aviv's old central bus station.

In the offices of the cleaning firm where Allah worked together with his parents, Neima and Jihad Sheikh-Yussef, an exercise book and pages on which Allah had scribbled were found. On one page he had drawn a large circle, like a sun, below which he wrote "train station," and from it he had drawn lines, like rays, on which he wrote "murder, death, drugs." On another page was a sketch of a building, in the middle of which he had drawn a black square and below which he had written: "going there and not coming back."

The teachers who came to comfort Allah's parents, the aunts who sat in the living room, the social worker who visited all spoke about an introverted and polite youth. Police sources hinted that he had been involved in drug dealing. The investigation into the murder is ongoing, but his mother knows exactly what killed him - 10 years of living in hell.

"He was a victim of this neighborhood, of these people, of despair," his mother says.

For the past decade, the Sheikh-Yussef family has lived in public housing in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. Their apartment block is one of five in a complex known as "Varda" in the midst of Lod's Harakevet neighborhood. The neighborhood itself is infamous for crime and neglect, but Varda is considered the worst place of all in terms of violence and drug dealing.

The building in which the family lives with its five children has become a central drug-dealing hub over the years. The dealers installed two blue iron gates at its entrance, and while they are busy with their deals, no one can enter or leave. Residents have to wait for the gates to reopen.

It is a matter of course to see drug addicts in the building and hear shouting and fighting, and two murders have taken place outside the building in the past year.

The electricity boxes are locked because they serve as hideouts for drugs. If a fuse goes, the residents have to ask the drug dealers to open them. If the Sheikh-Yussefs replace an electric bulb in the stairwell, the dealers smash it so they can do their business in the dark. Relatives are afraid to visit. More than once, visitors have been pelted with stones.

From time to time, the police arrive - not because they are answering a call from the residents but because they are chasing after the drug dealers. One time a dealer knocked at the Sheikh-Yussefs' door and when Neima opened it, he pushed in two men and demanded that she hid them. A few minutes later, the police banged at the door. Neima was too scared to open. Only when they left did the dealer come to collect his "guests."

The family has been asking to transfer to a different apartment since 2002. Its requests to the public housing company Amidar, the Housing and Construction Ministry and appeals committees have all met with the same bureaucratic response: "Living in standard apartment; no reason found to deviate from the rules."

The apartment is indeed standard, especially in view of the fact that the family has invested money to improve it. "But it is not normal from the social point of view," says Aziza Amash, a social worker who in the past wrote a report recommending transferring the family out of the neighborhood. "I've known them for years. The parents work hard and keep an eye on their children so that they will not get into trouble."

"I'd like to see whether they'd send Jews to live here," adds Neima.

On February 1 last year, Jihad Sheikh-Yussef was approached at the entrance to the building by a masked man who took out a box-cutter knife and slit his face open from the left ear to his mouth. The children who heard his screams came running and found their father bleeding. Following that incident, the father moved in with relatives. Allah went to live with his aunt. The other children suffer from nightmares and are scared to leave the house.

Yet even after the father was assaulted and another report was sent recommending that the family be moved, two housing ministry appeals committees rejected their request.

There are eight apartments in the building, six of which belong to Amidar. Two apartments that were sealed with bricks have been broken into by the drug dealers, who use them as a base for their business and store their drugs there. The community advocacy association that has been following the fate of the family says that Amidar has been trying to send families entitled to public housing to the uninhabited apartments, but everyone refuses to move there.

The association is dealing with those families that have been offered apartments in Varda but refused to move there, and therefore are considered as having forfeited their right to public housing. "Is it reasonable to send people to live in a neighborhood in which there is no chance of raising a family without endangering the lives and futures of their children?" asks Sigalit Giv'on-Prida, who manages the association's Lod branch. "The right to an apartment cannot be limited to the right to have a roof over one's head."

Giv'on-Prida says that there are empty apartments in other Lod neighborhoods, but the ministry knows that evacuating people from the Varda apartments means that those apartments will be lost to the state. She also believes there is an unwritten policy not to transfer Arab families to Jewish neighborhoods in Lod.

The Sheikh-Yussef family has expressed readiness to give up a room and to live in a three-room apartment in another neighborhood, but the proposal was rejected.

After it transpired that its requests and pleas had been in vain, the family appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court with the aid of attorney Hisham Shabita from Tel Aviv University's human rights clinic.

In a response to the petition, the state noted the severe shortage of public housing. "A person who suffers from crime in his neighborhood does not become entitled to a different apartment," the state representative wrote, adding that the solution lies with the police, who are in charge of public order.

The judge proposed that the ministry checks whether there are apartments available in another town. The state found 35 free four-room apartments in Beit She'an, Mitzpeh Rimon, Migdal Ha'emek and Safed, but the family does not want to move to a faraway Jewish town and be cut off from their relatives and familiar surroundings. The court has yet to rule on the issue.

Sources in Amidar say that they will act according to housing ministry instructions. The ministry said its response will be conveyed in court.

The Treasury turns a profit

Public housing in Israel is intended for families and single people who cannot afford to buy or rent an apartment. However, since the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the state has not built new apartments of this kind, resulting in a severe housing shortage.

Some 50,000 people, who are eligible for public housing, are currently on the waiting list. The vast majority are new immigrants, some of whom have been waiting for an apartment for more than 10 years. The minority are veteran Israelis, in particular single mothers with three or more children. Apartments are available in the periphery, although there is a shortage in the center. As the years go by, the supply has diminished because some 26,000 of the 100,000 apartments have been sold to their residents in special deals, on the basis of the Public Housing Law initiated by Meretz MK Ran Cohen and approved by the Knesset in July 2008. The original law stated that the government must build new apartments from the money it received from the sales. Meanwhile, the apartments were sold but the money was swallowed up by the Treasury.