Immigrants duped into buying uninhabitable homes at exorbitant prices
By Ruth Sinai
April 17, 2007
Autumn, 1998. Yom Kippur had just ended. Sna'it Braihun had scarcely
recovered from the fast when two people came to her absorption center
apartment near Acre. One was a real estate agent, the other a member
of the Ethiopian immigrant community who served as a middleman and
interpreter. They drove Braihun and her husband, Malik, to a two-story
building in Haifa's Halisa neighborhood, pointed at the stairs leading
to an underground level and told them there were two apartments for
sale there. In the darkness, all the Braihuns could see was a
Jerusalem stone building and a one-bedroom apartment with a single
window. They told them an Ethiopian family would be living in the
second apartment, so they would have neighbors they could talk to.
Then they were driven back to the absorption center and urged to sign
a bill of sale immediately.
The couple received a government mortgage for about $75,000, the
maximum, the majority in the form of a grant. Miraculously, the sum
was exactly the same as the property value set by the assessor of the
Tefahot Bank, which administrates state mortgages for Ethiopian
immigrants. The adjacent apartment, which was slightly larger, was
assessed at the same amount and sold to an immigrant from Ethiopia
using the same method.
The Braihuns eventually had six children. They were sick most of the
time - from the damp that rotted the plaster, the mold covering the
walls, the sewage that continually backed up and flooded the floors.
The family ended up sleeping in one room, since the dampness made the
other room uninhabitable. Nothing helped: not the new flooring, not
the window they installed in one of the walls, not the frequent
scrubbing with bleach. There was no electricity in the bathroom and
the kitchen sink collapsed when the plaster on the wall dissolved.
There was no hot water, either, and the children took baths in the
dark, using water heated on the range.
City welfare officials had no solution, since the apartment was
purchased legally and made them ineligible for other housing aid. Each
month the Braihuns paid the bank NIS 300 to repay the mortgage.
The case came to the attention of Yedid, a grassroots civil rights
organization, about two years ago. "The first time I visited the
apartment and sat with them a few hours I got sick," Yedid attorney
Dana Meliniak related. Meliniak found other Ethiopian immigrants who
were sold substandard apartments at inflated prices using
"It's easy to dupe us," Yoav Siyum, an immigrant from Ethiopia and
Yedid volunteer, says. "In the villages we lived in huts made of clay
and wood. Here, they show us a stone-faced building, someone from the
[Ethiopian] community comes and gains the family's trust, and it's over."
Following Yedid's intervention, the Braihuns moved into a temporary
rental, funded by a donor, and the Housing Ministry agreed to move
both them and their neighbors into public housing, after officials
were convinced that the apartments were unfit for habitation.
The Housing Ministry also hired two property assessors, who according
to Yedid appraised the Braihuns' apartment at $10,000 and $12,000. The
government assessor who reviewed the original bank assessment and the
two recent assessments, however, declared that "the original
assessment was appropriate and reasonable."
Despite the large number of cases over the past several years in which
Ethiopian immigrants have used their government housing rights to
purchase substandard housing under questionable selling practices in
Ashdod, Lod, Rehovot and Haifa, neither the Housing Ministry nor the
Immigrant Absorption Ministry has taken action until recently. "There
is no doubt that the number of interests, private and perhaps even
public, that have profited at the expense of immigrants is great,"
Yedid deputy director Ran Melamed says. Tefahot Bank said in response
that following the large wave of immigration between 1997 and 2000,
real estate demand rose, particularly near absorption centers and in
areas with large numbers of immigrants. "The enormous demand and the
small supply led to even basements and storerooms being sold for very
high prices," bank spokesman Benny Shukrun said. He said that prices
of such properties plummeted when demand fell, which explains why the
Braihuns' apartment was assessed at $75,000 in 1998 and at much less
than that in 2006. Shukrun denied claims that Tefahot does not care if
a property is assessed at an unrealistically high price and said the
bank's marketing staff maintained contact with absorption centers in
order to assist immigrants seeking to buy homes.
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