Center Field: Jerusalemites shouldn’t be afraid of ghosts

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-21-09

As summer begins, many of Jerusalem’s temporary residents are returning to their apartments. On King David Street, progress continues on three huge luxury developments, as if billions of dollars in wealth had not recently vanished.

If the past is a reliable guide, throughout the summer, various Israeli papers will publish stories about the missing residents in Jerusalem’s various “ghost towns.” Inevitably, the editors will run a picture of an empty street in the swanky David’s Village project. And all will tut-tut about the damage these absentee homeowners cause, with their empty apartments, abandoned neighborhoods and inflated property prices. Perhaps some politician will float another harebrained scheme to penalize these owners with burdensome nonresidents’ taxes.

This whole approach is wrong. Jerusalemites shouldn’t be afraid of ghosts. Instead, these owners should be welcomed, celebrated – and challenged to improve the city.

Let’s be honest, most people buying property in Jerusalem do not get much bang for their (very big) bucks. In the city’s real estate market, you spend a lot more than in most places, and get a lot less. People looking for nice vacation homes are better off buying in Florida or Provence. Most of the much-demonized ghosts of Jerusalem are crazy about the city. They buy in Jerusalem because they love it and want to participate in this old-new adventure regularly.

RATHER THAN picking on them or ignoring them, Jerusalemites – and the city’s leadership – should embrace them. Rather than imposing a nonresidents’ tax, foreign homeowners should be encouraged to pay a voluntary additional arnona (municipal tax). Whereas in the US and Canada, property taxes are assessed based on a home’s estimated value, here they are assessed per square meter.

Here is the one bargain in the Jerusalem real estate game. For example, a $1 million apartment in Manhattan would be assessed more than $12,000 in taxes. A $1 million home in Miami could owe more than $20,000 in property taxes. But a 200-square-meter, $1 million-plus apartment in Jerusalem could cost less than $4,000.

The Jerusalem Foundation or some other reputable charity – able to issue tax deductible receipts in most of centers of Diaspora life – should establish a Voluntary Tax Jerusalem Quality of Life Fund. Nonresidents should be invited to make an additional annual contribution, beyond the arnona, based on their home’s value. This fund should subsidize young married couples from Jerusalem purchasing new apartments in the city. The money should also pay to pick up litter and improve schools in the particular areas the nonresidents live. The mayor and a team of trustworthy residents and nonresidents should administer the fund, ensuring transparency, accountability and much publicity.

To make this work, participating nonresidents should get something in return. Most people who buy in Jerusalem seek a deeper tie to the place and its residents – why not provide that? Currently, you need an Israeli ID card to get a municipality discount card. Why not make these patriotic nonresidents, honorary citizens, with their own special discount card? And why not, once or twice a year, host an evening in the Old City welcoming these honorary Jerusalemites?

IF JERUSALEM’S residents knew their nonresident neighbors were making extra contributions to clean their streets, improve their schools and subsidize their children’s first homes, they might stop fearing ghosts. If Jerusalem’s nonresidents felt more welcome, the chances of contributing to the city, or making a more permanent move, would also increase. If nonresidents felt more a part of the city, other ideas, such as encouraging them to use responsible students as house-sitters for a minimal rent when they are gone, would gain traction too.

More is more. More exposure and goodwill lead to more engagement. Buying a home, even a second home, is a profound sentimental decision. I know of young people currently serving in the army, using their parents’ apartments as temporary bases when they have leaves. I know of families that made aliya after they bought their homes, as the decision to purchase a “second home” in Jerusalem catapulted them toward making it their primary residence.

And the contributions that some generous and visionary temporary residents, notably Charles Bronfman and his late wife Andrea Bronfman, have made to the city are incalculable, both by funding projects and by generating a sense of fun in the city. Welcoming these lovers of Zion, is the right way to go. Encouraging more people to become intoxicated by the spirit of Jerusalem – and engaged with the many necessary efforts to make it thrive – is the best strategy.

Whenever I pass Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue, I wonder which Saudi princes, British aristocrats, Italian playboys, Russian oligarchs or Hong Kong billionaires can afford to live there. I assume most of the owners are absentee. No one in New York seems to care. True, Jerusalem is smaller and more vulnerable to the estimated 20 percent nonresident owners in its center. But a confident city, like a confident person, embraces rather than chases, encourages rather than compels. Instead of grumbling about greedy, ghostly outsiders, better to brainstorm about how much the estimated 9,200 foreign apartment owners in the city center can give to the city – and get from it.

In Florida, year-round residents call the outsiders who flock south during the winter “snowbirds.” Jerusalemites should start appreciating their non-full-time neighbors as homing pigeons, who, we learn from Wikipedia, “find [their] way home over extremely long distances.” Homing pigeons are also carrier pigeons. In these difficult times, we can use more homing pigeons, drawn to the Jewish people’s eternal capital, to serve as carrier pigeons, spreading the message of Jerusalem’s joys for tourists, regular visitors, nonresident owners and full-time residents alike.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

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