NOTE: This post by Nitzan Tenami, originally published in the Hebrew in “HaOkets,” was written for a January 6th Knesset discussion. However, the discussion did not occur, and the question of which committee will take on the amendment remains unknown still.
IMAGE: Hebrew reads: “Orit Ahanna: Single parent of three, waiting nine years for aid that doesn’t arrive because of a clerical error. Where will I go and how will I pay?”
By: Nitzan Tenami
January 6th the widely-praised amendment to the public housing law will be brought to the Knesset committee. There it will be determined whether it will be discussed by the members of the Labor and Welfare Committee – the natural choice – or by the Finance Committee, which is likely to eliminate it for good.
Monday, January 6th, the Knesset committee is expected to decide which committee will discuss the amendment to Israel’s public housing law. The goal of the original law was to allow long-time tenants, most of whom are immigrants from Arab countries, to buy their apartments at a reduced price, so they, not only residents of kibbutzim and moshavim, can leave property to their children and help the next generation to break the cycle of poverty. The law also stipulates that the money that would be made from the sale of the apartments, along with additional funds to be invested by the government, will be used to revitalize public housing apartments and to ensure that the housing budget will remain at the level promised by the current law. This is part of the worldview that every country (depending on how much the country defines itself as a welfare state) must ensure that citizens who cannot purchase an apartment at market prices still have shelter and a place to live.
Like many laws oriented towards social justice, this law has been frozen in the Arrangements Law year after year since 2001 and thus not implemented in practice. The apartments, however, were sold, and of the proceeds – some 2.75 billion shekels – only 680 million went to the housing ministry, and not one shekel has been put towards the construction of new public housing. We thus find ourselves today with only 60,000 public housing apartments, which are meant to answer the plight of the 442,000 poor families in Israel. The sale of the public housing, which was planned as a sort of socially just revolution, actually sat well with the position of the Finance Ministry and the government of Israel, who sought to eliminate public housing and replace it with rental assistance. Rental assistance was preferable because it is just another typical government stipend, one that is (like all stipends) subject to constant erosion. It does not create a sense of security about one’s right to shelter, and helps push citizens in need of public housing to the geographic and social periphery. In this spirit, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Housing Minister Uri Ariel recently decided to “unfreeze” the public housing law and allow the sale of the remaining apartments, while changing the clause stipulating that proceeds will be used to buy new apartments and that the housing budget will remain the same.
The Knesset committee is now meant to decide which committee will hold hearings on the law, as the government pushes to pass the law to the Finance Committee while a long line of Knesset members from every party demands that the law be brought to the Labor and Welfare Committee. On the surface, there is no dilemma: the right to housing is a basic pillar in the social security system, which is responsibility of the Labor and Welfare Committee. The Finance Committee, on the other hand, is responsible for the national budget, taxes on foreign currency, and banking. If this is not enough, all one needs to do is read the official opinion of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, which states that “the transition of the Housing Ministry, and in practice the entire government, to the rental assistance policy is a serious blow to all those who are eligible and to those on the periphery.” Or one could simply look at the letter from the Israel Association of Social Workers to understand the far-reaching social and economic implications of this issue. The letter states: “In light of the fact that the government’s economic plan does not intend to solve the public housing issue in the next several years, we are forced to consider instructing the various agencies responsible for social services in this country that in the absence of any real solutions, that they might no longer be able to productively work with and care for those in need of public housing.”
Yes, but… the Finance Committee, where members of the coalition form a decisive majority, is a sort of executive arm of the current government. This is a committee that transfers funds casually from budget item to budget item, according to the Finance Ministry requests. This is a committee that will not view the public housing law as a tool to correct social injustice and as a way to enable government intervention in the property market, but rather as a way to take more money from public housing tenants and to invest it in projects that bring the government prestige and good PR. If the public housing law goes to the Finance Committee and not to its appropriate place in the Labor and Welfare Committee, the Knesset will be able to record in its minutes that it has taken another step towards the elimination of public housing.
Nitzan Tenami, of Rabbis for Human Rights, is a member of the Public Housing Forum. This article was originally published in “HaOkets.”