Public Housing

Members of the Ma’abara group
Translated by: Naveh Frumer

“The Ma’abara will be a platform for organizing radical action which will move from the local struggles in East and West Jerusalem to the national level, from issues of public housing to all issues having to do with distributive justice and social equality, and out of the Israeli socio-economic periphery’s affinity to the Middle East and the struggle spreading throughout the entire world.” 

What does public housing mean? It is a policy that aims to provide housing for those who cannot obtain it through the market. In the reality of the Israeli housing market of 2012, few can provide housing for themselves.

In the past, most of the apartments in Israel were public. The 1950s saw a mass wave of immigration, with many public housing projects being built for immigrants who were moved out of their transit camps. It is estimated that around half the housing construction at that time was public. This was the case mostly in the periphery, while at the center of the country, building was mostly private. This historic detail explains how we reached the present condition.

It should be noted that such construction was not only for the benefit of “the needy.” One of the main considerations was the populating of underdeveloped areas. No apartments were built for the Arab public, only for Jewish immigrants. In Jerusalem, for example, many Mid-Eastern immigrants (Mizrahi Jews) were housed on the borderline with Jordan, serving as human shields. In 1967, with the occupation of the West Bank from Jordan, the houses were no longer on the border, their prices rose, and an attempt was made to evict the residents and settle them in the newly occupied territories.

But let us go back in time again. In the 1960s the notion of public housing began to change, and the term “private ownership” entered the stage. Public expenditure on housing was high, and the state, who wanted to reduce it, offered people incentives to buy their apartments. In this way, half of the public apartments were now privately held, with the rest being rented for half their market price, thereby turning Israel into one of the world’s leading countries in terms of private home ownership. The idea of owning one’s home became everyone’s dream, and yet large populations who were not granted land or building rights, right which could later be inherited by their children, were left with nothing more than a dream.

In the 1970s, the notion of private property was so widespread that public housing projects received a death blow and became synonymous with poverty. The chief policy was construction for the purpose of future selling, even for a low price, with the guiding principle being that people would be able to purchase their apartments. The wave of immigrants from former USSR countries required a significant housing policy and substantive public construction, but even then the goal was to sell those apartments, even if under certain benefits, rather than increasing the total share of public housing. The stock of public apartments was running low, and by the 1980s the economic policy of private purchase completely took over the discourse. Public construction came to a complete halt, whereas construction in the new settlements increased, with many people being transferred there quickly and cheaply. It should be noted that immigrants from Ethiopia were mostly left without any apartments at all.

Over the years, various social movements emerged in light of this housing distress. The Black Panthers movement, formed in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood in the early 1970s, placed the housing issue among its list of five demands. During the same years, in the Katamon neighborhood, people crowded in small apartments, together with their children and their children’s’ spouses. A social worker who visited the neighborhood published, in defiance of official regulations, a report stating she cannot do her job in light of the terrible distress and crowdedness. Little by little the Tent Movement was formed, with two of its dominant figures being Shlomo Vazana and Yamin Swisa. This movement initiated such actions as setting up tents across Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, occupying a new apartment building awaiting the arrival of non-local residents, building a “settlement” within Jerusalem in order to protest against the policy of transferring residents to cheaper houses in the occupied territories, and the demand to remain in their neighborhoods. In the early 1980s the “Dai” movement was formed in Musrara, following an attempt to cause residents to leave the neighborhood in light of its rising real-estate prices. Activists occupied a public shelter for a month until solutions were offered.

In the mid-1990s the public housing struggle received its strongest push. Shlomo Vazana, filmmaker, media figure, teacher, and, as mentioned, one of the leaders of the 1970s tent movement, went back to his mother’s public housing apartment in the Katamon neighborhood after her death. Vazana was surprised to discover that not only would the mortgaging firm not allow him to reside in his parents’ apartment, it also charged him for residing there despite his mother passing away. Vazana could not contain this injustice. On the other side were Kibbutz members who received land from the state, and whose children received building rights on that land. Vazana decided not to give up, and launched a public housing struggle, to which many others joined, including Meretz MP Ran Cohen, other Jerusalem activists, and the Kol Bashchunot movement.

