Israel is adding apartments to the pool but can’t keep up with increasing number of eligible poor families
Over the last two years, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of families waiting for public housing, even though the Housing and Construction Ministry has purchased about 2,000 new housing units for the public housing system over the past three years.
There are now 3,698 households in the queue, according to Housing Ministry data being published for the first time, after the data was obtained by Yedid – the Association for Community Empowerment, in response to a freedom of information request.
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While in 2016 there were some 2,500 households waiting for public housing and in 2017 there were 3,200 households, so far this year the number has already jumped by 500 families. Over the past three years there has also been an increase of 20,000 households deemed eligible for rent subsidies; while in 2014 there were 145,000 families who were not eligible for public housing but were eligible for rent subsidies, by 2017 the number had grown to 164,909 families. These numbers do not include the 24,000 households eligible for housing assistance via the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, who are on a separate eligibility list.
During these years there was no change in the eligibility criteria for public housing, under which only families (including single-parent families) without their own home who have at least three children and receive income support benefits are eligible, as well as disabled people who have their own set of tough criteria.
The numbers show that despite the Housing Ministry’s efforts to add new apartments to the stock, the number of poor families meeting the criteria is increasing.
“We’re in a holding action,” said a senior Housing Ministry official. “We’re adding more and more apartments, but unfortunately the number of poor people in the State of Israel who need help is increasing and the number of eligible people is increasing even though more people got public housing.”
A second reason for the increase, he said, is that the ministry has “set up a telephone hotline through which one can ascertain eligibility, so more people are aware of their rights. Another reason for the increase in eligible people is that the exceptions committee is approving more cases and is acting with more compassion and a service orientation.”
According to Ran Melamed, the deputy director of Yedid, there has been a 13 percent increase in the number of requests submitted for public housing through the association’s offices compared to the same period last year. “Many people are finding themselves in financial distress because of the high cost of rental housing and the fact that there’s been an increase in the number of people working in relatively low-wage jobs,” he said.
Yedid further warns that if the Housing Ministry plan does not come to fruition, it’s going to mean a sharp increase in government outlays for rental assistance, since Housing Ministry regulations state that any family who is eligible for public housing but doesn’t get it automatically receives an enhanced, realistic rental subsidy that’s paid out until an appropriate apartment is found.
Since 2015 the Housing Ministry has purchased 1,926 apartments for public housing, after years in which almost no new units were added to the stock; in 2014, for example, only six apartments were purchased. At the end of July the government approved a plan by then-Housing Minister Yoav Galant that set an annual goal for adding 7,200 a year over the coming decade, for a total of 72,000 more public housing apartments.
To determine how to implement the plan, an interministerial team headed by Housing Ministry director-general Hagai Resnik was told to formulate recommendations within 60 days for increasing the housing stock and financing the program. The team is weighing getting the Israel Lands Authority to allocate land for public housing; allocating some of the Buyer’s Price (Mehir Lemishtaken) homes to public housing, having Amidar raise additional debt to purchase apartments and giving contractors incentives to build public housing.
Should this plan come to fruition it could be a dramatic change. According to official data, there are currently 53,255 apartments in the public housing stock, compared to 110,000 apartments in 1998, after public housing apartments were sold to their tenants at a rate much higher than the rate at which new apartments were purchased.
On Tuesday the Housing Ministry announced that it had closed its first offering for a Buyer’s Price project that includes apartments for public housing. The project, 1,259 apartments in Be’er Yaakov, includes 31 units for public housing. A Housing Ministry plan to allocate up to 5 percent of apartments in new Buyer’s Price projects to public housing was approved by the Israel Land Authority Council last year.
Those waiting for public housing are concentrated primarily in 10 cities; Jerusalem has the most people waiting, with 479 families, following by Netanya (241 families), Bnei Brak (193); Haifa (177); Tel Aviv (151); Ashdod (150); Bat Yam (117); Be’er Sheva (105), Beit Shemesh (104) and Ramle (100).
Anat Almualem, 40, and her three children, are one of the 21 families waiting for public housing in Yavne. They’ve been waiting seven years, during which her 11-year-old daughter suffered from cancer and her two sons were diagnosed with behavioral problems. Her oldest son is 17 and if she doesn’t get a public housing unit before he turns 21, she will lose her eligibility. She is a single mother who lives on 3,200 shekels ($876) in child support and a rental subsidy of 3,100 shekels.
“I am trying to subsist with three children on slightly more than 6,000 shekels; it’s a never-ending battle,” says Almualem. “For years we’ve been begging for public housing, so we won’t always have to be afraid that we’ll be thrown out of our home.” She says she is behind on the electricity and city tax bills and is struggling each month to make ends meet. “I have friends in my situation who are afraid they’ll have to turn to prostitution.”
“The government is ignoring and abusing a million citizens who cannot afford to buy an apartment and are having difficulty paying rent on their own,” the Public Housing Forum said in a statement. “The list of people waiting for public housing is only growing because the government consistently chooses to ignore the real housing problem of those who will never be able to buy an apartment  The people who make policy are leading us toward a social disaster. Israel is ranked at the bottom of Western nations in terms of percent of public housing; in Europe the average is 12 percent but in Israel it’s less than 2 percent.”