Housing Protest Ongoing in Tel Aviv

Over the last week or so, protesters have been occupying HaBima Square in central Tel Aviv with tents, demanding cheaper housing. Prices in Israel have been rising sharply over the last ten years, especially urban housing prices, and new urban construction is predominantly luxury. Populist politicians are already visiting the tents, talking up their own record on marginally related issues.

Some right-wingers, who identify everything coming out of Tel Aviv as left-wing, which locally means a dovish elite, are instead yelling at the protesters to “move to the periphery,” where housing is cheap. Israel has the opposite city/suburb dynamic as the US: the city center is generally richer and more expensive than the suburbs, and the richer suburbs of Tel Aviv – typically those in its favored quarter to the north – are not called periphery any more than the Upper East Side is called an inner city.

The problem with such a dynamic is that the periphery has no access to jobs. The roads are congested (and the extra driving costs would eat up the entire difference in rent); public transportation doesn’t run on weekends for religious reasons and consists of buses, which are very slow, and commuter trains, which aren’t very frequent and do not get people to most city destinations.

The housing problem, as one may expect, is predominantly political. While Tel Aviv’s wealth and access to jobs make it unusually desirable, there has not been any concerned attempt to create livable secondary urban centers. This post explains in more detail the issues; while it’s in Hebrew, you can still look at the pictures – in short, despite reforms, zoning still encourages construction like that in the first photo (a “development town,” i.e. a housing project, with about the same connotations as in the US) and discourages that in the second photo (Sheinkin Street, a once-bohemian, now-gentrified commercial artery).

Although Tel Aviv’s car ownership is not very high – about 60% of households own a car – parking is mandated in most new developments. Existing parking facilities are overstretched; pricing parking is a political non-starter. And despite the high demand for non-luxury housing, city regulations make it difficult to build smaller apartments: according to the blog linked above, it is difficult to get approval for apartments under 120 square meters, or to subdivide large apartments.

As in New York and other cities with a housing shortage, the resulting land shortage is leading developers to concentrate on the luxury market. In the last decade, developers have built huge skyscrapers surrounded by empty land along and near Namir Road, a wide arterial throughfare that the government is trying to turn into the new CBD and that the first line of the Tel Aviv subway is planned to pass under. Due to the building height, the density of such developments is fairly high, but in reality not much higher than the surrounding neighborhoods. Akirov Towers have a density of about 125 apartments per hectare, counting to the midlines of the streets adjacent to the development; the residential parts of the Old North, built almost uniformly to the fourth floor, average about 250 residents per hectare, and my own calculations suggest about 100 apartments per hectare.

A cohort of reformers, from both left and right, propose better public transit as a solution. People would be able to live in the periphery and commute to city jobs. The main efforts in the region are new commuter lines and the subway. The subway has been proposed and canceled so many times that nobody I have talked to seems to believe it will ever open. The commuter lines are not electrified and run against a capacity constraint in central Tel Aviv, where there is room only for three tracks; in addition, the service level is far short of an S-Bahn or RER, and is on a par with the higher-grade lines in North America, for example the LIRR. Typically the people advocating for such issues, even in government, are secular and would favor operating public transportation on the Sabbath, but no action or serious legislation has emerged yet, despite a fair amount of grassroots activism.

Less commonly proposed is development in the gaps in urbanization. As is readily seen on Google Earth, there is empty space directly adjacent to the urban area both to the north and south of Tel Aviv, interposing between adjacent municipalities. I am told that there was a plan to develop the empty space to the north, but it was torpedoed by a local desire to keep the municipalities strictly separate. (For clarification, those are both wealthy favored quarter suburbs – I believe Herzliya and Ra’anana, but I no longer remember.)

Also not commonly mentioned is the issue of political will. The protesters do not view their cause as one strictly about housing. A commenter on another blog quotes the following text from one of the tents:

I’m not here because of housing prices. I see them as a symptom of a systemic problem – a country that loses its democratic character in favor of a corrupt system of government based on connections, lobbyists, and property owners….

