The Israeli housing crisis has been in the headlines for quite a while now. At the same time a different housing crisis has been taking place quietly, out of the headlines, for several years already: Cooperative kibbutzim cannot receive mortgages.
First, a brief history of housing in the kibbutzim. In the beginning, there was an unwritten deal between the country and the kibbutzim: “You produce our food, absorb our immigrants, and secure our borders, and we will make sure you have everything you need.” And so, until the 1980s, both sides kept their promises. Kibbutzim (and moshavim) produced much of the country’s food needs, opened successful factories that gave employment opportunities to development town residents and new immigrants absorbed directly into the kibbutzim, and nearly all the kibbutzim were built along the borders. The government made sure produce prices were high enough to provide a reasonable living, and, either directly or through the Jewish Agency, provided housing and funding for new enterprises.
This was not a perfect solution and certainly did not meet any standards of free market economics, but it served its purpose in the first few decades of the new state. But as time went on, the situation changed.
By the 1990s nobody “gave” houses to the kibbutzim. (Even before that, the kibbutzim received loans from the Jewish Agency; on the books Kibbutz Samar owes the JA NIS 1.3 million for 60 40-sq-m apartments built in 1975, and, like any good elephant, the Jewish Agency never forgets.) But the Ministry of Housing knew how to build public housing for people who could not receive mortgages on their own — the poor and the kibbutzim. Amidar built two neighborhoods in the kibbutz, which paid rent every year. The rent was counted toward an eventual final payment; thus in 2012 we bought 16 houses from Amidar. This is exactly the idea behind public housing: the government, which has access to capital resources, builds housing for citizens who don’t. They pay rent every year; part of this rent goes toward maintenance and part to replenishing the capital fund. After a certain number of years, the resident can buy the house. The government uses this income to build new houses, and thus continue the cycle.
But, while the public housing law introduced by Meretz MK Ran Cohen was passed in 1998, it was never implemented, passed over every year in the infamous “Omnibus Law of Arrangements” (“Hok Hahesderim” – the law by which the budget passed each year by the Knesset is ignored and a different budget is pushed in by the government. It was first introduced as an emergency measure by Peres when the country was in an economic crisis; it has continued since).
So why is this a particular problem for communal kibbutzim? No matter what our financial situation, we cannot get a mortgage. Technically, the problem is that the kibbutz does not own the land the house is built on, and without privatizing the kibbutz and passing ownership on from the Lands Authority to the individual family living in the house, the bank cannot give a mortgage. Also, on a more practical level, the bank does not see the house on a communal kibbutz as collateral — if the kibbutz doesn’t pay, the bank can’t sell the house. So communal kibbutzim can only take out a regular loan, with collateral unconnected to the house – preferably, cash. But if we had that much cash available, of course we would not need a loan!
The government, the Jewish Agency, and part of the Kibbutz Movement actively support the movement to privatize kibbutzim — that is, to transfer the land rights on the housing to individual families rather than to the whole kibbutz. This movement began about 20 years ago, after the kibbutz crisis that came in the wake of breaking the “unwritten agreement” I mentioned earlier. Older kibbutz members found themselves with no financial security, and their children were worried about finding themselves in the same situation as they grew older. This privatization is much more far-reaching than the decision of how a few hundred small communities decide to live. At this point, even privatized kibbutzim have kept the means of production communal. But with the privatization of home ownership, there is no longer a connection between living in the community and owning the means of production. In fact, as members of the official cooperative die or leave, replaced by homeowners unconnected to the cooperative, we will end up with exactly the peasant-landowner relationship Israeli agricultural land laws were designed to avoid: a few aging members controlling means of production (land, water, and dairy quotas, factories) meant to support a much larger community, with the work being done by low-paid workers.
Some of the communal kibbutzim are wealthy enough to finance their own building. Others use a combination of scraps from the Settlement Department and self-financing to build at a slower pace than we need. (My kibbutz got three pre-fabs. We paid for the infrastructure, and will pay rent for 20 years, with maintenance on us. From reading upside-down a list on a desk, I saw that the non-West Bank periphery received about 10% of the houses built by the Settlement Department in 2013.) At Samar, young families with up to three children live in 50 sq m houses, and we have a list of families waiting to come, but with no housing available. Others turn to privatization not because of a change in ideology, but because they have no other way to build houses for the next generation.
So the next time you read about kibbutzim selling off their land to private buyers, remember that many have no choice. We are not asking the government to give us houses for free, merely to guarantee our mortgages from the banks so we can build our own homes and continue to live according to our ideology, which incidentally keeps the means of production in the largest number of hands.