Tel Aviv – Orly Weisselberg was looking to move to another apartment in Tel Aviv after her rent was hiked by 20 percent. But when the 29-year old branding professional stumbled across a Facebook event advertisement for a “tent city” protest over surging housing prices last Thursday on Rothschild Boulevard here, she started packing to join the demonstration.
“I can afford [the rent increase], but I decided enough,” she said. “I was so upset that I felt like I needed to do something. Then I saw that [ad], and it was like, bingo.’’
Within three days, what began as a modest encampment on Tel Aviv’s showcase thoroughfare touched off a media frenzy and national discussion that has turned up the heat on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the country’s ballooning real estate market. On Tuesday the leader of a key coalition ally threatened to withdraw from the government over the housing prices.
The demonstration on Rothschild touched a raw nerve, spurring similar tent protests in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Sderot and Kiryat Shmona in the north.
The tent city on the boulevard was a miniature mix of Woodstock and Hyde Park. Set against the backdrop of the Habima National Theatre cultural complex and flanked by noisy traffic in the summer heat, the crowd listened to bearded settler advocates while bearded bohemians splayed out on old couches and strummed acoustic guitars.
Drawing inspiration from Egypt’s revolution in February, demonstrators hung a spray-painted sign declaring the tent city “Tahrir Square/Habima.’’ Amid a double row of camping tents lining either side of the leafy boulevard, there were signs declaring, “I want a house, too’’ and “The economy is free. And you?’’
As reporters mingled with the protesters, passersby debated with speakers and tent city residents about the ills and cures for Israel’s high-priced housing.
“Thank God that we have reached this day,’’ said David Gant, a former Housing Ministry aide from the ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak. “The state of Israel is growing and the government doesn’t allow enough building to keep up with the pace.’’
Indeed, one of the major gripes of the demonstrators is that Jerusalem has not provided enough affordable housing for the middle and working class, a shortage Netanyahu has acknowledged.
Demonstrator leaders readily admitted they lacked the expertise to offer concrete solutions, and one organizer took Gant aside to ask for advice.
Critics cited the almost circus atmosphere and lack of specifics in the demands of protesters. But that wasn’t troubling to the hundreds of young Tel Avivis who pitched tents.
“I think I’m going to sleep out under the stars for a couple of nights,’’ said Arsenio Cooper, 28, with a Simon and Garfunkel standard playing from his iphone.
“The Woodstock atmosphere is confusing,’’ wrote Sami Peretz, a columnist for the Haaretz business section. “Is this a protest of the spoiled, or rather of distressed young people who serve in the army, study, and live in the big city but can barely get by? You can ridicule someone who decided to pitch a tent on the sexiest street in Tel Aviv, but this protest has a solid socio-economic backdrop.’’
According to a Knesset report from October last year, apartment prices surged 32 percent in the three-year period ending midway through 2010. For residents of Tel Aviv the rise was nearly double, and for Jerusalem residents the surge was 48 percent.
The surge in housing has been driven by average annual growth of 4.4 percent over the last seven years, and a sharp drop in interest rates that made investment in real estate more attractive, according to Shlomo Maoz, the chief economist at the Nessuah Zannex Investment House. In the cities, prices have gotten an extra push via foreign buyers looking for second homes or rental properties.
In an effort to combat the price rise, Netanyahu has discussed programs aimed a cutting down on red tape to encourage the Israel Lands Authority to speed up approval of new plots for builders.
He called on the tent city participants to come to the Knesset to protest against the “insane” bureaucracies that prevent real estate planning and marketing. He promised to introduce legislations this month that will clear the way for up to 100,000 units over the next several years.
The Bank of Israel, meanwhile, has issued new regulations to make mortgage loans stricter.
“What you are seeing are people who are spending more than 50 percent of [their income on] housing. These are mostly people without kids, who are living in Tel Aviv,’’ said Emily Silverman, a lecturer on urban planning at Technion University.
She asserted that if change does not come, Jerusalem is “going to be a city of only the rich, the haredim, and Arabs. The middle class is leaving in droves.’’
As tent cities spread to other urban cities on Monday, the debate moved to the Knesset where the parliament’s economics committee held a hearing on the issue while the plenum heard a no-confidence motion on the topic of housing.
After midnight on Rothschild Boulevard, young men and women were still out and about, gathering in guitar circles, drinking beer, talking economics and about lofty – yet vague – concepts of government transparency.
“I am amazed by the people, the organization, the unity,’’ said Ofer Carmel, a 26-year-old media student who was helping to coordinate a satellite rally in northern Israel.
Some passersby were not impressed, saying that just like the student protestors of decades past, lofty idealism might be oversimplifying a complex issue of housing.
“This is Woodstock on Rothschild. I’m skeptical,’’ said Shai Yanovsky. “The real problem of high real estate values is more complex than they present it.’’