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.