Ghost Towns

by Brian on June 7, 2007

in In the News,Only in Israel

We recently learned that a neighbor in our apartment complex is trying to sell his flat, identical in size and layout to ours, for 50 percent more than we paid for our place two years ago. While this is certainly good news for the value of our property, it’s bad for the neighborhood. It means that essentially the only people who’ll be able to afford to move in will be those from overseas and these days that means, more often than not, absentee owners from North America and France who only come twice, maybe three times a year during the Pesach, Sukkot and Rosh Hashana holidays.

Now I don’t mean to dis anyone wanting to support Israel and stake his or her claim in the Holy Land. But unlike in some parts of the U.S., where space is king and having an acre of property with no other houses in sight is ideal, Israelis actually like having neighbors. It’s not just that we don’t have the geographic expansiveness to support mile after mile of single-family houses; it’s that we enjoy living in close proximity to each other. It supports our local infrastructure – the myriad schools and shuls and community centers within walking rather than driving distance.

Having too many absentee owners has already turned certain neighborhoods, particularly in Jerusalem, into virtual ghost towns, empty most of the year. It happened most famously to the luxurious and over-priced David’s Village, just outside the Old City – only 20 percent of the property owners actually live in their homes year round, a resident once told me.

There are scores of new developments popping up around Jerusalem, all claiming to be more exclusive and elegant than the next. The Jerusalem YMCA sold off a huge parcel of land to transform into real estate. Who can afford those apartments? Not the people who actually work in Jerusalem. They live in the outskirts of the city, in places like Pisgat Ze’ev and Tsur Hadassah, where they are forced to take public transportation to the city each day or else – more likely – private vehicles which clog the roads with more and more cars. Any look at the ever increasing traffic jams in the city will tell you that residents aren’t by and large walking and biking to work.

The trend is not just limited to David’s Village or the YMCA project. Already, there are four units in our complex that stand empty most of the time and a new building springing up across the street will reportedly be 50 percent foreign owned. I should point out, so as not to be too contentious towards potential immigrants, that it’s not foreign ownership per se that I’m against (after all, I’m an oleh myself); it’s just owners who don’t live in their flats year round.

“Yes, but what’s so terrible about not having neighbors?” my friend Bob asked me as I was lamenting the current state of affairs. “I wouldn’t mind having a little peace and quiet from the people next door to me.” On a personal level, his argument makes sense: all this proximity can be a bit much at times especially when late night parties by rowdy teenagers with thin shared walls mar the Shabbat evening solemnity.

A talk by Allen Ledden, an urban planner from London, at a recent parlor meeting to bolster the Sustainable Jerusalem Coalition, an offshoot of the local Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), provided some insight. Ledden described how London, one of the most expensive cities in the world (even more so than beleaguered but ever popular Jerusalem), has fallen afoul of the same demographic disaster, its inner city devoid of affordable living space for the firefighters and clerks and taxi drivers who actually work there.

An area with an over-abundance of absentee owners can lead to an increase in crime and drug use, Ledden said, and even homelessness (any look at the downtowns of major American cities will confirm this). Furthermore, empty apartments don’t contribute anything to the local economy. They don’t support area restaurants or photo shops or electrical supply stores.

But how can you stop developers from selling to the highest bidder? That’s how the free market works, isn’t it? If there are hundreds of buyers ready from Teaneck who want to be my sometimes neighbor and are willing to pay a premium, how can we stop that?

A look at London suggests it’s still possible. A new consciousness for “environmental sustainability” is slowly emerging. Its basic tenets are that unless we as a society take into account more than buildings and arnona, our cities will become unlivable and will further contribute to their inevitable decline. London, as a result, is now trying to grapple with its own empty apartment syndrome by promoting mixed use projects combining office, residential, and commercial functions, and mandating that 50 percent of all new construction in the city must be affordable housing. So far, Ledden conceded, the numbers have been more like 20 percent. But it’s a start at least.

Could the same thing happen in Jerusalem? Part of the success of London’s invigorated urban planning involves fostering more of a partnership with the public. No plans can be approved without input from the people who will be affected by it.

But Jerusalem is not known for such “transparency” in city planning. The SPNI’s victory earlier this year over the “Safdie Plan” which environmentalists claimed would have built tens of thousands of unnecessary housing units in the Jerusalem Hills (perhaps more affordable but still far from the center city), took years of wrangling through a highly opaque bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, it starts from the top: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is currently being accused of buying an apartment for $300,000 under its market value in exchange for granting favors to a building developer. Similarly, can anyone in Jerusalem not wonder whether the massive Holy Land housing project near the Malcha Mall – which once was intended to be a tourism center with a large public park – was not accompanied by massive bribes that filled either personal or city coffers?

Still, there may be hope yet for Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post reported several weeks ago on how the city in 2005 took a time out from its massive development plans in the northwestern neighborhood of Romema. The area, which has been an ugly panoply of empty lots, junk yards, small factories and repair shops, had been rezoned for residential housing and parceled up between developers with no coordination whatsoever. The city realized that by working together with local residents they could create a much more livable environment, with green areas and community services. A master plan was created in 2006 and has since paved the way for similar initiatives in Givat Shaul, Beit Hakerem and Rehavia. If the city can think proactively about its future in these neighborhoods, maybe it can do something about ghost town developments elsewhere in the city.

In the meantime, my personal battle against the ghost town-ification of Jerusalem continues. If you know anyone who’d like to be my neighbor, and who would like to live in that apartment year round, please do have them drop me a line:

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