The result was a law bill that included many clauses, among them one granting residents the right to purchase their home, with the money being used to build new public housing. While some of the apartments were sold, with the stock decreasing from 110,000 to 75,000, the money was not used for building or purchasing new public apartments. In reality, the law was practically put on hold over the last decade under the “Arrangements Law,” with the money disappearing into various government ministries and the Jewish Agency. Various agreements led to the following clear-cut reality: no new public housing construction, poor maintenance of existing apartments, an increasing list of those entitled for public housing, and worse of all, the entitlement criteria being so severe they are almost impossible to comply with. For example, a single mother is entitled to public housing only if she has three children, and even then might be on the waiting list for years. To complete the picture, there are currently about 400,000 families under the poverty line, with less then 75,000 public apartments. It doesn’t take more statistics to realize what the situation is.

As in the past, housing struggles continued into the 2000s. Haim Bar Yaacov formed the Movement for Dignified Living, which struggled against forced evacuations, following a year of living along with other homeless people in a tent in front of the government offices of Beer Sheva. Residents of Kfar Shalem, together with the Tarabut movement, struggled against their evacuation from houses they resided in for decades. Bedouins living in unrecognized villages that are never granted building permits continued to build homes for their children. In Sheikh Jarrah people are struggling against their evacuation from houses they have been living in for a long time. And the list goes on and on.

In 2011 the protest intensified. In Jerusalem, a group of single mothers from the Katamon neighborhood set up a protest tent in the Independence Park opposite the American Consul, in order to protest the state of public housing and demand a roof over their heads. They sought to explain in the clearest possible manner that a 3,000 Shekel monthly income is not enough in order to maintain an apartment and raise a child. They wanted to bring the struggle for public housing back into the discourse, even though most of them did not formally qualify for it. In the meantime, other similar struggles emerged elsewhere: Free Beer Sheva, The Periphery Forum, Tarabut, The Not-So Nice, Rabbis for Human Rights, Yoni Yohanan of Lifta, who is leading a struggle of non-contract residents, and numerous others, all struggling for public housing and against forced evacuations, using every means possible to promote these issues.

The group of single mothers grew into a group of homeless people, who then joined a group of social activists whose homes were also threatened. Together they formed the Ma’abara group, which seeks to deal with the housing problem, to promote the duty of providing a roof over everyone’s heads, to protest against injustices, and to generate alternative community coalitions on this basis. Following a two-month stay in an encampment set up in summer 2011, the group decided to occupy a dorm building on Stern street, Jerusalem, which stood empty for over five years. The group suggested that the university turn the place into a unique project including public housing, affordable housing, and community projects. This suggestion was met by police evacuation. Two months later the place was renovated, and this year some two hundred students, some of them with families, moved in. Subsequent house occupations proved that this is the only practice that can force empty building owners to put them into use—even though this policy-change emerged from the bottom up, by establishing facts on the ground. The occupation of empty buildings proved the most successful strategy for forcing the establishment to change its policy, and to demonstrate most clearly the terrible injustice of empty buildings on the one hand and homeless people on the other. Recently, the Ma’abara signed an agreement with the Na’amat women organization, after occupying one of their buildings that stood empty for three years instead of serving the public. The building will now once again serve the public, and we can thus say with certainty that the strategy of occupation does work. We can no longer be regarded as law-violating extremists, but as a group that seeks to make things more just. Even if what we achieved is but a drop in the ocean, it is nonetheless a step towards conveying a message about what law and justice are, and about the prospects of public struggles.

For us, members of the Ma’abara group, the decision to struggle for public housing signifies a wider worldview. Public housing or, alternatively, affordable housing (officially defined as housing for which one pays no more than 30% of their income, and which is intended for middle or lower-middle class populations) means that it is the clear role and duty of the state to provide housing, and to guarantee that anyone who cannot provide their own housing under the conditions of the private market would have a steady, long-term roof over their heads, without having to move their children around every day. We voiced the cry that the eligibility criteria for public housing are unreasonable and relate only to the existing stock of apartments, without regard to the fact that many of those deemed ineligible require public housing as a necessary mean for leading a dignified life in its most basic sense.

Courtesy of the Ma'abara group

How can all this be achieved? There is no shortage of solutions. What is lacking is the will, the values, and an economic system wholly unlike the existing one, in which the right of property would not precede the right for housing. What is lacking is determination on the part of the state to assume responsibility for the right for housing. The state of Israel would rather leave people in the streets while 40,000 apartments stand empty. We hear talk about a constant annual shortage of 50,000 apartments when a similar number of apartments are unoccupied. This unwillingness will not go unanswered. It must be met with constant action of as many activist groups as possible. The Ma’abara will continue to struggle, occupy empty buildings, demand the right for housing, prevent evacuations, establish facts on the ground, and assume actual responsibility for our reality rather than wait for others to provide.