Commentary Magazine

Israel Grapples with Its Housing Crisis:
The New State's Number One Problem

For the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have poured into Israel since the new state came into being, the Promised Land has too often turned out to be only another crowded “temporary” camp like the crowded “temporary” camps of Europe. How is Israel progressing in the effort to get its new citizens out of the camps and huts and mud-houses in which so many of them are forced to live? Will Israel become a land of slums? What hopes are there for homes for the homeless in “the Jewish homeland”? Charles Abrams, whose articles on housing problems in the United States have appeared in COMMENTARY, the New York Post, and other publications, offers a constructive report on the dimensions of Israel’s housing crisis and the plans being made to surmount it. 



“My golden dream fulfilled would be a small table,” an immigrant in an Israeli camp told this writer. “For eight years we have eaten with thousands of others at long tables—four years in a concentration camp, three in a DP camp, now a camp in Israel. My children have never known what a home is.”

In that camp alone there were 5,000 victims of Israel’s housing problem. In Europe or America the housing problem means overcrowding or slums. To Israel’s immigrants, it means homelessness and idling in camps for months; it means sharing a tent with eight others, standing in a long line three times a day for a meal. It means the steady deterioration of ambition and hope on perhaps the most inspiring frontier in the world.

When the writer visited Israel last July there were 90,000 people living in such camps. Two-thirds of them had been there at least four months; one in four was forced to remain seven months or more. About a third of the camp population were children.

Conscious of the waste of manpower, the cost of maintenance, and the growing despair of the inmates, the Israeli government recently initiated a program called hopefully “Operation Homestead.” Some of the camps were abandoned and the total population of the others reduced to about 40,000. Yet Operation Homestead has not meant homes for all those who were sent away from the camps. Their tents were simply moved to other sites and set up in smaller groups, or else the newcomers were turned loose by the thousands to fend for themselves in the already overcrowded cities. In the Judean hills, little hutments are being hastily erected next to the tents to shelter the Yemenites from wind and cold. The government knows these hutments are really unfit for human shelter and hopes they can be used later for livestock. In the meantime immigrants continue to pour in, intensifying the already serious shelter problem with each shipload.

The effects of Israel’s housing problem are visible everywhere. Existing rooms in the cities teem with people; privacy is the exception; slum conditions are common and spreading; what was originally intended as temporary shelter is now accepted as permanent. Everything with a roof or canvas top is put to use. Though more than 30 per cent of Israel’s budget is assigned to new-home building, hardly a token beginning has been made.



In may 1948, when the Israeli population numbered 650,000, there were only 300,000 rooms (excluding kitchens). Since then the population has more than doubled. When Iraq elected to permit her Jews to leave, it meant 80,000 new immigrants in about a single year. Now that Rumania has released her Jews, some 300,000 additional immigrants will eventually have to be housed. The Jews in Hungary and the other countries behind the Iron Curtain, together with those in Egypt and Syria, total hundreds of thousands more. Israel has no lumber, steel, or plumbing, and lacks the currency with which to buy them. She is ineligible for aid under the European Recovery Plan. There has been no time to develop a real mortgage-financing program, to train skilled labor, to plan new communities rationally. If Israel now receives these additional hundreds of thousands of immigrants, as she proposes, how can they be provided with shelter without vast aid from new sources?

Israel would have been facing even greater difficulties but for the mass exodus of Arabs just before and after the recent conflict. Though many of the homes they left were hovels, these did shelter the first 140,000 immigrants. Israel then supplemented this with a housing program that, in relation to her population, shattered all current records elsewhere. At the peak of the 1949 building boom in the United States, for example, the total of new housing units amounted to 2½ per cent of the total number of families. Israel’s 28,000 new dwellings in 1949 attained a ratio at least five times as high as that, and her program for 1950-51 is expected to be 12,000 units higher still, in order to accommodate 150,000 persons! Yet these record figures will avail little against the existing backlog and the unceasing influx of immigrants. Nor do they tell the story of the kind of housing being built.

