What does an Israeli public housing resident look like? New Shatil staffer Cary Jacoby thought she knew until her stereotypes were shattered when she drove three activists to her first Shatil-led public housing conference last month.
One of her riders, Beth Herzog, was an American immigrant and according to Cary, “had my look.”
Beth is used to confronting stereotypes about public housing in Israel. “When I try to petition for public housing, they hear my American accent and tell me, ‘Go back to America,'” she explained. They don’t realize that I don’t have any family here or there. I am partially disabled, can barely make my rent in my low-income neighborhood. To be eligible for public housing, you have to be either fully disabled or have more than three children. I have one daughter, and one of these days I am going to be out on the street.”
Despite reading reams of background material on the 30,000 people waiting for public housing, widespread corruption, neglect of building maintenance, and narrow eligibility criteria, Cary realized just how much more she had to learn. Her ride to the conference was an incredibly eye-opening experience in of itself. “I realized that my real education into the quagmire of public housing had just begun.”
Another rider, Revital Aish, told her fellow passengers that she and her five children live in one-and-a-half rooms in an absorption center-turned-public housing building. Throughout the winter, she uses buckets to catch the water streaming in through the leaky roof. And to make matters worse, the housing company has informed the residents that they are planning renovations over the next few years, so residents will need to pay for elevators, higher property taxes, and building maintenance.
And then there was Rachel, who had followed her dream of living in Jerusalem and moved there some years ago. Since then, financial and health-related misfortunes have left her paying 70% of her income to rent, leading her to join the struggle for public housing.
These three women joined 60 activists from Beit Shean to Dimona — most of them public housing residents — brought together by Shatil to keep the momentum going after the recent passage of a law requiring greater transparency in public housing. Representatives from a wide variety of organizations, such as Immigrants for a Successful Absorption and the Dimona Residents Fighting for Public Housing, convened to build community, share information, and brainstorm strategies. Despite the diversity of specific group agendas, the sense of community was palpable. When Beth Herzog said, “I feel invisible when they tell me that my partial disability and my low earning capacity are not sufficient criteria for being a public housing candidate,” several participants shouted, “You’re not invisible, I see you!”
Together, participants worked on expanding the criteria for public housing eligibility, the plight of immigrants and senior citizens, and confronting housing companies on negligence. “We can’t afford to be apathetic,” said Revital Aish, summing up the day. “We can’t let other people decide how we’re going to live.”