My own private housing crisis

As agencies overstate prices for higher commissions and tenants realise the goldmine they’re sitting on, the cheap flats that once drew the world to Berlin have all but vanished. And the few great deals left come with problems of their own...

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Illustration by Zora Sauerteig

As agencies overstate prices for higher commissions and tenants realise the goldmine they’re sitting on, the cheap flats that once drew the world to Berlin have all but vanished. And the few great deals left come with problems of their own…

Co-op threatened by greed

Roman M pays €360 “cold” for a 55sqm flat in Kreuzberg 36 (€6.5/sqm versus €11.60 current market price) as part of a housing cooperative. In 10 years, he will own his flat… if all goes well.

“In 2005, I was tipped off by a friend who told me about a free place in a Genossenschaft [housing co-op] near Kotti. They took me in, and I was allocated a small three-room flat in the building. The idea is that in addition to the small monthly rent, you buy your share into the 12-unit co-op – I paid €5000 – and once we’ve all collectively paid back the loan to the bank, we’ll own our flats. At this point, it’ll be about 10 years from now. So, see, it’s a great deal, but you’ve got to respect the rules of the Genossenschaft game: no speculation! Our contract states that you ought to live in the flat you’re renting, or sell your share to someone else if you don’t – for the same price you paid, no profit allowed. If you do sublet, you’re not allowed to charge more than your actual rent. The problem is that too many co-op members cheat: three out of 12 are actually subletting their flats for two to three times the rent they pay. The place used to be a squat managed by an association, but then tenants bought the place and it was turned into a housing cooperative 14 years ago. We still have a few of the former squatters in the building, but it seems they’ve forgotten about their anti-capitalist and solidarity ideals. Like my upstairs neighbour, who’s been renting her flat out as a WG to three expats who pay €300-400 each – and she’s a social welfare recipient, so of course it’s all under the table. It’s totally illegal, and if discovered, could lead to the dissolution of the whole co-op. But she’s on the board, and all three members are happily tampering with the rules – cheating the Jobcenter and welfare services, falsifying the books, you name it. They’re hungry and have a finger in every pie! Not long ago, I saw a classified advertising one room in our building for €400 per month, or €20/sqm, three times the co-op rent. It didn’t take me long to figure out it was from the illegal subletters in the flat above mine – even they rent it out when they go back home for the holidays. I’ve heard some members might be taking legal action and the whole thing could be brought to an abrupt end very soon – let’s hope I keep my flat!”

Legal limbo on Schlesi

Karl S. rents a 110sqm three-room Altbau flat for €430 (€4.91 per square metre, compared to the market price of €11.20) in the neighbourhood near Schlesisches Tor.  

“I moved here with my girlfriend back in 2005. We just stopped by a GSW office and asked for what they had, and they sent us to this building by Schlesi. The floors needed work and we’d have to fix the electricity, but it was great and so cheap! The reason it was such a deal is that it’s unclaimed property. Basically, the Berlin state handed it over to GSW under the condition that they’d care for it and hand it over to the legal owners or their descendants if they suddenly showed up. The administration has changed hands twice since then, and we’re now paying our rents to the Deutsche Wohnen company, but conditions have basically remained the same: dirt-cheap rent, with very little investment put into repairs, let alone renovation. We still have coal heating, even for the bathroom shower, which is a bit of a drag. One neighbour switched to gas heating and that’s what I’m planning to do as soon as I can afford it. They recently finally installed bells at the door, so we no longer need to run down the stairs to let visitors in – it was a real revolution! Otherwise I can’t complain. There’s a nice community feel in the building, with some Turks and old-time Kreuzbergers who’ve lived since the Wall years. We’re all conscious of the great treasure is, right in the heart of Schlesi, so everyone’s sitting on their rental contacts – the names on the mail boxes haven’t changed in over a decade! For now, we’ll renovate by ourselves and see what happens. Some say the worst case scenario is that someone else will take over and we’ll be bought out of our flats for good money. I personally hope I’ll be able to stay, because there’s no way I could afford a flat in the neighbourhood now.”

Slave of Neukölln

Todd N. shares a three-room, 100sqm flat in Neukölln’s Flughafenkiez (between Hermannstraße and Karl-Marx-Straße) for €800 per month, or €8 per square metre, compared to the current market price of €11.24.

My boyfriend and I got this place in March 2008. We’d looked for three months and the competition already seemed fierce, even though the neighbourhood was still pretty rough back then. As soon as I walked into this place, I grabbed it: three rooms, hardwood floors, two full baths – even two balconies! It had been two flats, combined into one. The price seemed a bit high, 100sqm for €800 per month. I remember having buyer’s remorse. But then Tempelhof turned into a park, and all the galleries and restaurants started moving in… Then in 2011, our landlord sold the building to Gewobag, one of Berlin’s city-owned housing companies. I’ve seen flats around here advertised for up to €16 per square metre, but our “warm” rent has actually gone down because maintenance costs have dropped. Last year, we even got a €600 rebate for our heat! And now, since last year, this area is under Milieuschutz protection, meaning no luxury renovations – double baths and balconies are verboten, and fl ats like ours are being turned back into two separate ones. Our place isn’t just a great deal; it’s an endangered species. Then again, it’s such a great deal I feel trapped here. I’m a slave of Neukölln.”

Inflating the bubble

Leah H. bought her three-room, 100sqm Prenzlauer Berg flat for around €200,000. She’s now being encouraged to rent it out for €2300, or €23 per square metre versus a market price of €11.44.

I need to leave Berlin for a couple of years for work, and I thought I’d better rent out my fl at, partially furnished. I checked the prices on the market and fi gured I could probably get €1500-1700 out of it; that’s what a friend who works in real estate advised me as well. It’s a beautiful Altbau a two-minute walk away from Kollwitzplatz, and I entirely renovated it two years ago – what they call a “premium deal”! The only drawback is that it is on the ground fl oor, so it’s a little dark, but it’s off the street and we have a nice backyard, very green and lush. Anyway, I decided to consult a couple of real estate agents in the neighbourhood, the posh kind with designer offi ces, to get a quote. Their advice? I should ask for €2300, no less! When I suggested that seemed to be a lot, they explained that after Brexit they expected many well-off Brits to start investing here. For them, a fl at like mine would feel like a bargain! I’m not sure what to think about that, but even if it’s a myth, that’s the kind of belief that’s raising expectations and greed. I guess that’s how you infl ate the famous real estate bubble. Frankly, it’s hard to resist the idea to make an extra €600 each month, and the agents guarantee they’ll fi nd someone willing to pay that price. I’m just afraid it might take time. I guess for them, it doesn’t make any diff erence – they’ll make their commission sooner or later.”