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ISRAEL: Students protest soaring rent prices

_D3S2226 As the peoples of the region wage protests over rights and distribution of resources and power, young adults in Israel have also been taking to the streets in recent days. And they're staying there, they say, until somebody does something about the cost of rental housing.

In Tel Aviv, the only thing more scarce than legal parking is affordable housing. Coveted by students and many other young Israelis, the seaside culture and business hub is overflowing with people looking for a place to live. Buying is out of the question, and the cost of renting is as high as the flats are small and scarce. 

Last week, students took to the streets to protest the housing shortage and high prices, turning Tel Aviv into a huge campground as dozens of tents were set up, complete with makeshift facilities, kitchens and, of course, a lot of media attention.

Maybe it's that protest is in the regional air. Or maybe members of the usually blase public were emboldened by a recent campaign to boycott cottage cheese that succeeded in bringing powerful dairy companies to their knees and lowering prices. Either way, tent towns are sprouting up all over, along with demands for a housing solution.

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The government is paying attention. If the government doesn't bring down housing prices, housing prices will bring down the government, warned lawmaker Carmel Shama-Hacohen, chairman of the parliament's economic affairs committee. Meanwhile, protesters were handing out sleeping bags to passersby outside government offices in Jerusalem.

On Monday, the Housing and Construction Ministry announced a tender for the construction of nearly 7,000 apartments throughout the country. For the first time, a portion of these are earmarked for rental and will go to a bidder who agrees to regulate rent.

The solution isn't regulation, a Haaretz editorial said Monday, but supply. Although the new apartments are expected to take about three years to build, they are to be sold "on paper" by contractors and could start bringing down prices before they are completed, experts say.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to advance reforms concerning land, zoning and housing issues, but some distrust the moves, fearing that expediting bureaucracy will put more power into rich private hands rather than help the public. Netanyahu has invited the protesters to help him pass the reforms.

University students and other renters are suffering the end result of Israel's real-estate bubble, aggravated by a chronic shortage of available land for development and a pathological bureaucracy. The last big building boom was in the 1990s, after more than 1 million people immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Since then, projects have been piecemeal or largely up-market.

Critics of the protest suggested that students stop whining and leave Tel Aviv for the "periphery," as much of the rest of Israel is called. But the rest of the country is short on affordable housing too, and other citizens are joining the camp-outs spreading throughout the country.

Maintream and social media are abuzz with the protest that young citizens are hailing as a local brand of revolution. This isn't Tahrir Square, writes columnist Nahum Barnea, calling the protesters well-intended but all mood and no policy. Still, he writes, this and other public protests against prices of staple products and gasoline reflect a genuine distress among Israel's middle class, slowly but surely being eroded between salary freezes, price hikes and taxes.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photos: Images from the tent protests in Tel Aviv. Credit: Matty Stern

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