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Haaretz sheds some light

by michael January 31 2008
Municipal news

It's hard not to notice when you're walking through downtown Jerusalem: even though it's the mercantile center of the city, crowded and bustling all day long, downtown is dotted with dingy, dimly-lit stores that seem to be a relic of decades past, empty shops selling dusty trinkets nobody ever buys, dilapidated shoe stores full of the fashions of two decades past, and grimly utilitarian haberdashers. Sure, these stores provide a glimpse into a more austere era of Israel's history, but how on earth do they stay open? Haaretz did a report on the matter, and the answer may surprise you:

Shneor Simcha, 57, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, owns 3,000 square meters marked for development in the Davidka Square area. "We have 20 protected tenants, old people who brought our generation up. The merchants here have laundries, office-supply stores, watch-repair and barber shops, but they barely make a living. They can't leave because they would lose the property. So we're all stuck."

The tenants have no interest in renovating their space; they can't afford it anyway. Simcha would like to expand, improve and bring in new tenants, but he can't. So he hasn't even bothered to try negotiating with developers. "I could cry," he confesses. "I see the development of the square and it's so beautiful, but if no solution can be found, none of it is worth it."

It's the city's responsibility to rejuvenate the city center and bring in fresh purchasing power. It is also true that the "protected" stores are often not very alluring, with displays that go back decades. Their doors are old, their windows cracked and grimy, and they may have faded wallpaper that was stuck on decades ago. Plus the signs: "Sale, only NIS 10."

"On Nahalat Shiva, Havatzelet, King George and Jaffa Streets you have these tiny businesses, irrelevant to today, run by people in their 80s. Some don't even bother opening up, or the shopowners just go there to turn on the light, to prove they're still there," says attorney Eitan Parnass of the Movement to Strengthen Jerusalem. "How can it be that in the heart of Jerusalem, stores just don't open? What do tourists think?"

The landlords are helpless. Most of them belong to families that have been in Jerusalem for generations, or at least decades. Back in their countries of origin these were families engaged in banking, commerce, law and real estate, and when they immigrated, they bought land in central Jerusalem. They couldn't have imagined that come the new millennium, they would be trapped in a time bubble while the rest of the city evolves - all because of protected tenants.

This is a problem dating back to the British Mandate and it's nationwide, but the absurdity is all the more obvious in Jerusalem, where the authorities are spending billions on improvements and infrastructure, but can't touch these dilapidated, neglected properties.

How bad is the problem? Bad: 30% of Jerusalem's stores are held by protected tenants who pay ludicrous sums in rent - as low as NIS 200 a month. The tenants are trapped, too: The moment they leave the landlord can repossess the property. They can't change a thing or renovate without the landlord's permission. 

The article goes on to describe how the tenants of these antique properties are demanding what amounts to extortion to free them up for development.

It's a thorny issue, of course; the shopowners have a right to use their property for whatever they want, and nobody should be able to compel them to sell against their will, but the proliferation of cheap and/or dilapidated stores in the downtown area, which has been undergoing massive renovations in order to appear more modern and appealing, undeniably degrades the city's aesthetic character (not to mention its economy).

These are the kinds of problems that city governments are meant to find solutions to. But in Jerusalem, of course, the municipality is too busy covering its rear for its bounty of other mistakes... 

Do any Jerusalemites out there have any ideas for what to do about the property squatting? 

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