In 2009, when Exberliner hosted a three-day event called “Save Berlin”, gentrification was the buzzword and the enemy. Eight years later, Berlin is struggling with a fullblown housing crisis: rents have doubled, pushing out low-income residents and artists to the city margins. The government is showing a will to tackle the situation. But is it too little, too late?
F rom “Save Berlin” eight years ago, our new slogan could be “Save Berliners”. Gentrification isn’t microbreweries or artisanal donut shops; it’s when those changes push out low-income residents. In 2009, we were already fighting two fierce enemies: profit-hungry property developers and a city government who rolled out the red carpet to them. Both profited as housing prices rose and a class of wealthier taxpayers squeezed out artists, mini-jobbers, the elderly and unemployed.
Since then, according to official statistics, the average rent for a 100sqm flat in a pre-World War I building has doubled. And those numbers are an understatement, as they include low public housing rents and sketchy neighbourhoods at rock-bottom prices. The reality is that a newcomer hoping to move into Berlin’s cool centre faces cut-throat competition that’s allowing opportunistic real estate professionals to demand – and get – rents that are catching up to London and New York.
As rents shoot up, the city’s artists and innovators are being priced out of the neighbourhoods they revitalised. When we held our 2009 event in Wedding’s Stattbad, the old derelict public swimming pool had been repurposed by young creatives as an alternative arts centre with studios and performance spaces. Now Stattbad is a pile of rubble (photo, top right), a victim of Wedding’s rising property values.
Last September’s election might herald a new era. The 2015 influx of 80,000 refugees from Syria and other countries had turned Berlin’s housing shortage into a full-blown crisis. Voters rejected the pro-free-market Christian Democrats, electing the city’s most left-wing government in decades. This new coalition composed of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party and Die Linke proposed an array of laws and programmes aimed at heading off rising rents and housing profiteers. Housing activists are taking seats of real power, and local papers are forecasting a “new ice age” for real estate professionals. But unfortunately, the damage might already have been done.
RENTS HIGHER THAN EVER!
In high-demand areas like Neukölln and Kreuzberg, rents have doubled over the last 10 years to reach €13-16/sqm. At this point, it is cheaper to rent a flat in bourgeois Savignyplatz or Kollwitzplatz than in Neukölln’s Rixdorf. Numbers are for “warm” rents per square metre in 2016.
THE NEW HOUSING POLICY
Here are some weapons in the new government’s arsenal:
In June 2015, Berlin’s Senat passed the Mietpreisbremse law, literally a brake on sky-high rent hikes. Maximum per-square-metre rents were set in each Berlin district along with a maximum annual percentage increase. But results were mixed. The law depends on tenants knowing their rights and reporting abuses – many were reluctant. Six months later, tenants in subsidised and city-owned housing had their rent capped at one-third of their income. Almost half of Berlin’s residents qualify for this government support, but a study found that only 50 percent of eligible Mitte residents are taking advantage of it.
Berlin neighbourhoods under Milieuschutz designation are urban nature preserves where the endangered creatures are long-time Berliners. The law slows gentrification by forbidding luxury conversions of low-rent flats (no marble bathrooms, etc.), and stops rental units from being sold as condos. In July 2016, northern Neukölln joined Kreuzberg’s SO36 zone and parts of Pankow as safe havens – but again, the law only works if tenants report abuse.
With the rise of Airbnb and other portals, more Berlin apartments have been turning into de facto hotel rooms, pushing out renters. In 2013, Berlin tried to make the practice illegal, with a holiday rental ban going into effect in May of 2016 – but last month, a court case called the ban’s constitutionality into question, and it’s now going before Germany’s federal court. More insidious is the number of apartments in the city purchased by non-Berliners as second homes or simply as investments. In March, Berlin’s new government tripled the taxes on these second-home flats.
Fifteen years ago, Berlin’s Senat killed its century-old programme of building apartments, handing the ball to private developers who focused on luxury condos – and dooming us to today’s housing crisis. This year, Berlin finally gets back in the affordable home-building game through its six non-profit housing companies such as Howoge and Degewo. Plans call for 30,000 new flats by 2021, including MBW’s 19-storey tower rising on Fischersinsel with 200 new apartments; and the Schumacher Quartier, a new eco-friendly neighbourhood for 5000 Berliners near the site of the soon-to-be former Tegel airport (or will it stay? See page 22). In addition, the housing companies are buying buildings from private owners, increasing their power to control overall housing prices. In 2015, they snapped up 10,300 market-rate flats, converting them to rent-controlled homes.
A growing number of non-profits are investing in Berlin housing projects aimed at undermining the speculative real estate market. Triodos, a Dutch ethical investment bank, just opened its first Berlin branch, joining the German Trias Foundation and Basel-based Edith Maryon Foundation, long-time supporters of housing co-ops and former squats. Thanks to their help, Berlin is now a living laboratory for new housing prototypes like Vollgut, Ex-Rotaprint and Spreefeld – a scene spotlighted by this month’s Experimentdays events.
The nuclear option
The new Senat is juggling the short-term crisis of accommodating and integrating refugees while planning the city’s long-term housing future. Florian Schmidt, veteran activist and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s newly minted Green Party District Building Councillor, insists that affordable housing is a top priority. He’s now considering using the government’s power of compulsory purchase (eminent domain) – seizing private property for public good – to disarm landowners who are unfairly profiting from the housing crisis. “The people should realise we’re on their side.”