Public Housing

Although Israel is a developed country in the OECD, it remains a very unequal society. Financial stress and the lack of public housing make the lives of many Israelis very difficult

As we read about the Exodus from Egypt, we learn that the Israelites slept in tents as they wandered through the desert. The tent, or the family home, was as crucial to their survival as was the manna provided by God.

Today, ensuring that every family can afford a roof over its head is just as crucial. Yet in Israel, 37% of families who rent are forced to pay over 40% of their income towards that rent – a figure eclipsed only by Greece and Spain among the world’s industrialised economies. This leads to significant financial stress with many other ramifications for families.

In this video, Shatil director Ronit Heyd discusses Shatil's efforts to improve access to public housing in Israel.

Hagit is a young Jewish mother of 5 from Be’er Sheva. Her monthly income of ₪3,500 (A$1,300) needs to support a family of seven, placing her within Israel’s lowest income band and under the official poverty line.

Making ends meet is a daily struggle for Hagit. During her pregnancies she had to forgo certain medical tests that were not covered by the public health service. All her children suffer from either slow development or anaemia.

Hagit and her family should qualify for public housing. Yet for years she has been stuck in limbo, forced to pay high private market rents.

Hagit is not alone. Due to chronic under-investment by successive Israeli governments since the 1970s, by 2014 there were approximately 2,500 families on the public housing waiting list, with a further 30,000 recent olim also meeting the eligibility criteria. People are forced to wait up to a decade to gain access to affordable public housing.

In attempt to address this chronic shortage, Shatil, the social action arm of the New Israel Fund, established the “Forum for Public Housing”. The Forum comprises 10 civil society organisations dedicated to social equality.

The first step was establishing cross-party links within the Knesset. By bringing together representatives of “Yisrael Beitienu”, representing Russian olim, together with “Shas” and “Kulanu”, representing Sephardi and Mizrachi Israelis, the Forum succeeded in preventing the government from repealing the 1998 Public Housing Law.

This law enabled long-term public housing residents to buy their homes at subsidized rates, and should have re-invested the proceeds into additional public housing stock. However, over the years some ₪2.7 billion from these sales had gone into general government coffers and were not re-invested into building additional public housing. Hence the chronic shortages.

Thanks to pressure from the Forum and its Knesset allies, the government agreed to not repeal the law and to build an additional 700 public housing units.

Hagit has now moved into a public housing unit in Be’er Sheva and is much better placed to look after the health and nutritional needs of her family. Though this is undeniably a victory, there is still a long way to go to further reduce the backlog of Israelis waiting for access to public housing.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When Israel was established, it provided a strong safety net for its poorer citizens. However, as in many Western countries, this has been eroded through economic reforms. What could Israel do to ensure that the disadvantaged have better access to state resources and support?
  2. So much of Israeli politics – and conversations in Diaspora communities – revolves around the issues of peace and security. How can Israel re-focus on other important issues, such as public housing and health? Are there any issues that should be ‘off-limits’ to Jews in the Diaspora?
  3. Over the last couple of decades, the Israeli government has prioritised investments in housing in West Bank settlements, rather than in peripheral communities in the Negev, or Galilee. Do you think settlements, some of which may be evacuated under an eventual agreement with the Palestinians, should receive priority government assistance, or this should only be reserved for communities inside the Green Line?