As long-term resident Michel Le Voguer is evicted from his Kreuzberg home, we revisit our 2018 probe into where it all began – and see what happens when members of a lefty house collective start fighting over their home turned top-market property.
It’s warm outside, but the atmosphere in front of the Tempelhof-Kreuzberg district court is rather chilly. A small group is standing outside the building. They are neighbours and members of a housing cooperative or Genossenschaft in central Kreuzberg, among them a bunch of old-school squatters from back in the day, a taxi driver, a Brazilian hipster that runs a local porn collective, a Cuban expat, a teacher… They all live in a commonly managed Altbau at Adalbertstraße 22. They have come to argue their case against fellow co-op member Michel Le Voguer, a Kreuzberger of 30 years from Brittany who owns the famous French bistro Chez Michel across the street. On the agenda: his expulsion from the cooperative and his eviction from the flat he has been living in for 12 years.
Le Voguer, 58, is standing a few metres away, nervously waiting for his lawyer to arrive. For him, this trial is about his home, but it is also political: “They want me out so they can make more money. The rents in our area are getting more and more expensive and these people are shamelessly subletting for horrendous prices. Now they want to silence me, because I know their game.”
At the centre of the dispute is a mid-19th century listed landmark building, the oldest on Adalbertstraße. Some of the residents were among those who saved the house from demolition in the early-1980s by squatting it, and have lived here for over 30 years, like Bavarian Dieter Mulz, who originally founded Kreuzberg’s 1980s punk cinema Frontkino and is now employed at a local futon company. Others joined the community when they founded their cooperative in 2004 and took out a bank loan to buy the building and protect their home from becoming a chip in the real estate casino. “Gentrification is advancing rapidly and we as a small cooperative are fighting to stay and keep our rents affordable. It’s always been a fragile construct to defend,” says Claudia Brieske, a 52-year-old artist who moved into the building in 2009 and is now leading the legal action against Le Voguer.
They want me out so they can make more money… Now they want to silence me, because I know their game.
For the longest time, their project seemed like a housing oasis in the speculative ocean of Kreuzberg 36, where flats now go for up to €18.21 per square metre. Here, a few metres away from Oranienstraße, the residents of Adalbertstraße 22 pay just over €6.60 per square metre, i.e. €369 per month for a 60sqm flat. All they had to do was to pay €5000 to enter the Genossenschaft’s property deal. The facade might not look like much, but the big red door opens to a small paradise with a garden and a cosy seating area next to a little sputtering fountain. The community’s cat, Fritzi, lurks down from the garage roof, where – rumours have it – the early squatters used to hide a weed plantation. (Dieter Mulz prefers to remember the pumpkins he harvested on that same roof.) “We were living well together,” Le Voguer says. “Of course, we had our differences, small things, as you would expect, but we always managed to resolve them.”
Those peaceful days are gone, the 12 community members now divided into two factions. The feud began five years ago when Brieske, Mulz and another member of the collective’s new managing board claimed there were irregularities in the balance sheets. “What we saw was very worrying, because too many inconsistencies over time can mean serious trouble for any co-op,” says Mulz. They confronted the guilty party, Hermann Rohner, a 58-year-old Swiss-born film location manager who ran the restaurant Helvetia on Mariannenstraße for 12 years. He moved into the house in 1993, before becoming a founding member in 2004 and managing the cooperative until 2013. Ultimately he acknowledged some mistakes – an unpaid bill here, an unauthorised but reimbursed use of the group’s credit card abroad there.
“I’d given my vote to the new board, and when they first presented us with the numbers, I, too, was furious at Hermann,” Le Voguer remembers. “But when he agreed to make up for his missteps and they kept coming back with new accusations and threatened to expel him and brought him to court, I started to suspect a personal vendetta.” Le Voguer began looking at the accounts himself. When he found questionable payments to someone who he never knew of doing work for the co-op – and voiced his suspicions – he was banned from the communal office. “I said to them, if you are going to sue Hermann over borrowing €30 from the co-op account, you’d better have a clean sheet yourself – and they didn’t.”
Le Voguer then raised questions about how the board handled subletting: “Some of the co-op members have not been living here for 10 years and are subletting for the usual high Kreuzberg rents, having a nice life elsewhere, while, in some cases, receiving monthly state support and not paying taxes here in Berlin.” He has also collected evidence that the subtenants of the flat above his are running the commercial porn collective Pornceptual in the house, using the place as a photo studio without declaring their business. “Just imagine how fun it is to have all that hullabaloo above your head – moving the furniture and jumping around for photo shoots!” The owners of a Späti across the street confirm that naked women sitting in the window frame have repeatedly elicited public interest and crowds gathering in the street to watch.
Some of the co-op members haven’t been living here for 10 years and are subletting for the usual high Kreuzberg rents.
