Today, a controversial land-use planning law is expected to go up for a plenary vote after being fast-tracked past its Knesset committee. Designed to increase the number of housing units built in Israel, the Vatmal Law (חוק הותמ”ל) was passed in response to a stark rise in housing prices that many economists attributed to inefficient land-use planning policy on the municipal level, resulting in supply rigidity and a subsequent housing shortage. Although it was enacted in 2014 as a temporary order that would last for four years, the law was extended for another year in 2018 and is overdue for a renewal following Israel’s years of political instability.
The law establishes a planning committee referred to as Vatmal, which has the ability to initiate large construction projects that can override the provisions of district and local outline plans. Although the law passed through the Ministerial Committee for Legislation with ease, it faces resolute opposition from local councils, urban planners, and environmental organizations — in fact Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg was the only vote on the committee to abstain. This opposition is only natural considering the top-down, technocratic nature of the Vatmal. After all, it is a body created by Yair Lapid, the then finance minister, to take two to four year projects and condense them into five months. Three years ago, when I was beginning to take an interest in Israel’s land-use planning policy, I would have been in full support of an expedited process to lower housing prices. As I’ve come to realize though, the flaws in this body and its activities are many. The Vatmal approves a great deal of its construction on agricultural land, and to the dismay of urbanists, primarily invests itself in residential construction without taking schools, hospitals, or public transit into consideration.
In November 2016, the Vatmal’s Plan 1012, which included the use of 10 acres of land on Mitzpe Neftoach for 1,400 housing units, faced significant opposition from Jerusalem officials and residents due to its distance from the city center and potential harm to the environment. This plan, according to Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy, would be four times the cost of the average urban construction project. Additionally, with the new housing units being constructed further from the city center and out of reach of many bus routes, cars would be a necessity in the prospective neighborhood. With the liberty to ignore the provisions of local and district plans, the planners were able to ignore the municipality’s urban renewal program which prioritized development closer to the city center and along the light rail.
Further west in Israel’s Central District, the Vatmal has drafted plans to expand Kiryat Ekron, which so happens to exist near a moshav called Kfar Bilu. The project will result in 900 dunams of land being designated as a preferred housing site and transferred from the moshav. As a result, it is expected that 40% of the moshav’s agricultural land will be expropriated. Urban planner Tamir Ben Shahar describes this plan as destructive, as it leaves too many open spaces and neglects the opportunities within the original area, which includes about thirty to forty housing units that could be developed.
Yet, there are urban planners that retain optimism about the activities of the Vatmal in the future. Although the committee typically approves plans and designates preferred housing sites in open areas on the outskirts of cities, it has dabbled before in “pinui-binui” and urban renewal. Suburban plans differ from urban plans in that they allow for more open space adjacent to buildings, have less commercial and mixed-use zoning, and have fewer houses. In theory, if a suburban plan is based on high net density, achieving an urban plan in the same area based on high gross density would not be difficult. Luckily, the Vatmal has approved some urban plans in its past. In 2017, the body designated Kiryat Moshe to be a preferred housing site and approved a project that would grow the neighborhood from 1,300 to 9,500 housing units. A few new roads are built, however this plan nevertheless would increase density — that is, if the project is successful.
In Ofakim, according to Moshe Fisher, chairman of the Sane Construction Association, plans for thousands of housing units that were approved four and a half years ago have still not begun to exist on the ground, defeating the purpose of an expedited process in the first place. Many of the construction projects approved by the Vatmal are only two housing units per dunam. For reference, in Tel Aviv there are 3.8 housing units per dunam and in Givatayim there are 7.5 housing units per dunam. Thus, the committee has significant issues with efficiency, approving faulty plans that are bound to get stuck due to constraints in reality while failing to use land to its fullest extent.
Before the vote today, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked will meet with various members of the government and Knesset to discuss the law. This meeting will include Ze’ev Elkin and Tamar Zandberg, both long-time opponents of the Vatmal. Shaked has gone on record and said that in this government, plans that do not harm agricultural land will be prioritized. Despite all this, I am not expecting much significant change in how the committee functions since many of its supporters and its architect, Yair Lapid, are in the government.
What this body brings to the forefront is a tension between economics and planning. While it may seem tempting in the short-term to bypass bureaucratic red tape to lower costs, transferring an exorbitant amount of power to a committee that does not take into consideration the reality on the ground comes with its fair share of issues. The long-term solution to rising housing prices will likely include a successful union between the need for more housing with sustainable urban development — unfortunately, it doesn’t look like extending the mandate of the Vatmal will make this a reality.