Record numbers of students are moving to Berlin. Private companies are cashing in on the shortage of state-provided accommodation with luxury, campus-style alternatives.
For Alexandra*, 23, from Russia, moving to Berlin for her studies had always been her dream. When she was accepted for a programme in media and education at Humboldt University she was overjoyed. But reality kicked in soon enough: when she couldn’t find an affordable room, she had to share a bed with a friend before moving to an illegal sublet. It took 18 months and a lot of persistence for Alexandra to finally be granted a place at a student housing complex run by state-funded, non-profit Studierendenwerk. Way out in the suburbs, the Wohnheim on Halbauer Weg in Lankwitz is sandwiched between a school and an Ethiopian church, the paint peeling off the vine-covered, red blocks. The state-funded halls are rarely pretty. In fact, as Wladimir, 27, a film student at the Free University and resident of the Coppistraße Wohnheim says, “They’re ugly prefabricated blocks with ugly pieces of furniture that we cannot throw away”.
Although not living in the epitome of modern architecture, Alexandra and Wladimir are still among the lucky ones. Berlin has the highest level of student net migration in the country, with the city counting 42 universities and higher education academies. With students totalling 187,000, only a meagre 10,000 state-provided rooms are available. The crushing shortfall has caused student rent prices to rise by 67 percent in the last years (10 percent in the last year alone). On average students pay €390 per month for a room in Berlin, which is higher than the rest of East Germany – the average in nearby Magdeburg is €200. But for only €230 per month, Alexandra enjoys her single bedroom with a desk, generous shelf space and large windows, even if it does take 25 minutes on the bus just to get to the S-Bahn and more than 40 to get to class.
Seeing a gap in the market, a handful of private companies are building campuses all over the city, targeting both German and international students at a considerable mark-up. At The Fizz in Kreuzberg, built in 2014 and owned by German company International Campus, prices start at €623 per month with extra charges for balconies or living on higher floors. For Srikar, 24, who moved from England for his year abroad, it was the simplest option, as he could move in immediately without having to prepare anything beforehand. “Renting at The Fizz allows me a sense of security, but also a modern room in the heart of Berlin on Köpenicker Straße.” Srikar is pleased with his room, which is “very new and cleanly designed, with red-accented furniture”. He has a single bed, a large mirror, a small kitchenette with a two-burner electric hob, a microwave, and a small fridge. Not to mention a balcony, with large glass doors, that looks out over the central courtyard. The downstairs area has lavish communal areas, replete with a beer vending-machine, a projector for film nights and a separate outhouse for parties. Luckily for Srikar, his rent, covered by his father and a sizeable Erasmus grant, wasn’t too much of an issue.
British-owned Neon Wood in Mitte (built in 2018) and Friedrichshain (2017), rents starting at €575, is similarly upscale – the common room has a concierge, a wooden ping-pong table, soft rugs, free copies of The New Yorker, sleek, Scandinavian-style furniture, a PlayStation 4 and couch-cushions strung together with leather belts. These places are notably nicer, but do they justify two to sometimes four times the price of Studierendenwerk accommodation? When asked exactly this, Neon Wood cited their high-speed internet, common living areas and a gym (which, incidentally, Alexandra also has at Halbauer Weg). Considering the average student rent in London (€680) and Paris (€638), it is clear that these luxury apartments are tailored towards international students from wealthier cities. Take away the instant availability and the PlayStation 4 and there’s not much more to justify the extortionate mark-up.
But expansion is on the agenda. In 2014 Cresco Capital Group, the investment company behind the Neon Wood campus, partnered with LJ Group to create Cresco Urban Yurt, a joint venture investing over €100 million in student housing across the city. Likewise International Campus, who alongside The Fizz own similar campuses in Amsterdam, Bremen and Vienna, pledge on their website to build more than 20,000 apartments across the whole of Central Europe in the next few years.
There are currently at least 11 privately run student housing complexes in popular locations in central Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Mitte with more clusters in Wedding and Charlottenburg. And they keep mushrooming in the city centre: set to open next summer on the corner of Alexanderstraße and Holzmarktstraße is The Student Hotel. On their website, the Scottish venture raves: “Berlin is one of the largest student cities in Europe, so naturally we couldn’t resist!” For students coming to live with them in the future, they promise “the chance to join our family of travellers, adventurers and general bon vivants.” Their Dresden branch offers en-suite rooms with fl at screens and queen-size beds for around €600. Not an option for students on a tight budget – bon vivants or not.
Thankfully, the Senate resolution in 2015 has proposed further schemes to provide affordable student housing. In a statement, Steff en Krach, state secretary for science and research, says: “We continue to work on the implementation of the Senate resolution to create at least 5000 new residential places for students.” Just under 3000 of these are supposed to be available by 2021.
But will it be enough? For Ulasha, 24, from Nepal, the lack of places turned into genuine heartbreak. As she says: “Ever since I recognised my passion for filmmaking, I wanted to study in Germany.” Yet she needed to have proof of accommodation, leading the Met Film University to recommend booking a hotel. This was “quite frankly very expensive” and offered little guarantee of a long-term stay. As an international student without the means to afford her first Berlin nights, she was unable to take up her place at the university. Although Germany prides itself in free education and Berlin is known to be a hub for students from all over the world, it may one day only be open to a select, wealthy few.