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Red Flag: My landlord is suing me

Nathaniel Flakin has been taken to court. Here’s why you should want that, too.

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Nathaniel Flakin has been taken to court for refusing to pay a so-called “shadow rent.” Here’s why you should refuse, too. Photo: IMAGO / F. Anthea Schaap

I have never been sued before. I have been in court a few times for criminal proceedings, which happens if you go to enough demonstrations. But until now, I have never been the accused in a civil case. Even incidental contact with the legal system makes me feel vaguely terrified, like I could ignore the fine print or check the wrong box, and immediately get evicted or deported.

So when I got a yellow envelope from the Amtsgericht at the beginning of this month, it was an important life event. I know I am an adult now. I am being sued – by my landlord.

The landlord wants to jack up my rent. You might think that is impossible. The Mietendeckel or “rent cap,” which went into effect on November 23 of last year, prohibits rent increases for five years. But property owners are trying to get around this by demanding a Schattenmiete or “shadow rent.” This means you have to agree to pay a higher rent if the rent cap falls if it expires in 2025, or it is cancelled beforehand by Germany’s constitutional court.

“Shadow rent” is clearly illegal. No rent increases means no rent increases — you don’t need a law degree to understand that. But as renters object and their cases wind through the court system, judges’ rulings are all over the place. Some are allowing landlords to circumvent the rent cap — but others, like Berlin’s Administrative Court, are trying to enforce the law. As a renter, it’s like a coin toss: depending on which court you land in, your shadow rent might be legal or illegal.

My landlord wrote to everyone in the building demanding that we agree to a rent hike, while also making clear we would not have to actually pay the new amount for now. Many people signed the document — it is all hypothetical. But it didn’t seem right to me. Landlords in Berlin have doubled rents in the last ten years. Do they really need more?

I called the tenants’ association, and they told me to ignore the letter. They believe these shadow rents are illegal. And if the landlord decided to sue, they would provide me with a lawyer and cover all legal expenses. 

That’s how I ended up with my yellow letter. And now the bad news: it appears that I will be in front of a judge that thinks “shadow rents” are fine. But there is also some good news: this is an opportunity to have a court examine my rent. The lack of a balcony might let me shave off €5 or €10 per month.

I know people are worried about “provoking” their landlords. If they decide they don’t like you, they can use all kinds of dirty tricks to kick you out of your home. But personally, I think the exact opposite is the case. If you show you are willing to fight back even when they’re just trying to squeeze out a couple more euros, they will understand that they shouldn’t push you if they don’t want to risk real protests.

Plus, if they want to raise rents illegally, shouldn’t they at least be made to put some effort into it?

The landlord might very well win this case. I can’t say I’m surprised. Justice in Berlin is handed down by a caste of right-leaning old men. Judges in Berlin make up to €14,417 per month! So while 85 percent of Berliner are renters, it seems certain that property owners will be over-represented in the judiciary. Is this a good time to remind everyone how Germany’s judiciary system was built up almost entirely by Nazis? I probably shouldn’t bring that up if my case comes to trial…

I sympathise. Really, I do. That is why I support freeing every landlord of their terrible burden, and putting housing under community control.

But can you imagine if such cases were decided by juries selected from the general population? Berlin would likely never see another eviction or rent increase. It would be democracy at work.

Property owners can count on the judiciary for protection. But if I was in their shoes, I would still feel a bit worried. For years, working people in Berlin have had to hand over a larger and larger portion of their income to landlords. How long can this continue until the torches and pitchforks come out?

In fact, we are already seeing a kind of political pitchfork: The campaign to expropriate big landlords shows that Berliner are open for rather drastic solutions to exploding housing costs. I went through my building collecting signatures for the referendum. Most people supported it; a few did not. But no one, not a single person, came out in defence of landlords. No one said: they’re doing such a great job by constantly raising our rents and … what, exactly?

Yes, I know that landlords like to say they are under such constant pressure, and they are just barely getting by. I sympathise. Really, I do. That is why I support freeing every landlord of their terrible burden, and putting housing under community control. Everyone needs a home — no one needs to make a profit out of kicking people out of their homes.

So that is why I am getting sued. Lawsuits like this, at the very least, will slow down the machinery of rising rents. I won’t have to pay a cent — the worst-case scenario is that I have to agree to the “shadow rent.” I will report about the case as it moves forward, and hopefully inspire some other people to take up legal battles.

Everyone should join one of Berlin’s two tenants’ associations: the Berliner Mieterverein is larger and more mainstream. It costs €9 per month, and has a page in English. The Berliner Mietergemeinschaft is smaller and more political — apparently it started in the 1970s when the West Berlin tenants’ association was kicked out of the national group because it had been subverted by communists. Who knows? In any case it costs just €6.25. You can guess where I’m a member. Either one is fine.

More important than that, though, is the campaign to Deutsche Wohnen und Co. enteignen. The campaign is terrifying landlords, as it should. The more afraid they are, the less they are going to try to raise anyone’s rents.