For a real mitz­vah, why don’t wealthy donors help bring af­ford­able hous­ing to “Jewish” ar­eas?

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - MIRIAM SHA­VIV

THE NEWS last week that Bri­tish house prices fell for the sec­ond month in a row in Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to mort­gage-lender Hal­i­fax, will be wel­comed by many first-time buy­ers. But per­haps Jews try­ing to get on to the prop­erty lad­der should not bring out the cham­pagne bot­tles quite yet. Many of the “Jewish” ar­eas in the cap­i­tal and in Manch­ester tend to be rel­a­tively af­flu­ent, and even if prices dropped by a whop­ping 25 per cent, Hen­don, Finch­ley, Edg­ware, West Hamp­stead or White­field will re­main be­yond the reach of many of our younger pro­fes­sion­als.

Un­for­tu­nately, this is not just their prob­lem. It is the prob­lem of the Jewish com­mu­nity as a whole.

The hous­ing cri­sis has clearly forced many sin­gles and young fam­i­lies away from the ma­jor Jewish ar­eas. Some of them have helped es­tab­lish lovely new com­mu­ni­ties — in Shen­ley or Radlett, for ex­am­ple. But oth­ers have dis­ap­peared off the Jewish map — liv­ing in ar­eas with­out in­ten­sive Jewish life, or aban­don­ing the search for af­fil­i­a­tion al­to­gether.

I am quite cer­tain that house prices are also at least par­tially re­spon­si­ble for the rise in Bri­tish Jews mak­ing aliyah — up by more than 50 per cent, to 722, in 2006. Bur­geon­ing mort­gages are surely a ma­jor rea­son why young Jews are not giv­ing to char­ity, as doc­u­mented by the JC last year. If you have no spare cash, is join­ing a syn­a­gogue go­ing to be your top pri­or­ity? And it is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that the high cost of be­ing Jewish — which now in­cludes the cost of hous­ing in Jewish ar­eas — is a fac­tor in lim­it­ing fam­ily size. House prices are cost­ing us as a group, and it is in the com­mu­nity’s in­ter­est to help young sin­gles and fam­i­lies find af­ford­able homes.

So here is a pro­posal for the phi­lan­thropists in our midst.

At the mo­ment, the way we build com­mu­ni­ties is to wait for enough peo­ple to move to a given area — and then pro­vide them with ser­vices. Shuls, schools and kosher shops do not open un­til there are enough peo­ple to sup­port them, and some­times (par­tic­u­larly in the case of schools) not un­til years later.

The prob­lem is that few peo­ple want to be pi­o­neers and live for years with lim­ited Jewish re­sources, in the hope that oth­ers will join them a decade down the line. So they end up stay­ing, fi­nan­cially stretched and stressed, in ar­eas they can’t af­ford.

The al­ter­na­tive is to pro­vide the ser­vices first. The peo­ple will surely fol­low.

What if some lead­ing donors in our com­mu­nity found low-cost-hous­ing ar­eas, within easy com­mut­ing dis­tance of Lon­don, Manch­ester and other Jewish cen­tres, and pro­vided seed money for com­mu­ni­ties there? Pro­vided grants to es­tab­lish new shuls (of all de­nom­i­na­tions), a nurs­ery and a school? Put in butch­ers, bak­ers and kosher delis, so that they could of­fer full ser­vices even if they op­er­ated at a loss, at least ini­tially? And of­fered young Jews in­ter­est-free loans to help them with down­pay­ments on their mort­gages; or of­fered them sub­sidised mort­gages for three to five years; or even bought homes and rented them to young sin­gles and fam­i­lies at be­low cost, at least for an ini­tial pe­riod?

Th­ese fam­i­lies could be cho­sen ac­cord­ing to fi­nan­cial cri­te­ria. Or per­haps they could be of­fered th­ese favourable terms in re­turn for a com­mit­ment to help build the com­mu­nity in­fra­struc­ture or run com­mu­nity pro­grammes.

Such a project is not with­out prece­dent. In Toronto, for ex­am­ple, the com­mu­nity is cur­rently in­vest­ing CAN$184m (£93m) — vir­tu­ally all of it raised from private donors — in build­ing a 50-acre com­mu­nity cam­pus in a huge new hous­ing de­vel­op­ment north of the city. The cam­pus will in­clude sev­eral schools and shuls, as well as an old-age home, a com­mu­nity cen­tre and of­fices for com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions. The sur­round­ing houses — which are still be­ing built — are al­ready be­ing snapped up by Jewish fam­i­lies who want to be part of this ex­cit­ing project.

Here in the UK, un­for­tu­nately, we do not seem to have the same kind of fundrais­ing and plan­ning in­fra­struc­ture, so it is un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect our com­mu­nal in­sti­tu­tions to put to­gether a sim­i­lar plan. But our phi­lan­thropists could.

The ma­jor donors in this com­mu­nity have al­ways been very gen­er­ous when it comes to giv­ing money to Is­rael, to our com­mu­nity’s char­i­ties, in­sti­tu­tions and schools. I’m not sug­gest­ing they aban­don th­ese cru­cial causes. But if they wanted to make a real, im­me­di­ate dif­fer­ence to thou­sands of young Jewish peo­ple, and have a di­rect im­pact on the di­rec­tion of our com­mu­nity, af­ford­able hous­ing is the key.

Miriam Sha­viv is the JC’s Com­ment Ed­i­tor

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