People in Israel today are again asking whether the government should be involved in building public housing. Many recall the government's herculean efforts to provide housing for all citizens in the early years of the state. In this post, we recount some of the story of the Popular Housing (Shikun Amami) plan of 1951, a linchpin of those early efforts. (For further primary source material, see the ISA website.)
In the early 1950s, immigrants arriving in Israel were housed in immigrant camps and ma'abarot (transit camps). They created enormous demand for housing, which was already in short supply. Despite serious budgetary problems, the government spent large sums on public housing, mostly built by the Ministry of Labor.
In apportioning this housing, Minister of Labor Golda Meir gave preference to those in need and to immigrants over "private houses or other magnificent buildings on Mt. Carmel." This policy left much of the veteran population without proper housing and many young couples could not find a home. They complained about discrimination and the government's failure to help them. "I am a sub-tenant living in one room with no facilities at all, I cannot make myself breakfast or supper in the kitchen or even take a bath," a nurse wrote to the Ministry of Labor.
Surveying this discontent, the ruling party Mapai (Labor) feared that it would lose seats in elections to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, which were coming up in July 1951. And so in May 1951, the government decided on a program of public housing for all--the Popular Housing Scheme--which was rushed out on the eve of the elections. The government promised to build 48,000 high quality apartments in four years in all parts of the country, to be allocated by lottery among those in the worst housing conditions. 10% of the apartments were set aside for people who married during the program. The government would give the purchasers a mortgage of 700 lirot for 10 years.
Much publicity was given to the plan and it was very popular. Mapai's opponents attacked it as a political ploy and the press, except for the Labor daily Davar, called it "an election bluff." Ma'ariv editor Azriel Carlebach called on the public not to be seduced by the "deceitful" plan (a pun on the word "amami") and not to register for it. Labor countered by arguing that the scheme had become the target of the Right, "which has never approved of government building schemes which remove housing from the sphere of the 'free market.'"
As its opponents had warned, after a few months, the plan ran into trouble due to problems in finding suitable land and a growing shortage of building materials. Moreover, the government's new economic plan in 1952 caused a rise in building costs. The price of the apartments and mortgages were raised and many individuals cancelled their registration. The plan ended in 1955, helping only 13,000 families. Nevertheless, it served as the basis for later plans, which enabled tens of thousands of families to buy homes with government assistance.