Here's a startling fact: it’s more expensive to buy an apartment in Tel Aviv today than in Manhattan. The housing situation in the rest of central Israel is not much better – overcrowded and expensive – and well beyond the means of average Israelis, especially young families. Social unrest throughout the country two years ago added further voice to argue for greater economic and housing opportunities, and shed light on the ongoing struggle the middle-class experiences to obtain a better quality of life. The situation has been referred to as “one of Israel’s biggest political issues of all time.” So the question remains, where can young Israelis, who are contemplating the prospects for a better life, move?
The Arava Desert region is not the first place they would think of. Yet, Jewish National Fund (JNF)'s Housing Development Fund, comprised of a dedicated group of American Zionists and business leaders, is looking to attract people to move to a place that, for most Israelis, may seem to be the end of the world. This new initiative is part of JNF’s Blueprint Negev campaign, which was launched 12 years ago to help develop the Negev Desert in a sustainable manner to make it home to Israel’s next generation.
“There is a great demand for housing outside of central Israel and we have to provide alternatives for people to move from there to the north and south where communities want to expand,” said JNF Chief Development Officer Rick Krosnick. “The average person cannot afford to own a home in the center as it is an issue of supply and demand. The Negev is 60% of Israel’s land with only eight percent of its population. Our focus at JNF is to look at development in the south and north in a holistic way, and create new housing, job, education, healthcare and quality of life opportunities.” Be’er Sheva, once a small backwater town in Israel’s South, is now undergoing exceptional development. As more and more ambitious projects for Be’er Sheva come to fruition, JNF and its partners have expanded their efforts to include Central Arava, an arid desert region considered the most remote part of the country. As you descend the winding road from Dimona to the Arava Valley you may well wonder how anyone could survive in this barren environment. Located between the towering Edom Mountains of Jordan and the hills of the Negev, much of Central Arava is still pristine wilderness with dramatic natural beauty. Then you catch sight of the greenhouse communities, iridescent in the winter sun, a signal that you have entered the “Silicon Valley” of Israeli agriculture. Comprised of five agriculture moshavim (cooperative agricultural communities) and two other communities that focus on tourism and services, all together, only 830 families – 3,300 residents -- live in the region. While there may be a lack of natural resources, industry, and employment opportunities, the primary source of income for area residents is sophisticated agricultural practices that yield impressive results. The region’s 500 farming families produce an astounding 65% of all of Israel’s fresh vegetable exports and 13% of its cut flower exports, despite an average yearly rainfall of a mere two inches. With the advancement of green thinking and sustainable practices, the local eco-tourism industry has taken off in recent years. Currently the Arava region’s 300 tzimmers (bed & breakfasts) are often fully booked and the number of tourists is increasing all the time. If you’re seeking a quiet scenic refuge with great expanse within Israel’s borders, this is the place to explore. All seven Central Arava communities, as well as the Reform Movement’s Kibbutz Yahel further to the south, have goals to expand. “We have a lot to offer here, and people would love to come to live here if there were smart solutions to the housing and jobs issues,” said Noa Zer, Arava’s regional council development director.
But, though there are waiting lists of people genuinely interested in moving to the Arava region, the communities don’t have the capital to develop the physical infrastructure (water, roads, sewer, electricity) for new residents to build homes.
|In Ein Yahav, overlooking a view of construction in a new neighborhood, |
Tete Degani, construction director of Central Arava, refers to housing plans.
Enter JNF’s Housing Development Fund, a plan to help solve the immediate financial and bureaucratic problems regarding the building process. Israeli banks won’t loan the money without collateral, but JNF is establishing a $25 million revolving fund to provide bridging loans to these communities to carry out the basic infrastructure so they can then start marketing residential properties. Once the lots are sold, the money will be returned and passed on to the next community.
Several members of the Housing Development Fund task force were in Israel in February on a working mission to check out the development of the plan and the possibilities for future communities. These are not donors who simply write a check for a particular charity or project. They are real estate professionals with considerable experience in the building trade who know what questions to ask. Jeffrey Schwartz, a builder from Philadelphia and chair of the Housing Fund, explained: “I’ve built more than 3,000 houses during my career and I use those skills and the knowledge I’ve accumulated to really be involved in the process. We have stakeholders back home who expect results and we’re performing our due diligence to deliver.” “This is a different perspective for me, as well,” said real estate developer Rubin Pikus from Manhasset, Long Island and Palm Beach, Florida. “I’ve been involved in projects here, like reservoirs and parks. But this fund has a ‘boots on the ground’ mentality. If you want to build a house today you have to have the right plan, permits and financial stability to carry it out. This is not always the way building in Israel has worked.” Pikus added that the housing project will help drive people to make the move to a place away from crowded urban centers. “I really believe this means saving lives,” he said. “It will bring people together to grow careers in agriculture and other professions. If this is something that can be productively and economically achieved, in the very near future, then why not give Israelis this opportunity?” Marc Kelman, a commercial real estate developer from Phoenix, Arizona, has been involved in JNF and Blueprint Negev for years. “We want to build a better quality of life for Israel,” Kelman said. “We’ve made huge strides towards achieving our goal of encouraging 500,000 people to relocate to the Negev. I’m amazed at the progress we’ve made. Be’er Sheva has developed beautifully and now we’re working on other outlying areas.” “Our focus isn’t just the Arava or the Negev,” said Joe Wolfson, an attorney from Philadelphia, who explained that the Housing Fund is for both the north and the south. “There are a number of good reasons why it’s important for Israelis to move to these areas. There are young professionals and successful Israelis who can’t afford to live in the center of the country. While they may choose to go abroad, Israel can’t afford a brain drain of the next generation of future leaders in technology, business and government. We must respond to the current socio-economic crisis and the obvious solution is to create new opportunities to ensure they remain in the country. Simply stated, what we’re doing is stepping in to help relieve the housing problem by creating new prospects for today’s generation to keep tomorrow’s firmly planted in Israel.”