Building anew in the Negev

The Noah Initiative hopes to provide affordable housing and develop Israel’s periphery with a bold plan to establish a new quarter in the southern city of Ofakim

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Tentative plans for the Noah Quarter in the small city of Ofakim in the northern Negev. (Courtesy)
Tentative plans for the Noah Quarter in the small city of Ofakim in the northern Negev. (Courtesy)

A group of young Tel Avivians has a plan to alleviate Israel’s housing crisis and develop the country’s neglected periphery at the same time. The plan, says Ben Topor of the Noah Initiative, is to move, as a community, to the isolated Negev town of Ofakim.

“We thought about establishing a new movement that would solve the problem and we found the solution in Ofakim,” Topor said. “So the idea was to establish an organization that can build a new quarter that will provide housing for young people but at the same time develop the country of Israel.”

Israel’s housing costs are some of the highest in the world relative to salary and cost of living, and buying a home or apartment in the country’s densely populated center is out of reach for many people. Apartment prices have risen 6.23 percent a year since 2006. It now costs about 148 monthly salaries to buy a home in Israel, compared with 76 salaries in France and 66 in the US. An average 3-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv costs NIS 3,148,852 ($833,029), and a down payment on an inexpensive Tel Aviv apartment can cost NIS 400,000. Meanwhile, rents have increased by about 60% since 2008, with the figure at over 72% in Tel Aviv. Over two million Israelis live in rental housing, out of a population of about 8 million.

The problem came to head during the social justice protests in 2011 when young Israelis camped out in tents on Tel Aviv’s posh Rothschild Boulevard and across the country to protest housing costs. About 400,000 people eventually joined the demonstrations.

Ben Topor, chairman of the Noah Initiative. (Credit: Dror Sithakol)
Ben Topor, chairman of the Noah Initiative. (Credit: Dror Sithakol)

Topor, now 28, was studying economics and East Asian studies at Tel Aviv University during the protests after a six-year stint in the research department of the IDF’s intelligence corps. He filed a research paper on how young cities and new cities can fuel a country’s economy, he said, and, with some friends, came up with the bold idea of establishing a new city in Israel’s periphery to provide more affordable housing to young people.

They called the project the Noah Initiative. “Noah” means “comfortable” in Hebrew, reflecting the group’s desire to live comfortably in Israel, and they initially planned the project at Café Noah in Tel Aviv. The name also refers to the biblical Noah, and their hope to bring couples, two by two, to a new community, Topor said.

He pitched the idea to friends and acquaintances from his military service, then met with some government officials.

“They threw us out of the meetings,” he said.

After graduating, Topor found work with Cukierman Investment House in Tel Aviv. The firm was impressed with his entrepreneurship, partly due to his work building the Noah Initiative. Topor grew up in an entrepreneurial family, he said. His father is an inventor who holds many patents, including the patent for hibernation mode in computers.

He began as an analyst at Cukierman in 2012 and now heads the company’s green technologies department. The firm focuses on investments abroad, mostly in Europe, the United States and China. Israeli industrial companies in areas like green technology often struggle to find investors, who are usually very specialized and not located in Israel, said Topor, who was included in Forbes Israel’s “30 Under 30” list this year.

Cukierman helps these Israeli companies strategize and make connections abroad for both investments and mergers and acquisitions.

“In Israel you have a lot of investments, but it’s mainly in cyber, mainly in technology and communication, so for Israeli businesses in the industrial sector, in clean tech, it’s harder to raise money in international markets,” Topor said. “In Israel there’s a lot of innovation but they don’t have the necessary sponsors to finance those businesses.”

Topor, who studied Chinese, says China is mostly interested in investing in and acquiring mature businesses in traditional industries such as agriculture, partly to mitigate the slowdown in the Chinese economy. Cukierman’s Catalyst Fund invests in Israeli companies that can fit this model for the Chinese market.

His work in green technologies at Cukierman is now helping him develop the Noah Initiative. The plan now is not to establish a new city entirely, but to build a new quarter of about 1,100 housing units adjacent to the small city of Ofakim, which has a population of about 24,000, in the northern Negev. The Noah Initiative recognized the opportunity when they found out a train station was being built in the city and the area around the train station was relatively open for development.

Eucalyptus trees in the Negev desert. (Illustrative photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Eucalyptus trees in the Negev desert. (Illustrative photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“We are taking advantage of a window of opportunity that did not exist until now. There was no connection between the train and the south. The north of the Negev was not connected until last year, so now there is the ability to commute between the Negev and the center if someone wants to work in Tel Aviv,” Topor said.

They want it to be a green community, Topor said. The community plans to use a water infrastructure that utilizes wastewater, for example, and the area will be organized so residents can get around mostly by foot.

There will be 774 apartments and 330 houses in the community, which will be called the Noah Quarter. The apartments will sell for an average of NIS 650,000 (about $172,000). The plans were recently approved by the government and organizers are working with the Ofakim municipality. They hope to start construction in about a year, if all of the building permits are cleared by then.

Housing in the periphery is relatively affordable now, Topor says, but the Noah Initiative is planning the move as an established, young community.

“The magnitude is what’s innovative,” Topor said. “We’re a very big group of young adults, hundreds. It’s a part of a community that moves together so there’s a lot of excitement.”

About 600 people have already registered to move to the community, and they are now starting a funded marketing campaign. The average age of the people who signed up is 28, and about half are from the center of the country.

At the beginning, there was concern about attracting young people from the center of the country to the periphery, where there are fewer cultural outlets than Tel Aviv. The plan might be roughly comparable to a group of Manhattanites moving en masse to rural Pennsylvania. The idea of moving as a community and building something has gotten people interested, though, Topor said.

Plans for the Noah Quarter next to the city of Ofakim. (Courtesy)
Plans for the Noah Quarter next to the city of Ofakim. (Courtesy)

“Now, because of the train station, people are accepting the idea of living one hour from the center, so even if someone is working in Tel Aviv and wants to have quality night life the train makes it possible. It’s one hour from Tel Aviv and 15 minutes from Beersheba, the next train station,” Topor said.

Affordable housing is the main attraction for most people, but the long-term goals include helping more isolated communities in the periphery like Ofakim. The Noah Initiative’s website features a quote from David Ben-Gurion, who often spoke of his high hopes for development in the Negev.

“The primary goal is to help young adults achieve affordable housing, but the second goal is to develop the country of Israel, to help periphery places that are in need of young people and fresh blood,” Topor said.

Some people who have signed up are already living in Ofakim and were inspired to stay in the area by the project, Topor said. The current residents are interested in the added social and economic value the move could bring to the area, and Topor has not heard any concerns about raising housing prices in the area or any potential downsides for the people living there already.

The first residents will mostly commute to Tel Aviv or Beersheba for work, but eventually, the community plans on hosting an incubator for green technology and helping develop the Negev in general.

A landscape view of the Negev desert. (Photo credit: Shay Levy/ Flash90)
A landscape view of the Negev desert. (Shay Levy/ Flash90)

“We thought to attract entrepreneurs in green technology, like water, agriculture and alternative energy, because we thought the Negev is a very good platform for these technologies. The weather is good, the sun is perfect for solar innovations,” Topor said.

There is also interest from abroad in investing in the community, including from China.

Topor says that their model, if successful, could be implemented anywhere.

“This could be a proof of concept for elsewhere in the periphery,” he said.

A native Tel Avivian, he says he would be honored to make the move to the Negev himself.

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