Mose Apelblat

Tel Aviv, a city that devours its inhabitants?

Haaretz has reported that three homeless men in Tel Aviv died during the stormy and cold weather in in December last year. According to an editorial in the newspaper (December 26), Tel Aviv municipality opened its emergency shelters for homeless people only after it was instructed to do so by the social affairs ministry. Then it was too late.

In his op-ed (Haaretz, January 2), the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, did not address the question why the city had to wait until instructions from the ministry to open the shelters. Instead, he chose to explain why the city has installed public benches divided by a table as if this was the main issue.

Does it indicate a wider problem of neglect and indifference to homeless people in the city? We see them every day sleeping in the streets and very seldom someone seems to care about them.

Huldai estimates the number of homeless people in Tel Aviv to 1,300 but this is probably an underestimation. He claims that homeless people are attracted to Tel Aviv from the rest of the country as if they had the strength to relocate to the city after becoming homeless in another town.

Even if that would be true, it doesn’t relieve Tel Aviv from its responsibility. Are there sufficient shelters for them in Tel Aviv? Apparently not. It would take a tragedy to happen for the city to react and open a new shelter and renovate an existing one.

Homeless people are utterly destitute and many suffer from mental problems. With no place they can call their home, some have become addicted to alcohol and drugs to survive in the street. No-one in his right mind chooses voluntarily to sleep in the street with no possibility to take care of his hygiene, exposed to the heat in summer and the cold in winter, and the indifference and scorn of passers-by.

The closed shelters or lack of shelters for homeless people illustrates a wider problem of housing in Tel Aviv. The city has become the most expensive city in the world where ordinary middle-class people cannot any longer afford to buy or even rent an apartment.

Another problem and hazard is traffic. Tel Aviv is probably the only city in the world where pedestrians risk being run over on the pavements by e-scooters and bicycles.

Contrary to other big cities in the world, Tel Aviv allowed Airbnb to operate without any restrictions, thereby squeezing out available apartments for rent. In some neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv, Airbnb accounts for 10 – 20 % of all rental apartments.

Even during the coronavirus crisis, with no tourists coming to Tel Aviv, these apartments have not returned to the market. It remains to be seen if the problem will be resolved by new rules as promised by the new government.

Tel Aviv published some years ago a model contract for fair renting of apartments. However, without national legislation on tenant protection, as in other socially-minded countries, it is mostly ignored by landlords. They continue to devise their own contracts and raise the rent every year, forcing tenants to move every few years.

In that respect, Tel Aviv seems not to have changed much since the mandate period. As a visitor to Bialik House in Tel Aviv can discover, Bialik, the Hebrew national poet, was well aware of the problem in the 30-ies. In a document at display in the villa, he denounced the greediness of the inhabitants in Tel Aviv and their attitude to new immigrants looking for housing.

“I feel in this hour the signs of a malady in Tel Aviv and the Yishuv in general, above all in its attitude to our refuge brethren from the disaster in Germany and other countries. Instead of caring for them and prepare a place for them, we exploited their disaster for greed…we raised the rent of apartments and stole their last pennies.”

It’s about time that Israel legislates about tenant protection, long-term rental contracts and social housing.

About the Author
Mose Apelblat is a journalist and former official at the European Commission with a professional background in public auditing in Sweden and Israel. He writes about current EU and Israeli affairs from a European perspective. Born in Sweden to Holocaust survivors, he co-authored in 2019 a book on the second generation in Sweden and the memory of the Holocaust. He made aliya in 2015 and is engaged in a project to replace Israel's dependence on fossil fuels in the transport sector by an electric road system charging e-vehicles when driving.
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