Under the British Mandate, the Jewish Homeland, with few exceptions, followed a policy of orderly development. But planning principles and standards have now had to give way to urgency. Most of the new “permanent” houses look like little corncribs; in space and amenities they constitute slums from the day they are completed. Their only saving feature is the open spaces between them. Some officials insist that many of the immigrants are accustomed to such low standards. But slums once built dominate the pattern of a country for generations. Nor are the effects of slum life confined to the families for whom the slum dwellings are first built.



Kfar Iona is typical of many similar developments now in process. Built for 140 families, it is a semi-agricultural settlement with its houses rented to settlers. The land is not crowded as in the cities, but the average house is a hut consisting of a bedroom and “kitchen.” The kitchen equipment is a cold-water faucet and a drainboard.

Another type of house, less than 200 square feet in area, is cropping up in the “Eshkol Settlements.” These are built by the settlers themselves under the supervision of Levy Eshkol, who is the supervisor of agricultural settlements. Mr. Eshkol hopes they will be expanded later when circumstances permit.

Another program, for Oriental Jews, consists of grim little buildings, each with a single room, kitchen, and shower. Each house covers 300 square feet, less than one-third the British standard and only half the size of America’s substandard “Economy House.” (This is an “advance” in size over housing previously built, some of which covered only 160 square feet.) The toilet is an outhouse. But the elimination of amenities permits the cost to be held to I£470 ($1,316—the Israeli pound is worth $2.80). Twobedroom houses costing 20 per cent more are assigned to very large families, but it is not unusual to find families of seven or eight herded into the smaller units. All too many of the “homes” now being built are not places for living but crammed dormitories.

The overcrowded families in Israel look resourcefully for some way to meet their space needs. Sleeping porches, made of old packing cases or cement, are added by the occupants. Someone will attach a rickety shed for his tools. Another will line an outside stairway with old boards to shelter chickens. The absence of interior laundry and storage space is reflected in dozens of big tin laundry basins hanging on nails hammered into the new apartment walls. The bulging and bustling café life of Tel Aviv, reminiscent of the Continent, is at least partly owing to the absence of living space. With no room for dining or entertaining in a home crowded with beds, the café has become the master living room of Tel Aviv family life; there a whole evening is often spent over a cup of tea.



The primitive homes dotting Israel’s countryside fortunately have not as yet marred her principal cities. The new Jerusalem, with its buildings of sun-baked native stone, its magnificent approach through the hills, and its landscaping, has not been affected. Stone houses, however, are no longer built because of the exodus of Arab craftsmen. Nazareth, though badly crowded, has remained virtually unchanged through the centuries. Haifa’s residential quarter on Mount Carmel overlooking the sea, planted with pines and reached by winding roads, is a splendid reminder of a less hectic period. Tel Aviv, however, has simply sprawled farther and farther since its founding in 1909. Originally planned by Sir Patrick Geddes as a perfect small city, the enormous increase in its population (it has doubled since 1936) has transformed it into a chaotic metropolis. The area to the north of Tel Aviv, however, has still been preserved unspoiled and offers hope for a planned expansion, while some newer cities like Ramat Gan bear evidence of good planning and have not yet been affected by the drive for housing-at-any-price.



Nor is all Israel’s recent housing substandard. Kiryat Avoda in Holon, for example, composed of one-, two-, and three-story buildings, is an attractive community, with a cooperative factory and a cooperative dispensary and supervised playground. It stands out in pleasant contrast to the long rows of unremittingly uniform apartment houses in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. There is also a community of 356 attached houses being erected in the Tel Aviv district, two stories in height with eight units to a floor, that combines economy with reasonable space standards. These houses sell for I£1125-I£1175 ($3,150-$3,290), but few are available.

