A Controversial Urban Development Program Divides Israelis

JERUSALEM — If all goes as planned, the aging 1960s-era apartment building where Yael Rockoff lives in Jerusalem with her husband and two young sons will be nearly demolished and rebuilt to current construction standards. Rockoff and the other five households will all receive bigger apartments in the revamped building, gaining at least one additional room and a balcony. And the massive project will cost them nothing.

Under a unique nationwide urban renewal plan, known by its Hebrew acronym Tama 38, developers in Israel foot the bill for reinforcing buildings like Rockoff’s against earthquakes and adding protective rooms to use during missile and chemical weapon attacks. They also often include perks such as balconies and elevators. In return, the developers can add more apartments on top of the buildings and sell those to cover their costs and make a profit.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says Rockoff, adding that the developer will also cover the costs of her family renting another home while the work is being done. Instead of six apartments, her bigger, revamped building will have up to 18. “And I will have a new apartment in a building that is not crumbling.”

But municipalities across Israel have raised concerns about the growing number of Tama 38 projects, saying they lead to increased population density without any requirements for increased infrastructure – such as parks, schools and parking spaces – and mainly benefit current homeowners rather than whole neighborhoods. The federal government seems to have received the message. In early July, it announced tentative plans to cancel the program, drawing a mix of backlash and praise.

Although Tama 38 has been around since 2005, the pace of such projects has picked up in recent years as real estate prices continue to climb. In 2018, the government approved plans to add 13,133 new apartment units in these schemes, up from 843 new apartment units approved in 2010, according to Israel’s office for urban renewal. The program, which leaves developers and citizens to negotiate most of the terms, is unique to Israel, says Nava Kainer-Persov, an architecture and urban planning researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Tama 38 is being carried out mainly in cities and neighborhoods with high property values, where developers can realize the highest profits on the new apartments they add on and sell, Kainer-Persov says. It’s not as active in many of the country’s poorer and more earthquake-prone areas or in peripheral regions within closer range of possible missiles from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.


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