Israel’s Affordable Housing Protest Catches Fire

28 July 2011

“I’m certainly not surprised by the way the protests have spread. My only surprise is that it has taken so long for people to take action,” said Haim Bar-Yaakov, Founder and Director of NIF grantee Life With Dignity, which promotes housing rights for Israelis and fights against unjustified eviction. “I know it’s irritating to say I told you so, but the message we have been saying for years has finally hit home.”

A huge wave of protests against the high cost of housing, begun with a single ‘tent city’ in Tel Aviv, has forced the Netanyahu government to offer immediate changes in government policy. The protests have dominated Israel’s media headlines over the past 10 days.

Prices for housing in Israel, both purchased and rented, have risen relentlessly over the past few years. According to the Bank of Israel, the price of the average Israeli home has risen nearly 50 percent since December 2007 with rent prices also climbing sharply. Over the past year alone, apartment prices have risen 15 percent.

Thus, despite Israel’s impressive economic growth, more and more Israelis, especially the young and disadvantaged, simply cannot afford to buy or even rent a home. Last Saturday night more than 20,000 Israelis demonstrated in the streets of Tel Aviv, and the following day thousands more marched to the Knesset. And although NIF and SHATIL have been working hard on housing issues for several years, the current protests are a spontaneous, grassroots cry of protest from tens of thousands of Israelis who simply do not have the wherewithal to put a roof over their heads.

NIF Funds Camp Protests
Bar-Yaakov helped set up the protest camp in Be’er Sheva a few days ago.

He said, “Within days of the camps being set up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we had put up 30 tents in Be’er Sheva in a camp outside Ben Gurion University. I think our camp sent the message that this was a nationwide protest.”

That message was not an accident. Almost immediately after the first protest began in Tel Aviv, NIF allotted emergency grants to tent protest compounds in Be’er Sheva, Herzliya and Jerusalem’s Independence Park. (The appearance of protest tents in Jerusalem and the periphery belied claims by right-wing MKs that housing was only an issue for urban youth in Tel Aviv.) Additionally, Shatil staff continues to advise protest leaders in 12 encampments around the country on all aspects of sustaining and enlarging the demonstrations.

Shatil’s Program Director Avi Dabush said, “This is an authentic grassroots protest that involves middle class people as well as the disadvantaged. We see all types of people in the camp complexes, from students and young middle class couples to the disadvantaged and new immigrants. We have helped the protesters on everything from logistical assistance in setting up the camps through how to get their voices and messages heard effectively in the media.

Coalition for Affordable Housing Pioneers the Issue
Dabush said, “We have been allocating major resources to this issue for years. An example of our success is that the very phrase ‘affordable housing’ was a term we introduced into public dialogue.”

In 2009, NIF set up the Coalition for Affordable Housing to spearhead the campaign to set new housing policy, lobby in the Knesset, formulate legislation, disseminate information, and liaise with the media on the topic. The coalition includes NIF grantees such as Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Bimkom Planners for Planning Rights, Association for Distributive Justice, and Community Advocacy: Genesis Israel. Eighteen months ago Shatil set up the Forum for Responsible Planning to coordinate activities around the government’s proposed land reform, which was designed to limit public input into the privatization and sale of state-owned land.

The Coalition has distributed material to the protesters including background information about the problem, facts and figures, frequently asked questions and proposed solutions to the problem.

Dabush explained that the protests are about more than housing. He said, “It is about economic change, and that includes everything. People are frustrated by widening social gaps. The government tells people to move to the periphery where housing is cheaper, but without adequate transport, infrastructures and education, people do not want to move out. Housing cannot be separated from other issues.”

Over time, the Coalition challenged the conventional wisdom that market forces should be the only factor for home prices, and now even the government has agreed that land reform is vital. The Coalition’s proposed solutions includes new legislation to release more land for building, with a focus on smaller more affordable homes; encouraging urban initiatives for affordable housing; and increasing Ministry of Housing aid through mortgage and rent assistance for disadvantaged Israelis.

The NIF Connection
In attempts to thwart the wildfire protest, which according to a Haaretz survey is supported by 87 percent of Israelis, some right-wing groups have claimed that the campaign is the sole initiative of NIF and progressive groups. So far, these charges have seemed irrelevant as the campaign continues to gain momentum and the public supports NIF for its part in the struggle. Even Ben Dror-Yemini, a formerly fierce critic of NIF in his columns in the Maariv newspaper, has praised NIF for supporting the protests.

NIF Israel Executive Director Rachel Liel said, “What began as a local protest has grown as the Israeli public has stood for its rights and demanded a more equitable division of resources from the government. NIF is proud that it has supported every struggle by civil society in the past decade and is proud to be supporting this struggle – morally, as well as with advice and resources.”