Israel is under threat of a massive catastrophe that has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear reactors. The Syrian-African fault line—stretching from Syria to Mozambique—passes through Israel and makes it earthquake prone. The last major quake, 6.2 on the Richter scale, was in 1927; it killed 500 and injured 700. An even more destructive quake occurred in 1837.
Yet building to an earthquake safety code became standard practice only in 1980, and 96,000 residential structures built earlier are in danger of collapse in a 7.5 magnitude quake, which could occur at any moment.
Knowing that Israel is unprepared to deal with the consequences of such a quake, planners came up with a preventive idea that should have been a hit. Many of the cooperative apartments built before 1980, especially in public housing, are small, some no more than 500 or 600 sq. ft. The plan, known by its Hebrew acronym as TAMA 38, would increase building rights so that apartments could be enlarged. And there would be additional perks, including elevators.
Most important, the buildings would be retrofitted to meet the earthquake safety code. And none of this would cost the residents a penny. Developers would undertake the work in exchange for the right to build and sell apartments on the roof of the building. In short, a win-win proposal.
But filmmakers Vered Yerucham and Oren Reich, whose new movie Naphtali 23 documents 18 months in the life of a public-housing building in Jerusalem trying to negotiate a TAMA 38 enlargement, discovered that no negotiations in Israel are easy, nor is a win-win proposal a guarantee of success.
The building is in a very desirable location, just off trendy Emek Refa’im Street, which is lined with cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. But many of the building’s residents are poor, and though most of them have fantasies of enlarging their apartments, some have grudges, old hurts, and mutual suspicions that get in the way of seemingly simple and obvious decisions.
“What we learned in the end is that more than people wanted to fulfill their fantasies, they wanted to be heard,” filmmaker Reich said. “People who felt they’d never been listened to wanted someone to listen to them.”
After months of efforts by a small but determined group of residents to move the project along, another developer appears, offering to raze the building and put up a new one, giving each of the residents a larger, brand new apartment. This effectively derails the original plan, but very quickly the raze-and-build developer disappears. Eighteen months after the initial proposal, the residents are still living in their cramped apartments.
The failure of TAMA 38 in the Naphtali Street building, and in most other buildings in Jerusalem where it has been proposed, cannot be attributed only to poverty, grudges, or ignorance. I live in a building of 10 co-op apartments where one couple, who were living with three children under the age of four in less than 650 sq. ft., thought TAMA 38 would solve their problem and benefit their neighbors.
But each neighbor had a different demand. No sooner was a one-room enlargement proposed than some people asked for two. A resident on the top floor wanted an elevator but no extra rooms; another wanted an extra balcony. We never reached agreement.
Perhaps it helps explain why peace negotiations are such a problem… and why Israel will continue to be so unprepared for the next Big One.
Text and copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. Image used by permission of Oren Reich. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. No part of the image may be used without written permission of Oren Reich.