How to Lower Housing Prices

My husband and I have been thinking about going somewhere with the kids for a night. My 10-year-old’s suggestion:  “I heard the tents on Rothschild are empty.”

Yes, the middle-class tent protests in Tel Aviv, about the high costs of property, have been interrupted and possibly abandoned in light of the terror attacks last week in southern Israel. It’s also a bad time of year with the kids on vacation and the beginning of school next week.

But the issues remain up for discussion. Haaretz reported on the first session of the Trajtenberg committee on socio-economic reform, where policy experts and members of the public can present their ideas—1100 people have sent in proposals. Everything is on the table including tax rates, education, and value-added tax.

This comment on housing caught my attention:

Dror Gershon of Merhav, an organization promoting urban renewal, said the country’s planning policy is “outdated, appropriate for Israel of the 1960s, when we had only two million people.” [MiI: We have over seven million now.] This policy favors small towns and population dispersal rather than big urban centers with high-rise building and leaves people dependent on private cars – which 50 percent of Israelis don’t have, he argued.

But correcting this problem requires no extra funds; it only requires changing the national master plan to favor high-rise building, he continued. “European cities have 30,000 residents per square kilometer,” he said. “Tel Aviv has 7,000 per square kilometer; the most crowded city is Bat Yam with 15,000; and the other cities have 3,000 residents per square kilometer.”

I’ve never understood why Israel allows so many private or semi-private homes, especially in the center of the country. Land and open space are our most precious natural resource, yet we allow developers to gobble them up. It seems odd for the government to release building rights so stingily, yet allow sprawling housing (relatively speaking, that is). Even here in Petach Tikva, an urban area near Tel Aviv with soaring prices, whole neighborhoods of semi-detached houses are being built.

I understand people’s preference for private homes, and I don’t blame anyone for taking advantage of the possibility. But encouraging low-rise building is terrible policy. It requires more roads and infrastructure, increases the amount of traffic and pollution, and puts more of a strain on public transit. The protesters have been complaining that they can’t find affordable housing near their jobs. Building up instead of out would help fix this problem. And it would help preserve some of our green spaces.

On a related note, a reader told me about an initiative to make cities less auto-centric: Complete Streets.

Now, in communities across the country, a movement is growing to complete the streets. States, cities and towns are asking their planners and engineers to build road networks that are safer, more livable, and welcoming to everyone.

Instituting a complete streets policy ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

Finally Lenore of Free Range Kids suggests asking whether our local streets pass the “popsicle test.”

In a recent post on his firm’s excellent blog, PlacesShakers and NewsMakers, Scott Doyon reminds us of the “popsicle test” of a well-designed neighborhood: If an 8-year-old kid can safely go somewhere to buy a popsicle, and get back home before it melts, chances are it’s a neighborhood that works. Note that there’s no planning jargon in there: nothing explicitly about mixed uses, or connected streets, or sidewalks, or traffic calming, or enough density to put eyes on the street. But, if you think about it, it’s all there.

Most Israeli neighborhoods meet the popsicle test, boasting a local makolet for picking up fresh rolls and milk daily. Our crosswalks have islands or lights or both, making them fairly safe for kids. Would building more high-rises mean that streets and neighborhoods will become less friendly for children and other pedestrians? I think that good urban design can go a long way.

Duodecagons and Traffic Circles

The Government Helps the Little Guy (Me)

Free and Inexpensive Family Trips in Israel



  1. I agree with all of the above. We need more homes, and we need to halt suburban sprawl. High-density neighborhoods are child-friendly in that they make it financially worthwhile to have a higher density of neighborhood shops and facilities. Thus your child’s popsicle is even closer.

  2. Thanks, Liz. Good point.

  3. I find it ironic that building up is viewed as a way to preserve green space. It preserves the notion that green space will be somewhere you go to visit, not somewhere you live.