The situation quickly escalated: “One day I went to the basement to collect my laundry and found that someone had wanked all over my underwear and ripped my T-shirt. I think I know who it was, but I cannot prove anything.” He reported the incident to the police and installed a surveillance camera in his kitchen window to monitor the entrance to the basement. The co-op committee responded by reporting him for privacy invasion.
“By now I’ve also been reported twice for making wrong accusations and have received 11 eviction notices in one year. It’s psychological warfare!” He says he has had to spend at least €5000 on legal defence and sought medical help to cope with the stress of daily harassment from neighbours-turned-enemies: “They think they can call the shots because they control the board and can use co-op money to pay for legal fees against me. But I’m a true Breton, we’re stubborn when we know we’re right.” He is convinced that his repeatedly broken car mirrors, flat bike tyres (“Three days in a row!”) and a break-in in his basement storage space, where some of his restaurant’s documents were stolen, are related to the disputes. “Then in October last year I got a tax audit at my restaurant, the first in seven years – a coincidence?”
“It’s a very tense, uncomfortable atmosphere in the house,” Le Voguer says. “Now even the subtenants are subletting their rooms, I’ve made screenshots of the ads online. You never know who is coming in and out of the house. At night they are sneaking around with torches, because they’ve been told to keep a low profile.” Some doorbells are covered in stickers with five or more names on them. Le Voguer has caught strangers using his washing machine, dryer and laundry detergent in the basement.
On the other side, Brieske complains that she cannot have guests over without Le Voguer interrogating and “frightening” them in the stairwell. “It’s embarrassing and a breach of domestic peace,” she says. “He accuses us of illegal subletting, but subletting per se is not illegal” – Le Voguer counters: “It totally goes against the spirit of the co-op. It’s written in the founding paragraphs: ‘The Gennossenschaft was created to provide affordable housing to its members’ – not side-incomes you hide from the welfare office because you claim you’re poor!” Precarious living conditions is something they might agree on, as Brieske explains many struggle to make ends meet: “I am an artist, I could never afford a normal rent in this area, let alone find a place. But I want to stay in Kreuzberg, so the co-op is very important to me.”
In 2030 the mortgage for the house will be paid off, and the Genossenschaft will have the option of splitting the house and offering its members a good price for their individual flats. While Mulz and Brieske would like to keep the co-op as it is, they accuse Le Voguer of plotting against the cooperative in order to sell his apartment for its high market value. “Once we split off individual apartments, the owners will have much more power in decision making, the community will fall apart,” Mulz prophesies. “I don’t know where they get their ideas from, I have no intention of selling my flat. I’ve lived in Kreuzberg since 1989. I’m happy here, and my restaurant is 70 metres down the street!” Le Voguer says.
Each party is suspicious of the other in view of the financial stakes. “When the co-op bought the building, it cost €300,000. Now an individual flat would cost at least as much, a circumstance that is whetting people’s appetite to profit as much as they can,” explains Le Voguer. “This is not a joke, it’s our life!” And the stakes are high on either end: for Le Voguer, losing would be a personal catastrophe, and, as Mulz says, the cooperative would lose all the money it has put towards the legal costs. “And then maybe he would sue for libel, which could turn the tables on us.” The committee has already lost its case against Hermann, who came out vindicated by the court ruling.
The alleged breaches of peace and accusations of aggression are the basis of the current trial in which the co-op leaders are hoping to send Le Voguer packing. In a 108-page file Mulz has described every minute incident in earnest prose: “As Mr. B. looks over to Mr. Le Voguer, the latter is standing in front of his door and is eyeing him over his shoulder. Then, he lifts his right leg, and with his knee bent stretches it to the side of his body and breaks wind, vulgo: he farts.” Another protocol states how Le Voguer danced in front of the co-op office window, singing “Michel bleibt, Michel bleibt!”, which apparently, was “a very grotesque picture.”
Sitting in the communal office from which Le Voguer has been banned for the duration of the trial, Brieske interprets this as aggressive behaviour: “He doesn’t dare to express his aggression openly any more, so that’s his outlet. Now he sings whenever he sees us.” They call him a “choleric” and “egomaniac”, he refers to them as “deranged”.
In court, the judge asks the plaintiff’s witnesses about material damage or physical violence which none of them can confirm. After three hours of question-and-answer the judge suggests a mediation. “I would try it, but I doubt they will agree,” Le Voguer says later, “they’ve gone too far. I don’t think they can de-escalate.” Sitting at the empty conference table in the co-op office, Brieske confirms his pessimism: “In court he said he would like things to go back to what they were.” She says that she, too, liked it better when she was still a regular at Chez Michel. “But too much has happened. We cannot be friends again. He has to go.” On a chair on the other side of the room, Fritzi is stretching languorously. Of the residents of Adalbertstraße 22, he is the one innocent soul caught in the bitter fight over this Kreuzberg paradise lost.