what really lies behind the housing shortage

Architect Dr. Ami Ran - Editor in Chief Architecture of Israel Quarterly

One doesn’t have to be a distinguished economist to know that the cause of the constant rise in the price of apartments in Israel, like other places, lies in the ratio between supply and demand. The immediate reasons would appear to be the geographically limited land as opposed to the consistent population growth, accelerated by a sharp rise in the divorce rate. Neither does one have to be an MK (better not in fact) to understand that hasty political statements, without understanding the rules of the game, only confuse people rushing then to buy flats, thus causing a rise in prices. 

It is by no means comforting that the housing crisis is not unique to Israel; progressive countries like The Netherlands, UK and Sweden have been dealing with it for years. In Stockholm, for instance prices are tens of percent higher than those in Tel Aviv, and the homeless are sometimes forced to live in a density of ten tenants to a unit, and in many cases, several apartments share one bathroom.


Construction costs are basically divided between production costs and the land price, which categorically depends on location. Evidence of this is the significant difference between the price of an apartment in Afula or one in Tel Aviv. Hence, neutralizing construction from the cost of land is likely to cause a significant drop in housing costs, provided that areas reserved for future generations are unharmed and, no less important - that parallel action is taken immediately to ensure that supply meets demand, which is in fact the subject under discussion here.


A conceptual competition initiated by New London Architecture (NLA) - a professional forum aiming to improve the architectural situation in London - has rated the top ten ideas for resolving the housing shortage by neutralizing the land factor. Although the rules of the game differ there, the shortage is the same and we can undoubtedly adopt some of their ideas to burst the real-estate bubble here too.


Patrick J.A. Massey, CZWG suggests locating and buying up neglected urban spaces to build rental apartment blocks. Mapping available areas in town may, they believe, ensure such a solution could produce approximately 630,000 rental housing units owned by the municipality, while the demand forecast over the next decade is less than 480,000 units in greater London. Even if this assessment is exaggerated, a solution of this kind could be helpful with regard to the housing shortage and, consequently, improve the face of any city.


Bill Price from WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, suggests building residential towers upon every public building in the city, ranging from hospitals to schools and libraries. The buildings are already owned by the public, have green areas and even facilities that for part of the day are not even used. A shift in thinking enables one to neutralize the area factor, without increasing the rate of density.


HTA Design LLP suggests increasing the density rate on suburban outskirts by implementing mixed uses. If the process is done with community involvement, it is likely to reduce dependency on entrepreneurs who are granted excessive building rights, thus aggravating suburbanization.


Natasha Reid Design suggests expanding municipal involvement in urban housing construction as part of the East London renewal plans. The district is similar in character to south Tel Aviv quarters, such as the Hatikva and Shapira neighborhoods, as well as significant parts of Jaffa, which benefit from the existing urban fabric, not to mention proximity to the beach, currently utilized only for luxury buildings.


Baca Architects suggests learning from the past and encouraging the construction of floating houses on the Thames and sub-channels winding along for 50 kilometers. We may not have a Thames, but the overall length of the Yarkon is 28 km, the distance from Tel Aviv to Netanya. Such a solution could give young people an opportunity to live in a private house, while creating an un-oppressive continuum between Tel Aviv and Rosh Ha-Ayin.


David Kroll suggests conditioning the selling of state owned land on the construction of affordable housing. If we adopt the idea for land owned by the Israel Lands Administration, a large number of the luxury towers could have been inhabited by ordinary people, rather than by the super-wealthy upper echelon.


GL Hearn from Capita Real Estate maintains that the use of only 4% of the green belt surrounding London along the M25 could supply the entire metropolitan housing demand by 2050. A by-product of such an action may be the halting of the suburbanization process, while limiting the spread of construction towards agricultural areas. Leaving aside the fact that this would make real estate agencies like Capita richer, it should be noted that in Israel no effective action is taken to stop the creeping annexation of agricultural land, since the municipalities themselves encourage construction by real estate developers - and the last thing that interests them is affordable housing.


Brendan Cuddihy, Arup, and Rupesh Varsani, Craigewan claim that proper public transportation to distressed neighborhoods would increase their attractiveness, draw stronger populations, thereby reducing real estate pressure on areas in demand. This is not a new solution, of course, and it has proven itself in many parts of the world. However, Israelis have not as yet realized the potential of public transport, which to this day consists of clumsy outdated buses and trains.


Pitman Tozer, LB Enfield and Naked House suggest purchasing or expropriating plots or long uninhabited houses for the redesign of affordable apartments. Not sure that such action would be acceptable here, but something of the kind might.


DRMM Architects suggest reducing and shortening the construction process adopting conventional office construction methods - i.e., by only building core/envelope towers with basic infrastructure. This method would enable tenants to gradually design their apartments according to their ability and changing needs. A brainwave that would add human content to synthetic residential buildings and give residents a real sense of home.


There is no doubt that not all these ideas could be implemented either in London or Israel, but clearly a judicious adopting of some could flood the apartment market with affordable housing and neutralize dependency on sophisticated real-estate agents whose sharp eyes are fixed on the rapidly diminishing available land. In this way, it would be possible to ease the enormous social gap between the owners of luxury homes, home-renters with no economic horizon, and young couples who go into debt for a lifetime just for the sake of owning something.


As for construction costs themselves, here are some worthy ideas:


Self acquisition groups could reduce construction costs, allowing a great deal of industrialized design and construction, not to mention prior filtering of neighbors - not a marginal factor that in time saves headaches and troubles. But, beware the entrepreneurs who take over, promising mountains where there aren’t even hills! 


This is the place to urge Local Authorities to waive all unnecessary architectural whims, such as tiled roofs, decorative artificial stone walls and arches, just because some unimaginative amateur dreamed them up fifty years ago in Kfar Saba, or Kfar Bara…


However, although it may sometimes seem unnecessarily annoying, implementation of building permits with regard to details - particularly those that seem unnecessary - saves expensive maneuvers and unnecessary fines.


Problematic plots in terms of topography or site are not necessarily disadvantageous. It obliges architects to think harder for creative solutions that ultimately prevent unnecessary gimmicks and tricks in favor of creating architectural interest. 


In general, never save on planning. Architect’s work hours are the cheapest yet most effective element in the construction process.


In this context: Avoid shortcuts when implementing work plans; someone has invested his soul in them. If necessary, contact the architect who will do this for you. 

Use recognized construction materials, even if they are more expensive, they will return their value very quickly with easy maintenance.


Hire only registered professionals. Moonlighters are not cheaper, they are just moonlighters.


Define your needs precisely and implement only necessary details. All the rest might prevent future development.


Never re-invent the wheel. Building technologies that have passed the test of time are not necessarily banal. They save the use of ridiculous and expensive experiments.


Don’t refrain from using second hand items: they inherently add patina to your synthetic building, and no less important - a contextual connection to the place.


And apropos place - anyone who feels they have to live near the beach, must note that harsh weather conditions render building and its maintenance more expensive.

And finally, refrain from over using fashionable elements; they lose their appeal in time.