The houses built by private builders have generally been of better quality than the current crop, but they are expensive, and the shortage of materials has reduced private operations. Even to rent a new private house requires the payment of a prohibitive amount of key money. Rent control coupled with inflation has sharply cut the value of the older apartment houses for the owners, while, for the tenants, the value of these same apartments has zoomed.

The builder is not to be blamed for high prices, for he pays dearly for labor and materials and never knows what his ultimate costs will be, or whether his job will be halted for want of a few precious nails. Public officials have brought pressure on him to improve his standards and to curtail his ventures in “luxury type” housing. The nature of Israel’s luxury housing may be gleaned from an advertisement in the Jerusalem Post: “For sale—luxurious villa—3 rooms, etc. . . . ”



There is a notable tendency in Israel to filter building operations through centralized public-aided corporations. The three main agencies favored are Amidar, Rassco, and Shikun Workman’s Housing Corporation. Amidar. was recently organized by the Jewish Agency, with 5 million Israeli pounds of public funds, to build housing for immigrants. From May 1949 to April 1950, it built 16,000 houses for sale or rental. Most of its recent output has been the primitive one-room houses with kitchen that were described above. A house costing I£1030 ($2,884) is financed with a I£350 equity payment ($980), a 12-year mortgage of I£500 ($1,400) and an additional shortterm loan of I£180 ($504). The rental cost of Amidar houses is from four to five and a half Israeli pounds ($11.20-$15.40) a month. Amidar hoped to float a large loan in America to expand its operations, but separate drives for funds are frowned upon.

Rassco now operates with a capital of 400,000 Israeli pounds. Rassco, which has erected apartment houses, also builds rural housing. It secures the land and buildings for rural setders who pay down 50 per cent of the cost. Keren Hayesod gives a mortgage for the balance. A Rassco rural house consists of two rooms, kitchen, and shower, all built on 40 to 52 square meters. Costs are about I£3,000 ($8,400) for an equipped farm, and include a maximum of six acres of farm land.

Shikun is a subsidiary of Histadrut, Israel’s politically powerful master-union, which besides controlling Israel’s working forces owns a string of materials factories and runs Solel Boneh, Ltd., the biggest building contractor in Israel. Functioning with a capital of I£810,000 contributed jointly by the Jewish Agency and Histadrut, Shikun builds mainly for Histadrut members, new immigrants, and veterans. (Housing is so much in demand that even the political parties have found it expedient to operate building corporations as a means of holding on to their supporters and attracting new ones.) House costs run from I£450 to I£1150 ($1,260-$3,220) and mortgages are 50 per cent of cost for ten to fifteen years, bearing 6½ per cent interest. For the average worker-member who earns 60-70 Israeli pounds a month, the monthly charges will average only 10 per cent of earnings compared to 20 to 25 per cent in other countries, but the down payment is two to five times as high, the standards considerably lower, and the chances of getting a house more remote.



An increasingly important factor in building operations is the government itself. Under Dov Givon, a burly, dynamic Israeli, the government program has picked up remarkable speed in view of its economic straitjacket. Givon, who is responsible to Golda Myerson, Minister of Labor and Social Insurance, reports that of 40,000 units planned for 1950-51, 30,000 were already under construction by midsummer.

Givon’s most optimistic program is for Beersheba, in the Negev. The approach to the city is through a long stretch of hot, barren land populated only by occasional trains of Bedouin tribesmen. Here a great pipeline is being laid that will transform sand into soil. A city of 9,000 today, it is planned to make Beersheba a city of 100,000, and Givon has already started a huge development of both prefabricated and conventional (handicraft) houses. The prefabrication operation is an elaborate one and by no means tested. A big cannon-shaped vessel is filled with cement and driven over to an immense square mold into which it pours its load; an enormous Tourneaulayer crane then lifts the 70-ton dried form and sets it onto the site. Then the second floor is poured and put into place above the first. About 150 such houses are being built initially, each containing four dwelling units, while 900 ordinary handicraft units are being built nearby.

