Today's blogpost was written by Madeline Black, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion.
When the state of Israel was founded, an onslaught of immigrants posed a challenge to the new state: where would everyone live? The solution was to build quickly instead of well, forgoing sturdy infrastructure to house as many people as possible. Now, despite efforts in the 1980s to renovate and create better housing, the buildings of Ramat Eliyahu show a lack of upkeep and no longer meet safety regulations. Many would not withstand earthquakes and lack a regulation bomb shelter that would provide safety from missile strikes.
Pinui Binui is a national urban renewal project that has taken place in various cities in Israel. The local project in Rishon LeZion is the largest Urban Renewal project yet. The municipality controls the project and has placed a Pinui Binui building in the middle of the neighborhood, near the commercial center and the matnas (community center). Here, we met Dudi, the man in charge of the project in Ramat Eliyahu, so he could explain the project’s purpose and goals and answer our questions.
The municipality’s plan involves relocating a large amount of Ramat Eliyahu residents to other neighborhoods in Rishon LeZion. As he describes it, the project aims to tear down what he calls “train buildings,” apartment buildings that are long, four stories tall, and have several different entrances reminiscent of a train compartment. These buildings, which make up a significant portion of the neighborhood no longer meet national safety regulations and are the remnant of hastily built infrastructure.
A 'train' style building in Ramat Eliyahu, many of these buildings do not meet national safety regulations.
In this plan, owners of apartments in train buildings would be given “a key for a key”. In exchange for giving up their apartments, they will get an apartment in another neighborhood. The contract with the builders allows for 30% of the new apartments to go to current residents of Ramat Eliyahu, while 70% are sold at market price. The new homes include a balcony, elevator and additional space.
Dudi explained that there was a significant social aspect to the project, specifically the integration of residents of Ramat Eliyahu with other Israelis attracted by the “up- and- coming” neighborhood. Although renters in the neighborhood would need to find alternative housing as they do not receive the “key for a key” benefits or the other benefits, like legal aid, that come for home owners, Dudi stressed that this project focuses on renewing the neighborhood, even if a few individuals are placed in uncomfortable positions. The municipality works with a social worker from Ramat Eliyahu to train residents for changes in the new neighborhoods. Issues with trash, and cultural differences, such as the tendency of Ethiopian residents to dry peppers in the sun, would be discouraged in the proposed plan where Ethiopian residents are integrated with newcomers. According to this plan, residents of Ramat Eliyahu would get a five- year break on fees and taxes associated with the bigger and newer living spaces. After this, the residents are on their own.
Dudi told us that one of the challenges that was holding up this project was the time it was taking to get residences to agree to this plan. They have been going door- to- door for a few years trying to convince residents to agree to relocate their lives. Besides reservations about moving, some residents have already signed contracts with entrepreneurs looking to develop the neighborhood for private interests. Though some are legitimate businessmen, some are dishonest and have convinced people to sign unrealistic contracts that will surely hurt them in the end.
While some entrepreneurs take advantage, others hope to improve the community. A week later we met Eli, a real estate developer who had grown up in Ramat Eliyahu, made his fortune in real estate development and returned to his childhood community seeking to implement his successful methodology in Ramat Eliyahu. He founded an office called “New Hope for Ramat Eliyahu”. The municipalities plan we had seen the previous week would disperse many of the residents throughout Rishon LeZion, dissolving the community that so many had worked to strengthen. Ellie hopes this will not be necessary.
In his past project, he had purchased a vacant piece of land in an older neighborhood, built a high rise on this piece of land, moved the residents of the older buildings in to these newer, bigger apartments, and demolished the older buildings to build even more high rises. The residents of the neighborhood were able to stay in the place they knew, gain improved housing, and he still made a profit.
The buildings in the back are the high-rises that will replace the 'train' style buildings in Ramat Eliyahu after Pinui Binui.
His plan for Ramat Eliyahu mirrors this. He found the only vacant piece of land in the neighborhood and built his offices next to it. In his plan, he claims that he can rebuild Ramat Eliyahu incrementally, first building one high rise, then moving resents of a few buildings in, demolishing these buildings, and building more, moving residents section by section. In this plan, he offers residents more space than the plan of the municipality would. Plus, all residents of the neighborhood would be able to stay in Ramat Eliyahu. He told us that he’s been having much more success having residents agree to his plan.
His plan, however, stands in opposition to the plans and agenda of the municipality. According to Eli, the Municipality does not stand to profit as much from his plan as they do from their own.
Then, there is the issue of whether the municipality is interested in maintaining the community as it is or if it would prefer to disperse the community across several neighborhoods in Rishon LeZion. The question of community rehabilitation comes up again and again. Would the people of Ramat Eliyahu have the tools they need to survive and prosper living among strangers of a higher socioeconomic status? Or is it in their best interest to maintain the community as it is? Does the municipality hope that breaking up Ramat Eliyahu will eliminate the problems of crime that typically come with areas of lower socioeconomic status?
As Eli puts it, a war is brewing between him and the Municipality. He claims he is prepared to give land and ideas for free if it comes to it, and right before we left his office, he showed us the signs he made for a coming protest. The signs call on the mayor to stop taking from the people, referencing the corruption charges that had resulted in the mayor being placed under house arrest earlier in year.
The competing interests and politics make the future unknown, but one thing is almost certain: in five years, Ramat Eliyahu will be unrecognizable. While several residents with whom I spoke were happy about the potential for improved infrastructure and a more attractive neighborhood, the increased costs associated with the changes will surely be a challenge for many families in the community. Both plans include rebuilding roads and heavy construction that will create traffic and inconvenience for several years while the project is underway. Families that have several members living in Ramat Eliyahu may be separated. The high rises, all which are a minimum of nine stories high, will create a much different aesthetic of the neighborhood than what currently exists. Some residents worry it will erase the authenticity of Ramat Eliyahu.
After living and working in Ramat Eliyahu for seven months, I wonder what will become of this neighborhood? What are the consequences for the community that many have worked hard to improve? Only time will tell if the municipality or the entrepreneur will win out and whose idea will succeed. The only thing that is certain that change is coming to Ramat Eliyahu.