After a few days here, I’m discovering amazing things. People are completely forgetting about the elements that usually divide them, share their opinions, and listen to each other. Housing prices look like a drop in a sea of inequities. The problem is systemic. The apartments are a symptom.

We are still in the initial phase, where everyone talks to his heart’s content – but this is how you build cross-sectional solidarity.

If we continue to deal only with housing, at best we’ll solve just one point, important as it is, and in a year we won’t be able to afford food or studies. I worry we’ll miss the Israeli Spring and settle for a few flowers in our vase.

The Israeli government is no stranger to rapid growth. The settlements’ population went up 50% between 1999 and 2006. In terms of urban-rural politics, Israel has still not gotten to the stage that cities are an object of romanticism, and keeps pouring money into contested regions in order to create facts on the ground. The era of Mapai, the predecessor of today’s Labor Party, saw disinvestment in cities in favor of kibbutzim and development towns in peripheral regions; today, there’s some investment in luxury towers in the newly-built CBDs, but the political system is still anti-urban, just with a different focus.

Tel Aviv’s housing prices are putting it between a rock and a hard place. The status quo is intolerable; so is massive urban renewal, raising density marginally and pricing out the middle class, which unlike in American cities has remained mostly intact. The political consensus, to the degree it exists, is not to do anything. Good urban design and laxer zoning rules could mitigate some of those problems, but they’re too politically unpalatable right now. So, unless they indeed settle for a symbolic reform, the protesters will stay.

13 comments

  1. BBnet3000

    Since youre implying that theres a market for transit service on the Sabbath, i dont really understand why they wont run it. Its a matter of personal choice, no different than it is in the United States. Jews who do not keep to the Sabbath can ride the subway, and those who do choose not to.

    Is there a possibility for a transit analog for the Shabbat elevator?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabbat_elevator

    • Alon Levy

      They won’t run it because, for one, the drivers would be Jewish, and the religious groups in Israel have a knack for doing their best to require all Jews to observe religious rules. It’s legal to open stores and such on the Sabbath, but public services do not run. A lot of the precise rules depend on political alliances – e.g. it’s illegal to grow pork, but completely legal to sell and eat it; it’s illegal for a store to display hametz for sale during Passover, but legal to sell it as long as it’s sufficiently discreet; and so on.

      There’s also the separate argument that there needs to be a day of rest, leading to the usual NIMBYism about public transportation making noise on weekends (I try to tell people about the 24/7 els in the Haredi neighborhoods of Brooklyn, but I don’t exactly have the largest megaphone in Israel). It boils down to the fact that a lot of people just aren’t used to transit running every day. But it’s a much smaller hurdle than dealing with the politics of religion.

      The reason I support a driverless metro for Tel Aviv, rather than the current plan for a light rail subway, is precisely that it could function as a Shabbat elevator.

      • EngineerScotty

        I remember reading once of Israeli farmers who, every seven years, would sell their land to Arab neighbors for a season to bypass religious requirements to let the land lay fallow. Admittedly, that was some years ago, and the political situation appears to have deteriorated somewhat since then (as someone who is neither Jew nor Muslim, I hesitate to venture too far down this topic on this blog); but would employing non-Jews to drive trains on the Sabbath be at all a tenable solution? Is the objection among the Orthodox to Jews driving the trains on the Sabbath, or are there objections to being a passenger as well?

        Of course, many US transit agencies don’t run on Sundays (a state of affairs I find most unfortunate), but that’s generally due to low ridership as opposed to “blue laws” or any other religious restriction.

        • Alon Levy

          I believe the objection is not to being a passenger per se, but there could be an objection to related activities such as buying a ticket or even pushing a turnstile. I’ll go around asking the Orthodox Jewish transit planner I know what the rabbi rulings on the issue are.

          Nowadays, hiring Arabs as Sabbath goys is even more of a nonstarter than having Jews drive on the Sabbath (and besides, there aren’t that many Arabs in Greater Tel Aviv, and the ones that still live in the city, mainly in one neighborhood of Jaffa, are being gentrified away). I’m pretty sure that in Haifa, where due to the large Arab population of the area and the much more secular orientation of the Jewish population public transit does run on the Sabbath, the drivers are Jewish and not only Arab.

