A New Precedent in Public Housing

Meital Cohen celebrated last week’s precedent-setting announcement that at least 800 apartments in Tel Aviv will be dedicated to people like her who need public housing. The new neighborhood, as big as a city, is to be built on the grounds of Sde Dov, the Tel Aviv airport that is in the process of being dissolved. The neighborhood will also include 2100 affordable housing rentals that can be rented for 3,000 NIS per month.

“This is a way for us to get out of the ghettoes (where most public housing is found) and live a normal life,” says Cohen, a divorced mother of six who grew up in run-down public housing. “A new generation will grow up there in a better environment, with better education. This is social equality.”

“Sde Dov is a success of the Public Housing Forum,” adds Cohen. “We worked very hard on this politically and in the field.”

The Public Housing Forum is a project led by NIFC-funded Shatil. “The Shatil staff who work with us are amazing people. Shatil and NIF do very important work.”

Cohen’s biggest fear growing up was the monthly knock on the door. “I was afraid when the day came my mother wouldn’t have the money to pay the rent,” she remembers. Indeed, she moved an astonishing 56 times while she was growing up.

“My mom worked so much I barely saw her and it still wasn’t enough,” she says. Her family rarely could make rent.

“In every neighborhood, every city, I had friends I had to leave, pets I had to give away. Every year, I had a different bed, a different room. People who grow up without a secure roof over their heads feel constant anxiety. We have trouble doing school work, forming relationships. It’s traumatic and it takes its toll.” Cohen says her fibromyalgia is a result of the traumas of her childhood.

As an adult, Cohen still lives in public housing. She describes crowded apartments that are falling apart, located in the worst neighborhoods, rent that is raised without notice, and a lack of responsiveness from the companies in charge.

“I looked for people who could help me, guide me,” says Cohen, “I found the Public Housing Forum. Today, I know that housing is a basic human right and Israel is obligated to provide it to its citizens.”

Cohen learned the skills she needed to help herself and got a better public housing apartment in Tel Aviv. Afterwards, she began using those skills – letter-writing, faxing, organizing demonstrations and activities, speaking up at public meetings, speaking to decision-makers – in order to help others.

Sde Dov is the last big parcel of land in the Tel Aviv area and with a view of the coast and plans for a marina that would service 500 yachts along with expensive apartments. There was a risk that only the rich would be able to live there.

The decision to integrate affordable housing into the Sde Dov redevelopment plan is the first time that the Israeli government has created housing opportunities for low income people in an in-demand area. This will lead to rare integration of rich and poor. It is the first concrete implementation of the government’s decision announced last week that five percent of all new building on state land will be dedicated to public housing.

Shatil, the Public Housing Forum, and Hagar Affordable Housing Center of Tel Aviv University (another Shatil project) have been lobbying decision-makers for the past several years about the Sde Dov site. Cohen also takes a more activist approach, organizing people to attend and sometimes to disrupt municipal meetings to call attention to their plight.

“This is my life,” she says. “I do public housing day and night. My apartment is like an office. At the moment, I have an evicted mother and her two children living here.”

She adds, “Every woman, every family that gets public housing, every law that passes, everything we get because of our struggle heals the wounds of my past.

“I want something to change in this country. Enough suffering. The Sde Dov decision is big but I hope it’s not just talk.”

The Public Housing Forum and the Hagar Center will continue to advocate around this issue to ensure that the decision announced last week will be implemented.

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