Saturday, March 3

"God bless this home"

On the wall of the dining room a framed, glass-covered painting still reads "God bless this home" and yesterday afternoon, indeed, a miracle happened.

Family dinners are normally a happy affair for this Jaffa family: children, parents, aunts, everybody gathered around the table. Delicious food, the latest story from the children's school, perhaps some neighbourhood gossip. A weird noise from coming above makes the father feel uncomfortable: "Something is not right". A gut-feeling. He shouts that every one should get up and run, NOW. And they do. A few seconds later the ceiling caves in. No one hurt. A miracle.

All furniture has been destroyed. The children's school bags are somewhere underneath the rubble of very heavy concrete slabs, stones and rusty iron support bars, that until yesterday afternoon made up the roof of the family's home.

The family lives in an ancient house in Ajami's HaMifras street, just off street nr. 60, or Kedem street, as it is called these days.

The home was owned by Amidar, a public housing company, who, so the father told me, "didn't bother to keep up and maintain the house". The father, although this is really the house owner's (Amidar) responsibility, put up concrete support beams outside and in the kitchen a few years ago after he realized the walls were coming apart. In some spots the cracks are so large you can actually see the sky through them.
The house is close to the sea and to Jaffa's harbor. It has a beautiful view. All around the house large new homes for the extremely wealthy are being constructed.

The story of Amidar's horrid maintenance policy is not a new one in Ajami. Many of it's old houses are literally crumbling down. The lovely old houses have been built with "kurkar" stones, a soft natural sandstone that easily crumbles due to the humid sea air. It needs maintenance and upkeep. The lack there of turns the homes over time into dangerous buildings. The high ceilings were constructed making use of iron support beams and when the roof is not regularly treated, the winters rains start finding their way in through the small cracks, thus creating an oxidation process in the thick iron support rails, which eventually weakens the ceiling's construction.
Amidar never did any of these things, which as owner, they should have done.

The heavy concrete coming down yesterday all but destroyed the family's living room.
A building safety engineer sent over by the municipality declared the whole building as unsafe and the ceilings as well as the walls of the other rooms may cave in as well, any minute. A social worker sent over by the municipality wanted to give the family of five (one of them severely disabled) 400 NIS to go and stay in one of Tel Aviv's rather seedy youth hostels for the coming three days. The family has nowhere to go. No insurance either.
Obviously a family of 5, one of them disabled, cannot find a place for three days (because of Purim the municipal welfare department will be closed tomorrow) even in the most seedy hostel in Tel Aviv with a mere 400 NIS. So much for the municipality's emergency treatment.

Some years ago, the family was offered to buy their house from Amidar. The program initialized by the government to allow inhabitants of public housing to buy their homes from the housing companies wasn't very successful in Jaffa. The reason being simple: the prices of the houses are way simply too expensive for Jaffa's poor and not so poor families. The gentrification process in Ajami has turned the smallest hovel into a potential millionaire's abode, especially if it has a beautiful view of the sea or the harbour and the prices went through the proverbial ceiling, literally sky rocketed.
A house developer offered to help the family buy their home, if they would give him, in return, the right to construct another 2 floors on top of the original one story. The family took up the offer, but the developer never started the construction, thus leaving the family in limbo. For seven years already.
Nor did the developer do necessary maintenance work. The family did whatever they could afford by themselves.
Now they are homeless.

They are not the only family in Jaffa.

Once upon a time, before 1948, Ajami was a wealthy neighbourhood, with beautiful, comfortable houses , constructed for people who had done well in the oranges trade. Jaffa had grown wealthy, its oranges exported through its harbour all over the western world as well as the Mediterranean, were the city's main source of income.
In 1948 Ajami became a barbed wire surrounded prison camp for the 3000 or so Palestinians who had not left for Gaza, Lebanon or the West Bank.
Quickly afterwards, poor Jewish migrants moved into the neighbourhood, sharing the houses with the Palestinian families still living there. In each room a family. Bathroom and kitchen were shared by all. Everybody was poor and the Palestinian and Jewish families shared what little they had. the mothers often becoming good friends, the children of all families feeling at home in each family's room.Over time Ajami's Jewish families started to move out, to Bat Yam, to Jaffa Gimmel and Daled, to Rishon leZion. Ajami became an almost Palestinian neighbourhood once more.

The houses were managed by Israel's public housing companies, Amidar and later Halamish as well. "Managed" is perhaps a grandiose word for what they did. In reality the housing companies did little else than taking the monthly rent. They didn't bother to maintain, and over time the salty sea air and humid climate took their toll: Ajami's beautiful houses became dilapidated, partially ruined.
Once the houses had been declared "dangerous", the original inhabitants were offered small public housing apartments in Jaffa's slummy housing estates in return for the houses they had often lived in almost all their lives. The houses were then repaired and sold for millions to wealthy Israeli's who had come to understand the true value of the lovely big high-ceilinged villas with a view of the sea. Ajami is undergoing a process of gentrification. House prices have rocketed and only the very wealthy can afford to buy a flat.
This leaves the local Palestinian as well as the poorer Jewish population with very little choice: they are simply forced out.

The lack of maintenance by the public housing companies pays off. Once the poor families have left the dangerous buildings, a quick restoration process starts and the buildings are sold for millions to those who can afford it.

Jaffa's poor are left to fend for themselves. This often results in "illegal" construction. People have no choice. Over the last few weeks, several Ajami families have been given demolition orders.
A well planned public and affordable housing policy can solve the problem. But it does not seem the municipality is interested in this.
They'd rather see the rich and wealthy take over. No one cares very much about the poor. And actually, it's not only the poor who are slowly being kicked out of Ajami.


J.P. said...

Even if they do not work according to it, there are rules of engagement for public housing companies.
Most ordinary people do not have the good friends or know the way but these rules under law will be available to all tenants.
The idea of a public housing company is to let the less fortunate live too in decent housing to a reasonable price, therefore these institutions have to work within the lines of these agreements, if not, they should like in your story have a problem.
By offering the money to the family they admit to be responsible.

By the way, how are things going on the cementary?

yudit said...

i believe the non-maintenance policy of the public housing companies in Jaffa to be part of a policy, aimed at pushing out the people they are supposed to serve:Jaffa's poorer and weakened Arab population.
I can not prove this, but looking at the reality of the housing non-maintenance, both in the old houses of Ajami as well as in e.g. the "Shem HaGdolim" public housing estate suggests it.
Once the situation has become unbearable, the young people want a solution. As they cannot afford this in Jaffa (except by means of illegal construction, which means demolition orders and loosing all) theywill start looking for other locations, perhaps moving out of Jaffa.
As it is very difficult for Arab people to buy or rent houses in Jewish areas, it often implies moving to Lod, Ramle or Um ElFahm, where many of the Jaffa families have relations.
Slowly but surely Ajami is turned into a place for the VERY wealthy. True, amongst those there are also a few Arab families, but they are a small minority. The poor as well as the middle class are moved out.
Some will say this is just "market economy" of the ugliest thatcherite kind. In reality there is un unequal struggle, in which the weakest are punished more than anyone else. The weakest being in Jaffa... you guessed it.

Anonymous said...

yudit ... do you prehaps have any pictures of the Purim Parade - Adloyada in Jafo on Friday ??

Luv to see them !!

Perdix said...

It's allmost the same story like with the indjuns in the US.
When someone would discover something valuable they again were shoved off to a more barren reservation.

hinks said...