Photo: Ronen Bash
Raanan Shaked
Photo: Ronen Bash
Housing turning to real estate (illustration)

Searching for a home

Op-ed: How ‘housing’ turned into ‘real state’, and why Israelis can’t afford to buy homes

A few geological eras ago, my father decided to purchase an apartment in Haifa. He didn’t really consult with my mother; he simply returned home one day and informed her that they now have three bedrooms and a sea view. My mother asked how much, roughly, it cost, and my father cleared his throat, poured a glass of water to wake mom from her expected bout of fainting, and said: 49,000 liras.


I have no idea how my mother reacted – this mythological family tale always gets cut off at this point, when she yells at him: “You bastard! Because of you we can say goodbye to our plans for a northern Israel vacation or to ever paying the telegraph bill!” (we’re talking about the mid 19th Century here.) Yet in principle, the rest is history.


My parents took out some kind of mortgage and paid the bank back before it got dark. At some point, they even purchased a small Haifa apartment for me too, and for my brother as well. It didn’t happen because my parents were rich, but rather, because this is what middle class Israelis used to do for their children in that era: Buy them an apartment.


This wasn’t exceptional – just part of the basic Polish concern to ensure the kid eats well, doesn’t get cold, doesn’t spend time with punks, has an apartment, and gets married. Had I not gotten married myself, the parents would surely buy me a wife too. A Moldavian. It’s not too late, mom.


…and this is now


Two years ago, I decided to purchase a Tel Aviv apartment. I consulted with my dearest, both of us consulted with our loved ones, and everyone told us the same thing: We would tell you not to do it, but as you’ll be doing it regardless, at least we can say this right now – do it! Everyone does it. An Israeli who doesn’t own an apartment is like an Israeli without debt, a dying bank account, and a lifelong financial commitment. Don’t you want to be like that?


So we bought an apartment. That is, we didn’t actually buy it – we simply took all our money and gave it away, and in exchange the bank agreed to buy the apartment for us. In return, we signed a document where we agreed to hand over our lives to the bank’s full ownership, that my first name is now Kunta, and that my last name is Kinta.


At some point, between the period my parents could afford to buy an apartment or two and refer to one as “home” and the other as “for the kid” and the current era where we have no chance to actually buy even the first and last apartment in our life, Israel’s housing market turned into a “real estate market.” And the real estate market is in fact a slave market where all of us are sold when we reach partial adulthood: A market where at some point a white man will claim ownership on you for life.


From that point on, you belong to the bank. You work for the bank from dusk till dawn. You’re hereby invited to sing the blues, eat plenty of chicken and corn, and dream about the great escape, but you’re chained.


Incomprehensible sums

The apartment we purchased was only a little more expensive than a small northern Italy palace, and rightfully so, because at the end of the day we got something much more luxurious here: Three bedrooms in an asset that produces peeling kitchen counters, located in a desert war zone in the sweaty outskirts of the Middle East, or as a building contractor would phrase it: Prestige in the park.


The sum this apartment cost us, and will continue to cost us in the next 25 years, is neither high nor low in our view – it simply has nothing to do with us, our lives, the numbers we’re familiar with, or the ugly anorectic dwarf known as our salary.


The sum our apartment cost comes from a different world, from outer space; it simply landed in our backyard one day, we have no idea what it means, and we only hope it won’t try to exterminate us. We’re unfamiliar with such sums, we don’t work with them, and we don’t think in such terms – for us, it’s a green, five-headed thing that can be summed up, when we really make an effort to calculate the specific sum, as “tons of money.”


We have enough friends who couldn’t even get there. Friends who still do the economically wise thing – renting instead of buying – only to find themselves (once every two years) living on the homepage of a website called Homeless (how efficient it is that one of Israel’s largest housing websites guarantees in advance how it will all end.) And time and again they can’t believe that someone dares to ask (and get) $1,800 for a partly furnished garbage dump at the entrance to a central Tel Aviv building.


Meanwhile, Tel Aviv is currently preoccupied with ejecting its natural residents – the people who rented apartments there in order to live in the city but discovered that they cannot do both simultaneously . You other pay rent, or you live. These people are being replaced by luxury tower residents, an older, wealthier population group that promises to turn the city into a parking lot.


Basic human need

Yet this goes much beyond Tel Aviv; this is the whole of Israel, which turned housing into real estate and sold its residents to its building contractors, as if at the end of the day we are not talking about a basic human need here – living somewhere, calling some place home – rather than an entrepreneurial-piggish need to grow wealthy.


Housing in Israel – at least in the center of the country – is no longer attainable, and some people are making an effort to push it even further away from these smalltime naggers (what did you call them, clients? Tenants? Residents?) by making mortgages even harder to get. Now, even fewer Israelis would be able to reach the minimal sum needed in order to place an initial phone call with Olga from the mortgage department.


So if your ultimate objective is to make sure as many Israelis as possible don’t feel at home, ever, let’s go on with these moves. We’re moving in the right direction, and soon only foreign residents would be able not-to-live in apartments they actually purchased here.


Yet for most of us, home is where your apartment is located. And if you have no chance to get an apartment in your country of residence, it may mean that your country of residence is not really home and doesn’t want to be home.


We are still not fully digesting it: We may earn a monthly salary that is higher than what our parents made in a year, yet we will never be able to buy an apartment for our children like our parents did for us. Never again will we live in a world where the only bubble floats in your carbonated drink and not in the real estate section of the newspaper.


This is the case because en route from “housing” to “real estate”, someone left behind all those people for whose sake housing exists – that is, us – and the objective it all was meant to achieve – that is, a home.



פרסום ראשון: 07.25.10, 11:06
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