Miriam Shaviv
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How to solve our house-price crisis
Date: Friday, November 16th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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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 Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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