In its desperate search for a solution, Israel seems to have become a laboratory for experiment with numerous types of prefabricated houses. There are several thousand pre-cut Swedish wood homes, with two adequate bedrooms and toilet, and ample kitchen equipment and interior space, but these cost I£1400 ($3,920) in foreign currency, and another I£1400 to put up. The building superintendents insist it is cheaper to build handicraft homes of similar specifications. There are also Israel’s own prefabs, modeled along Swedish lines, but smaller and more austere and with a common toilet for two families. These also require precious lumber and are being curtailed.



Israel could benefit from American knowhow and dollar investment, but Jewish builders in America have shown little interest. Hopes were once raised when the Levitts of Long Island, in a sensational frontpage story, announced a 25-million-dollar Levittown for Israel. The houses were to be 600 square feet in size (twice that of the current Israeli crop), with standard American kitchen equipment. The Levitts and the Jewish Agency were besieged by people ready to buy, many of whom would have put up dollars. But the announced plans proved abortive, and everyone concerned hopes the incident will be forgotten. The Levitts explained that they had needed, and asked for, three and a half million dollars worth of trucks and building machinery, and another nine millions of imported materials, but that Israel could not afford to allocate the dollar commitments. Alfred Levitt told this writer that the idea still has a “nostalgic attraction” for him, and he hopes something can be worked out. Israel has hopes, too, but at this moment they seem distant.

There are a number of experienced private builders like Leopold Schen, formerly of England and now director of Kereth, which built the garden city of Tiv’on near Haifa. But the only large-scale American builder in Israel is, curiously, a non-Jew named William Kretzer, builder of the recently completed million-dollar shoe factory in Jerusalem. A cautious builder with enough cash jobs to keep him busy in the United States, Kretzer found Israel’s pioneer spirit so challenging that he has devoted virtually all his time to it. The shoe factory, financed by an American Export-Import Bank loan and the equity investments of two private individuals, Nacham Habas of Israel and Joseph Sugarman of Boston, was completed in a record three months. Kretzer has built several other factories in Israel and is now contemplating a large commercial development financed by Joseph Levy, owner of Crawford Clothes, as well as a factory for the Bulova Watch Company. American architects and engineers design his plants before turning them over to Israeli technicians for local adaptation, and his specifications include native material wherever possible. The know-how Kretzer has brought to Israel in commercial and industrial construction is needed for residential building and materials factories.



A major bottleneck of Israel’s housing program is financing. Efforts to attract foreign insurance companies have not been successful, and there is no mortgage system in the American and European sense. There are no joint savings and building cooperatives like “HSB” in Sweden, which induce savings by offering to build homes for members; flotation of bond issues by local housing authorities is unknown. Except on some publicly aided housing, interest rates run up to 8 per cent or more, mortgages are short-term and are usually written for only 25-50 per cent of cost. The down payments required force cutting of standards and space even on the more expensive homes. Wages for skilled work are high, and since food and clothing are rationed, surplus savings accumulate. Yet savings and loan associations have been slow to grow despite the high interest rates offered. The inflation and the uncertainty surrounding the money situation are to blame, though officials also argue that immigrants are unaccustomed to savings deposits and prefer to put surpluses into tangible goods and land. Free money has helped zoom land prices. Recently, the 10-million-dollar Amun Israeli Housing Corporation was organized by American labor leaders to finance mortgages.

The persistent efforts of Israel’s city planning officials to raise planning standards in face of the housing department’s insistence on speedy production and reduced costs have also brought their quota of conflicts. Though the talents of competent city planners like Professor Alexander Klein of Haifa are available, the housing shortage has put an emphasis on the building of houses rather than on planned neighborhoods.

