Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, has launched a campaign against the “ghost flats” in the city, owned by Jewish tourists who use them for a few weeks a year and leave them empty for the rest of the time. City Hall is trying to persuade the owners to rent the flats out to young couples.
Last week, Mr Barkat sent a personal letter to 9,000 flat owners in which he described the consequences of having so many empty homes in the central neighbourhoods of Israel’s capital.
“An empty flat… means less buyers in the local shops,” he wrote, “less children in the schools, less clients in the neighbourhood café and, most important, less young families.”
According to Mr Barkat, the thousands of empty flats are “an accumulating damage to the city’s economy and the housing market”.
His request is that the owners rent the flats to students or young couples.
A flat in Jerusalem has become in recent years a favoured purchase for mainly religious families in Britain, the US and France. Many of these families already spend a large part of their holidays in Israel and see a home in Jerusalem as a sound investment.
Most of the flats are in the prestigious central neighbourhoods of Rehavya, German Colony, Talbiye and Katamon, in easy walking distance of central shuls and the Old City. House prices in these areas have spiralled way out of the reach of middle-class Israelis.
While City Hall is already setting up a website and a special agency that will facilitate the renting of these flats, many owners are perplexed by the idea.
“I understand the housing problem in Jerusalem,” says one property businessman from London, who owns a spacious penthouse in central Jerusalem.
“But Barkat is going about it the wrong way. If he is interested in providing housing for young families, the solution can only be reviving some of the old slums in the south of the city and building new projects.
“People like us buy these flats so we can come to Jerusalem as often as possible, a few times a year, it’s our second home. If we had students living there, it would defeat the entire purpose. We couldn’t kick them out every time we have a simchah in Jerusalem.
“To me it seems like gesture politics. Barkat is finding it hard to solve the housing problem so he is aiming
for a convenient target, wealthy foreigners.”
Another flat owner from Paris also disputed the economics behind the mayor’s proposal.
“We don’t just stay here for a few weeks each year,” he said. “Many of us have a significant part of our lives here and many restaurants survive thanks to our custom. We have all our weddings and barmitzvahs in Jerusalem. Kosher catering companies in Paris are going bankrupt because everyone is coming to Jerusalem.”