  2. Andre L.

    I think that, where space warrants it, the best theoretical solution would be to have inner city areas that are divided among the very upper and very lower income brackets, embraced by a ring of major employment centers, with outer areas catering for middle class suburbs.

    As for calling 120m² apartments big, I don’t think they are *really* what we’d call big. For a family of 4, it is fairly comfortable. For a couple, a tad on the roomy side. It is good to avoid cramped housing of 30, 40m² units without many floor divisions, just one bathroom for the whole house etc.

    • Alon Levy

      They’re not big by suburban standards, but by the standards of a city with high land prices, they’re pretty big. Especially since it locks out non-family households; unsurprisingly, a major focus of the protests is students, who can’t afford to live outside their parents’ places without having multiple roommates.

      • EngineerScotty

        The opposite problem of inner-city housing in places like Portland’s Pearl District, which is dominated by housing appropriate mainly for singles and couples

      • Andre Lot

        @EngineerScotty: If you have a neighborhoods that caters, for whatever reason, to people starting their careers, let alone students – all in: people who are less prone to stay at home and shop for large(r) housing -, you have space costing more.

        Indeed, if one calculates rent costs per area, one’d find that short of really upscale neighborhoods or particular situations, student housing is one of the most expensive (no surprise Universities in US have increasingly mandated-in-house residency requirements for freshman as university dorms are hugely profitable). Students are willing to share not only a flat but a room, and to trade more space for proximity to university or clustered areas with services/entertainment that caters for them (a factor that is exacerbated in US because it would necessarily requires a car to live in more rent/space affordable places in most college towns).

        To a lesser degree, non-family households of young professionals, childless young couples etc. also put the same pressures on a real estate market, and planners know that, So, instead of forbidding people to live in an area (which is likely to be illegal), they adopt zoning that caters for families.

        On an incidental note: I once lived in Laramie, Wyoming. More vast areas in the lower-48 only the deserts… Yet, in a small college town (pop. 32.000, 30% of them connected with the university), students could easily outbid any family for better housing. Indeed, when I lived there (up to 2008), it was rather common for parents to buy houses and rent them to their children + roommates, as the bubble never got there. So if non-family households can put pressure in a small place in the middle of Wyoming, it is no surprise it can affect markets like Portland, Seattle and the mother of all expensive housing in US, Bay Area.

  3. Mark Equality Branson

    You’re right that transit does run on the sabbath in Haifa – I think this has to do more with the traditional strength of Histadrut here, but people also claim that it’s because the city is more cosmopolitan (larger Arab population, lots of secular jews from the former soviet union, the Bahai, etc). I’m always amazed that Tel Aviv can’t get something similar organized, though I feel like it probably has a lot to do with the fact that the bus transportation there is all run by Dan, who cover the whole Gush Dan rather than just the city…thus including some substantially more religious areas than just TA.

    I think you do hit the nail on the head, though, in that there is a policy of encouraging extra-urban living as a political tool. Some of the more optimistic commentators are hoping that the rent protests will result in a reinvigoration of the Israeli left. It seems unlikely to me, just because the left is such a shambles now, but I suppose it’s possible.

    I’m told, and maybe you can confirm this, that there are no pro-tenant laws here like in the states – i.e. development of low-income and middle-income housing in new developments, rent control, etc., other than some for the haredi community. I’m not sure if that’s true, though, since I’m still primarily limited to english-language news sources.

    • Alon Levy

      I’ve heard of fleeting proposals to institute rent control in Tel Aviv in response to the protest, but nothing associated with any heavyweight politician. I forget whether it was just commenters on newspaper sites or also a lightweight politician. There’s nothing of the sort right now, at least not in the central cities.

      There aren’t any affordable housing rules for new private developments, but there’s subsidized public housing for low-income people, especially immigrants. The state-owned company responsible for this is called Amidar. Meretz’s Ran Cohen managed to pass a law requiring the company to sell the apartments to long-term tenants at a discount, but the Knesset keeps postponing implementation.

      I really doubt this will lead to any leftist revival. At most, the social and economic power within the left will shift away from kibbutzim and toward cities.

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