The housing and planning departments are under three separate divisions: the Ministry of the Interior, which supervises planning; the Ministry of Labor and Social Insurance, which supervises housing; and the Prime Minister’s Office, which is in charge of national planning. Some mayors insist on having charge of the program; the central government thinks the mayors inexperienced; while Histadrut and the political agencies have their own ideas about what planning and standards should be.

The planning division has sought to induce owners to exchange land needed for houses for other land of equivalent value, but is meeting resistance. It has also insisted upon more open space on private developments, and while under the law 25 per cent of private land must be dedicated for public use, it has sometimes been able to get as much as 40 per cent so set aside. Enforcement of height limitations, however, has proved more difficult. The builders get around the existing restrictions by putting up exposed vertical beams on the ground floor and starting the living quarters on the second story, thereby allowing for future enclosure of the ground floor. The buildings look somewhat bizarre and needlessly compel their occupants to climb an extra flight of stairs.

Another factor baffling the planners is the location of the new developments. Any aesthetic desire of the planners to see most of Israel’s new cities spread along the Mediterranean has had to yield to military considerations. Israel’s new cities must serve as outposts and garrisons of initial resistance in case of attack from the landward side. With the need to distribute population, housing, and industry over a wide area, plans call for placing 25 per cent of the new houses north and east of Haifa, 22 per cent in Samaria and the Sharon, 10 per cent in the Jerusalem area, 30 per cent in the South, and only 13 per cent in the Tel Aviv and Haifa areas. Thus 65 per cent of the developments are destined for sparsely settled areas. But the housing famine and the general tendency to crowd into cities, where opportunities for work are better, may ultimately defeat these plans. Israel is already one of the most heavily urbanized countries in the world in proportion to her population.

Much as housing experts might exhort this little hard-pressed nation to avoid the errors of older countries, it is difficult to see how she can escape a growing slum problem. The fact is that no nation, large or small, was ever able to prevent the emergence of slums under the pressure of mass movements of people. Just as migration to the cities during the industrial revolution created the slums of urban Europe, and the migration to America produced its bandboxes and dumbbell tenements, so Jewish migration must inevitably crowd Israel’s cities and depress the standards of her new neighborhoods below a tolerable minimum. Israel’s little huts will perhaps share the fate of America’s log cabins and tenements as a temporary feature in the growth of a pioneering nation. But the baffling problem is still how to hold the slums to a minimum, limit their effects, and plan to make more feasible the inevitable and painful second step of slum clearance and redevelopment when the time comes.



With her economic situation what it is, it is hard to see how Israel can possibly cope with her housing needs even on a primitive level without enormous outside capital. Making the problem doubly urgent is the fact that neither fields nor factories can be worked without simultaneously providing shelter for workers. Thus Israel’s whole economic development and future depends upon her ability to provide housing. Unless aid is forthcoming, Israel must curtail her immigration—which is an almost impossible decision because so many of the aspiring immigrants are “now or never” cases from the Middle Eastern and Iron Curtain areas.

In the 4-point plan by which Israel seeks a billion and a half dollars to meet her problem, a full 40 per cent is allocated for housing and incidental public improvements. For a substantial part of the total billion which Israel counts on from America, she looks toward grants-in-aid from our government. Certainly she would seem to have a most legitimate claim. The housing of Israel’s refugees would seem as much an American—or at least an international—responsibility as the housing of German refugees in the Western zone, for which the United States last year alone appropriated more than 60 million dollars of ERP moneys. What is the rationale by which housing is provided for refugees to but not from Germany? (Incidentally, some 40 percent of the building in the Allied zone in Germany is being devoted to theaters and luxury housing, some of it costing three times that of ordinary workers’ housing.) If the purpose of the American-sponsored housing program is to build up Germany against anti-democratic aggression, is not Israel also an important rampart? These are questions which press for an answer by ERP officials.

