One of the many interesting Friday morning roundtable discussions at the recent annual convention of Agudath Israel of America dealt with solving the crisis of affordable housing. With starter homes in Flatbush now going for $750,000, and townhouses in Lakewood for close to half a million dollars, the topic could not be more timely.
Among the frequently named culprits are rapacious developers. But matters are not so simple. Raphael Zucker, a Lakewood developer, argued vigorously that the blame lies elsewhere – with undisciplined buyers and real estate speculators. Developers lower prices by increasing supply, and the economics of the business are such that their interest is to build and turnover units as quickly as possible.
But what is happening, at least in the Lakewood area, is that units on which the developer is clearing a $40,000 profit are being bought and sold a year or two later for $200,000 or more above the initial purchase price. A townhouse bought for $175,000 five years ago may be sold today for more than two and a half times that amount.
The problem, as described by Zucker, is those who purchase houses only to "flip" them for a quick profit. He told me that even when he requires specific undertakings from purchasers that they will live in the dwellings they are purchasing, too many purchasers are "lomdim," who have figured out either why it is permitted to lie or why they aren’t really lying.
The only solution to the problem, said Zucker, is that it be addressed on a communal, not individual level. As long, as we continue to act as nothing more than an agglomerate of individuals, each seeking his immediate best interest, no solution will be found to the problem of affordable housing.
Professor Aaron Twerski sounded a similar theme on Motzaei Shabbos, in what was surely one of the most important speeches of the convention. His subject was the chareidi educational system in America, in particular the plight of mechanchim. He described mechanchim forced to work two or three jobs just to pay their bills. If you see a forty-year-old man who looks twenty years older, Professor Twersky remarked sadly, he is quite likely a day school teacher.
These educators live, in the main, without life insurance or any pension plan. The toll on our children’s education of placing mechanchim in overcrowded classrooms and under such financial stress, which drains them of the ability to focus on their primary task, is inestimable.
The problems facing the American chareidi educational system, said Professor Twerski, are nationwide and cannot be solved so long as each family thinks only of the particular schools to which they send their children. Schools, he seemed to say, are not the same as fruitstands run for the individual benefit of their proprietors. Again and again, Professor Twerski emphasized the need to think communally and seek community-wide solutions. For instance, a nation-wide program for ensuring the mechanchim have life insurance or pensions would be of sufficient scale to actively seek matching grants from charitable foundations.
This failure to think communally is hardly limited to American Orthodoxy. It affects those of us living in Israel as well. The most glaring example of our failure as a community is our inability to assure a place in a high school seminary for all our daughters.
There can be no more basic indicia of communal life than the ability to provide a place in school to every child. What are we waiting for? That the police will bring truancy charges against girls sitting at home, and attempt to force them to attend state schools, or that some disgruntled parent will bring a law suit and inject the secular courts into our school system in a disastrous fashion?
In all the examples cited above – the failure to think beyond our narrow individual interests and to act on a communal basis is not only disastrous for the community as a whole but short-sighted as well.
Even if presented with an opportunity to turn over a house for a huge profit, for instance, we would do well to remember that over the course of a lifetime, we will likely have to purchase, or help purchase, far more homes than we will sell, and that if everyone acts the same way, we will find ourselves in the debit column.
Comfortable baalebatim may choose to ignore the impact on their own children’s education of overworked and underpaid mechanchim, but as more and more of their children opt for a life of long-term learning, they might at least consider the possibility that a number of their sons and daughters will themselves be mechanchim.
Similarly, there are those who can’t be bothered to worry about the fate of those girls who do not have a seminary. They know that their daughters will never have trouble finding a place in the seminary of their choice by virtue of their family "name" or their extraordinary abilities. Yet, even in the most talented families, there are almost always children who are less gifted, and in today’s world, there are many circumstances that can tarnish even the finest family "name." And those same parents may find themselves desperately seeking a place in a high school seminary for one of their daughters.
We frequently refer with pride to the chareidi community (and rightly so). But we must remember to act like one.