Atias's affordable housing criteria favor haredim

The Housing Minister has bypassed the government by submitting affordable housing eligibility criteria to the Israel Land Authority.

The Israeli government has avoided holding a serious debate about which citizens are eligible for aid for affordable housing, essentially turning its back to last summer's social protest. It was left to the Trajtenberg Committee to recommend an eligibility profile for affordable housing: the lower 30% of income-earners, adding that "priority should be given to people who exhaust their earning capacity and whose salaries are insufficient to cover the cost of housing."

Minister of Housing and Construction Ariel Atias has now effectively bypassed the government. On January 30, he will submit the issue of eligibility to a friendly forum - the Israel Land Authority, for which he is responsible.

The public's confusion about affordable housing plays into Atias's hands. The public confuses public housing, that is, social housing for the very poor, with affordable housing, for which there are two programs. The first is discounts for apartments in tenant price projects, and the other is discounted rent control apartments in future projects where rent will not exceed 30% of the household's income.

Current criteria for affordable housing aid give preference to the haredi (ultra-orthodox) community. The question is whether this preference will continue by adapting new criteria to fit the demographic and employment profile of the haredim.

Besides priority for the handicapped, a worthy measure by Atias, he will submit three other criteria to the Land Authority Council:

  • Military or National Service - 50% of affordable housing projects will give a priority of up to 20 out of 100 points to discharged IDF soldiers or people who have done non-military National Service. Atias is proud of this criteria, which was approved by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, claiming that it proves that it does not give preference to the haredim, but to soldiers.
  • Length of marriage - Atias proposes that points be given for length of marriage. Figures speak for themselves - haredim marry younger than secular Israelis. 93% of haredim aged 25-29 are married, compared with 47% of the overall Jewish population.
  • Number of children - Atias proposes that the number of points increase with the number of children in a family. Until now there was an absolute preference for families with four or more children. Even if Atias lowers the threshold to three children, it is clear who wins - 62.4% of haredi families have three or more children, compared with 36.8% among all Jewish families.

Figures show that at the average marrying age of a secular couple, the average haredi has already been married for six years and has at least three children.

The earning capacity clause disappears

What is conspicuously absent in Atias's criteria is the earning capacity criterion; in other words, the willingness to participate in the labor market pursuant to the accepted rules of the National Insurance Institute. Haredim vehemently oppose including this income criterion as a threshold criterion, or even as a priority criterion. The Trajtenberg Committee recommended that it should be a clear threshold criterion for price controlled rental apartments, and at least an important priority criterion for most tenant priced housing projects. The committee talked about a condition of 125% job per couple.

Atias recently presented data he claims to have obtained from the National Insurance Institute to justify omitting the earning capacity criterion. The data, based on a Central Bureau of Statistics income survey, purportedly indicates that, out of 540,000 households that do not own their homes, 160,000 households work less than the 125% job per couple. Atias therefore asserts that the earning capacity criterion would eliminate needy families from obtaining housing aid.

However, this presentation negates every Israeli social policy, which states that all types of aid is contingent on means, including National Insurance pensions, Housing Ministry rent subsidies, and even public housing for the poor. Furthermore, Atias's figure is misleading: the National Insurance review referred to the actual employment at a given point in time, not earning capacity. Therefore, anyone who is temporarily not working because of maternity leave or switching jobs is presented in the survey as not working. Moreover, any receiving a income support, a disability, old-age or other pension is considered as having 100% earning capacity.

The survey also did not consider households' capital earnings, which may be why households are eligible for National Insurance pensions, even though their income is less than income from labor. Another thing - if students, whose support from parents gives them full earning capacity, are excluded from the survey, only the haredim are left.

Correcting the National Insurance survey for this factors would undoubtedly restore the logic of means testing as an eligibility condition for affordable housing, but it is unlikely to persuade the haredi ministers.

Maimonides: Earn your living

The haredi community has the right to subsidized housing from the state to meet its needs, in proportion to its size in relation to the total population, and on the basis of equal criteria. Imposing criteria that favor this community contradicts the principles of distributive justice.

Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) wrote in his code of Jewish law Mishneh Torah, "Everyone who puts his heart to the Torah but does not work or earn a living defiles God and disgraces the Torah."

Atias responds: There is no discrimination

At a press conference today on the affordable housing criteria, Atias said, "A minister sometimes has to act against the interests of his constituents. No preference has been given to families with more than three children, and preference has been given to discharged soldiers. If 200 families are competing for 100 apartments, we will prefer couples with long marriages. There is no discrimination. Most families buy an apartment after seven years of marriage."

Atias added, "Models indicate that 67% of Israeli society are discharged soldiers. These are the people for whom it takes years to buy an apartment. To prevent discrimination against people who do not serve in the IDF, the Attorney General decided to limit the preference for discharged soldiers to 50% of tenders."

Atias asserted, "Only 8% of Israel's population are haredim. Haredim and they don’t want to live where secular Jews want to live. Please note where we are marketing land - 90% of the tenders for affordable housing are in secular towns. According to every simulation, discharged soldiers in long marriages is the winning combination. Social justice is for both the poor and the middle class."

As for excluding the Trajtenberg Committee's earnings capacity recommendation, Atias said, "The prime minister submitted the Trajtenberg Report to the cabinet. When the prime minister submits the housing chapter the cabinet, we'll know the answer whether the means criteria has been taken off the agenda."

Liberman threatens to bring down the government

Israel Beiteinu, the Shas party's partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, has slammed the new criteria. Israel Beiteinu chairman, Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman said, "This decision contradicts the promises and agreements reached with the Likud when the Trajtenberg Report was approved by the cabinet. We will insist that the commitments are honored, especially the written commitments. We have no interest in a coalition crisis, but we'll bring down the government and the Knesset to get the agreement implemented."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on January 25, 2012

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

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