Israel’s housing program does in fact throw a new light on the whole ERP housing program abroad. If housing funds continue to be disbursed, then an overhauling of the machinery is due, with a separate agency set up to make the necessary loans or grants as well as to finance the production and distribution of materials. The operation should be tackled by experienced housing personnel rather than by men totally unfamiliar with the problem.

Of course the housing situation in Israel cannot wait on the rationalization of the ERP Housing Program. Aid from other existing official sources must be tapped, together with all possible help from philanthropic channels and bond flotations. But the long-term plan should be explored simultaneously. A program properly approached will be more extensive, effective, and cheaper in the long run.



By the same token Israel might well begin to relate her housing and city planning programs to her economic program, so that funds, however raised, will not be dissipated on needlessly costly or needlessly primitive homes. Home building will remain Israel’s most important industry for a long time, and it must be organized as such, with the construction of the necessary materials factories, the rational purchase and distribution of materials, the standardization of parts, and the most efficient organization of operations. A ministry of town planning and housing should be set up to overhaul the program and coordinate the now divided activities, as well as relate plans and specifications to national economic requirements. Such specifications should include use of the maximum amount of native materials, with serious efforts made to develop native products such as wall board and cement blocks. It seems a waste to expend currency on costly prefabricated houses when these funds can be more profitably used in the expansion of native factories to produce at least some of the building material locally. Similarly, sums raised in America might go further if used to develop materials factories rather than for buying materials abroad.

If the maximum amount of native material is used for exteriors and flooring, then roofing, plumbing, and hardware could be standardized either in Israel or contracted for abroad to fit the shell. But architectural planning, house building, and city planning should be related to economic planning and not function independently. The aim should be maximum space standards with the minimum of imported materials.

Little has been gained by experimental schemes like the Tourneaulayer operation. Dramatic as it looks, it saves neither time, materials, nor cost. Conventional houses are of better standard, are tested against the elements, while any breakdown in the elaborate Toumeau machinery would more than offset the 10-day time-saving claimed for the operation. So, too, Israel’s “expansible housing” program, which entails breaking the walls of existing houses for additions, is open to question. Too often it will be found impractical to expand houses not worth keeping in the first place. The Dutch plan, under which permanent two-family houses can be converted to one-family houses, suggests one alternative. There are others to be explored.

Space standards should be increased where this does not entail a disproportionate increase in the use of imported materials. Provision can be made for the addition of plumbing and other facilities in future years, but lack of space is the most difficult problem to correct later on.

A few additional amenities might be supplied without imperiling the economic program. Built-in closets of native materials can be provided, for example, if they thereby dispense with the need to buy a closet of imported lumber for each family. And if occupants are to provide their own sheds, porches, chicken coops, and other “improvements,” this will require wood and other scarce materials in any case, so these might as well be included in the original plan and at less cost in the long run.

Better planning of neighborhoods can be achieved by providing for playgrounds and open play spaces. Monotony can and should be avoided. The development of buildingand-loan cooperatives should be encouraged, and they should do building as well as lending. While private operations may have to be cut during emergencies, they should not be regulated out of existence or subordinated to the bigger public corporations. The building and contracting fields should be kept competitive.

To avoid delays and interruptions due to shortages of materials, no development should be begun until all the materials necessary for it are on hand or available. The many houses throughout Israel standing unfinished for lack of roofs impress one as a sad waste of effort, time, and money. Training should be given construction workers before they are assigned to a site, and Histadrut’s limited apprentice system should be expanded and a vocational training program launched in earnest so that a greater number of electricians, plumbers, masons, and other skilled craftsmen become available. Increase of housing supply should take precedence over the effort to keep wages at peak levels. Excessive cartage costs paid to the transport companies should be reduced to reasonable levels. In a situation as critical as Israel’s, institutional loyalties, however understandable, must give way to the larger interest.

All these difficulties may, of course, be overcome if the major problem of capital shortage is solved, but the program should be planned now, not left to chance. On whether Israel raises the needed funds depends her survival. On how she uses these funds depends her way of life.



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