    There’s no question that slash and burn suburban development is not healthy, but a properly planned suburb is much greener than a filthy city surrounded by open space. Perhaps if more land was open to building, private homes would be cheaper (suburbs is most countries are significantly cheaper than cities), and families who want to have a garden, or even a yard (and not the measly 1/2 dunam (1/8 acre) that’s standard in Israel, but some real property) would be able to do so AND afford the car required to get around.

    In many areas, cities tend to be associated with higher crime rates; is the child really safer?

    But overall, do you see more private houses now than there were 10 years ago? 20? 30? 40? It seems to me that most new areas are being built primarily with taller and taller buildings, whereas the older houses are ones built as cottages and villas. Perhaps you can say that the trend isn’t changing fast enough, but it seems like the trend is certainly the way you’re hoping for.

    There may also be demographic / geographic reasons to build out and not up.

    • Mike, millions in Manhattan have easy access to Central Park.The green can still be nearby. Not being able to afford the cars isn’t the problem–the problem is having to build more roads, and the attending traffic and pollution and parking lots that must be built to accommodate them.
      True that there could be other reasons for not building up, and that the trend now is changing. There are several towers going up here, but it is a very recent development.

  4. The new plan for the country was approved in 2005 – its called Tama 35 and it definitely promotes building much higher and preserving open spaces. But this is a trend that has been going on since the beginning of the 1990s, when Rabin’s government decided that no new Jewish communities would be built anywhere. The idea was not to use up more space and resources but rather to strengthen existing communities.

    Here’s a link to Tama 35, in Hebrew:

  5. I have to agree with Mike that most new developments today are huge 20 story towers. I’m not sure how high you’re thinking- 40 stories? Modiin was built as a combination of high and low rise apartment buildings and cottages. Buchman is almost all cottages and we currently fail the popsicle test miserably because I have no makolet within walking distance. OTOH, we have Dimri Tower which I think is 4 or 5 towers with 20 floors in each. I think that’s pretty high density.

    • I am seeing a few 20-story towers being built (saw a lot in TA this morning) but plenty of cottages too. Twenty stories is more than enough for me, not looking for 40. Just more than 6 or 8–and 3-4 is still quite common. Five 20-story buildings in all of Modiin is not very much–how tall is the average apartment building there?

      • Most buildings in Modi’in are only 3 or 4 stories high with 6-8 apartments per building.

        As much as I love Modi’in, I don’t think it’s a good example of urban planning! Most neighbourhoods do have local shops, etc. Although the situation has greatly improved in the 12 years since we moved here, the vast majority of people still leave Modi’in to work each day and the public transport system is not well thought out or coordinated.

        • I agree with you Annette that for a “city of the future” it was not very well thought out! Just the fact that they built a train station in the middle of town without a proper parking lot speaks volumes. I think Buchman is the worst example of urban sprawl- the length of the streets is atrocious, although at least they attempted to ameliorate the problem with cut-throughs and staircases. But the lack of shops is ridiculous- and the fact that there are homeowners who can bully the iriya to prevent services like ganim and shops from being built near them is the worst example of NIMBY. Maybe the next “city of the future” will be better planned.

          But at least they included some high rise buildings. They get points for that
          In any case, here is the home page of yad 1, that aggregates info about different building projects around the country. Most of what’s for sale is now in towers:

          • Abbi, I would think a gan is a good thing to have nearby. It doesn’t block air or light, being built low, and there are no parties at night. The downside is traffic and illegal parking during dropoff and pickup. I heard that powerful people in my neighborhood ensured that a local park would not get adequate equipment–it has one or two structures meant for little kids only. It’s true that teenagers hanging out in parks late at night create problems for residents.

          • You guessed it on the parking, although from what I can tell there are actually plenty of extra spaces around the proposed area for the gan. I think they don’t want the hassle of tons of people crowding near their house when they want to leave in the morning. And I think they just don’t want construction near their house. But the lot is standing empty, it’s zoned for a gan, sooner or later something will be constructed there.

  6. As a former Mahattan dweller who now lives in the ridiculous suburban sprawl of Modiin, I can’t agree with you more, Hannah. I’m also linking to my very favorite article that extols dense urban living: