Alleviating the Housing Woes of Jerusalem’s Christians

text by George Martin
photographs by Miriam Sushman

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Some might consider it a great blessing to live within walking distance of Calvary and the tomb of Jesus, both of which are enshrined in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the walled Old City of Jerusalem. Many who do live there, however, live in hardship. The Old City is ancient, filled with centuries-old houses, churches, mosques, synagogues and shops, many in disrepair.

Osana Daldilian lives in the Old City. A widow with six children, Osana supports them by cleaning offices to supplement her modest social security. She and her children lived in a single tunnel-like room located a few steps below the street. Plaster continually peeled off its damp stone walls and there was little privacy.

Rents are very high in Jerusalem – rents are comparable to those in New York City – making it impossible for Osana, on her low income, to afford better housing outside the Old City. (The average Palestinian’s income is far less than that of an Israeli.) But thanks to CNEWA’s benefactors, Osana was able to subdivide her room and waterproof and replaster the walls. A rudimentary bathroom at one end was redone with new plumbing and wiring. The renovation of her apartment has made a marked difference in her family’s lives: though Osana and her family still live in very crowded conditions, they now have dry walls and greater privacy.

Osana was not alone in her need for better housing for her family. About 4,000 Christians live among the 30,000 inhabitants of the Old City; another 6,000 Christians live in adjacent East Jerusalem. Since taking possession of the Old City and its adjoining Arab neighborhoods in 1967, Israel has shifted the demography of the area with housing available for Jews, while severely limiting the construction of housing for Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. About 120,000 of the 170,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem live in substandard or overcrowded housing; there is a backlog of demand for 20,000 new housing units. Building permits are difficult to obtain, however, and land is very expensive; a quarter-acre sells for around half a million dollars.

As a result, the population density for Palestinians in Jerusalem has more than doubled since 1967, with one-third living in houses that have more than three people per room. Rents have skyrocketed, putting an apartment out of the reach of many young couples who want to marry and begin a family. Before 1948, Christians made up about 18 percent of the population of Jerusalem; now they account for about two percent. The emigration of Christians to other lands for housing and jobs is one of the major problems now facing the church in the Holy Land.

Various church efforts address the housing shortage for Christians. The Latin (Catholic) Patriarchate sponsors Solidarity Housing, a project that builds some new housing in and around Jerusalem. But even when the church provides the land, construction is expensive; an apartment complex for 30 families now being erected will cost approximately $1,900,000. Those receiving the apartments pay what they can; the balance must come from local and foreign benefactors. The Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land likewise have housing projects underway, as does the Greek Melkite Catholic Church.

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Tags: CNEWA Jerusalem Economic hardships Homes/housing