The district everyone associates with Ku’damm bling and Savignyplatz bohème is also home to some of Berlin’s most affordable working-class neighbourhoods… but perhaps not for long. Franziska Helms talked to the Charlottenburgers who are fighting big money to stay in their Kiez.
Just south of Charlottenburg’s opulent Schloss is Klausenerplatz,a leafy green square surrounded by streets lined with typical Berliner Altbau. There are small bakeries, cafés, fruit stalls, an Asian supermarket, charity shops, hairdressers, kindergartens, a school and community institutions such as the Stadtteilzentrum, a multi-generation house offering free language classes and homework support for kids. But don’t trust these idyllic first impressions – there is a war going on.
The neighbourhood around Klausenerplatz, along with that around Mierendorfplatz to the northeast of the palace, was built as a residential quarter for workers and lower-level public servants in the late 19th to early 20th century. Until recently, students, pensioners and families with lower to medium incomes could still afford to live there, with rents as low as €6.10 per square metre. But those days might be soon over: In the course of the past five years, the average rent in Charlottenburg has gone up by 27.6 percent and keeps rising.
On a walk through his neighbourhood, Martin Hoffmann points out where gentrification has hit so far. “That house has been bought by a Swedish corporation named Arkelius. There used to be a small shop in there, a carpenter’s, but they kicked him out,” says the 67-year-old pensioner turned local activist and blogger, indicating an immaculately whitewashed building in Nehringstraße. For now, the downstairs commercial space is empty, its brand-new shutters closed. Just around the corner, in Danckelmannstraße, there is a shop selling African arts and crafts. “They have been given notice as well. On the other hand, there is a new shop for children’s clothing that sells ridiculously overpriced jackets.” Social and cultural projects haven’t been exempt, either – like the K19 Künstlerfabrik, a former factory which used to hold a community theatre before being converted into shiny condos. “The city used to own the building, but in 2009 they sold the entire thing to a private investor for €300,000. Now it’s on the market for well over a million. What a complete waste!” Ho mann worries that increasing rents will also affect the multicultural aspect of the neighbourhood. He explains people can easily be intimidated by lawyer’s jargon. “It is possible to fight landlords who are trying to get you to leave, but it does take a lot of resilience.”
A retired hospital administrator, Hoffmann has been living here for a good 40 years. When he walks down the street, he is greeted by friends and acquaintances, families with small children and young adults sitting in front of small cafés. Most people know him because, at one point or another, they needed his advice. For 15 years he counselled tenants of city-owned housing society Gewobag, whose tenant-unfriendly money-making schemes have been one of his perennial concerns. “The senate should be controlling them, but really isn’t.” he says. In 2015, Hoffmann helped collect local residents’ signatures for a referendum to crack down on rising rents. He remembers an overwhelming response: “We had so many people coming up to us. There were teachers whose rent had gone up by €500 and they didn’t know what to do.” As a result of the campaign, public housing properties in Berlin must now increase their social housing stock and have tenant representatives on their boards. Hoffmann is on the Gewobag tenant council, but he is also involved in MieterWerkStadt Charlottenburg, a group that supports tenants of privately owned buildings in the area
As you get older you learn to appreciate the social network you have where you live. So seeing the neighbourhood being invaded by big money is really sad.
As he waves to another friend, Hoffmann says: “See, this is valuable to me. As you get older you learn to appreciate the social network you have where you live. So seeing the neighbourhood being invaded by big money is really sad.” A number of his friends have managed to stay so far, most of them living in Gewobag apartments. “But my daughter, who grew up here, had to move away. Gewobag said they didn’t have anything available. These days a viewing of a flat here can easily attract 250 people.”
The next fight on Hoffman’s agenda is getting the city government to grant his neighbourhood Milieuschutz status, meaning a ban on needless renovations and restrictions on the conversion of apartment buildings into privately owned flats. Yet it is unclear how much this will actually help. At the Charlottenburg town hall, Oliver Schruoffeneger, the district councillor for urban development and the only Green Party member in an otherwise SPD- and CDU- dominated council, claims complete helplessness. “The situation is really bad, especially where Altbau are concerned, but there is not much we can do.” Tenancy laws are made on the national level, and even the city government’s tools are limited to cooperative contracts with investors (also known as public-private partnerships), the allocation of building land and managing the six residential building cooperatives. “As far as building land goes, 90 percent of that is being traded on the free market, so there doesn’t remain much for us to allocate,” Schruoffeneger says. What he says he can do is screen the district for areas eligible for Millieuschutz and enforce it as strictly as possible. So far, the status has been approved (but not yet implemented) for two areas: Mierendorf-Insel and Richard-Wagner-Straße in central Charlottenburg, with Klausenerplatz next in line for consideration. But even this only allows the council to prevent upgrades that go beyond “the contemporary local standard”. What this actually means might prove debatable: Does a lift count as a modern-day necessity? What about a balcony? In the face of such questions, Schruoffeneger’s assertion that “there will be no bathrooms with gold plated faucets in Milieuschutz areas” sounds evasive.
A ONE-WOMAN FIGHT ON SEELINGSTRAßE
It is therefore hard to gauge how the designation might have helped 46-year-old single mother Susan L. For the past 14 years she has lived in an 1887-era building on Seelingstraße with her daughter Lara, now 19. Since her original landlord sold the house in 2014 it has changed hands three times, each time bringing real estate agents, evaluators, architects, engineers and potential buyers. The current owner has started far-reaching renovations that come with hefty pricetags: €46,500 for more modern heating fixtures, €72,000 for new balconies, €107,000 for a lift and €22,300 for toilet improvements. As a result, the rent for Susan’s 70sqm apartment will increase nearly twofold, by about €300. “I’m not that concerned about the money. What bothers me is that these ‘improvements’ are completely unnecessary. They will turn my flat into a construction site with strangers disturbing our calm and privacy… My daughter has to study for her Abitur, and that’s likely to prove difficult.” Work on the house has already begun: scaffolding has gone up in the backyard, and the new heating system is almost ready to go. “But they can’t activate it yet because I refuse to let the builders in.”
With the help of lawyers from Berlin’s Mieterverein (tenant rights association), Gebing is fighting back, claiming health reasons. “A kidney transplant has left me with an immune deficiency. The mould that is often released when walls are opened up could be extremely dangerous for me. I know I have a case, but the owner’s lawyer has been threatening that I will have to pay for the delay.” So far, she has her neighbours’ support, but some are very old, one family doesn’t know much German and another is only using their flat part-time. At this point, Gebing is hoping only that she will be able to live elsewhere during the renovations. “All of this resistance is taking up a lot of time, and you never know what they are going to announce next. It does get to me.”
Ultimately, she thinks that the new landlord would just rather see the current tenants out in order to forge new contracts, for which they’d legally be able to demand up to 15 percent more money. “It’s easy to tell from the renovation schedule. They want to open the façade to add new balconies in November, and the windows in the stairwell are to be changed in January. Why would they do that in the middle of winter if not to make things really uncomfortable for us?”
TRAPPED BY DEUTSCHE WOHNEN
According to Wibke Werner, deputy chair of the Mieterverein, the desire to get rid of existing tenants is most common with medium-sized private investment firms. “Companies that hold more real estate are usually interested in renting it. If you drive everyone out, it can be difficult to repopulate buildings.” This, however, does not mean that big investment groups are friendlier landlords. Take the notoriously neglectful British housing management group GMRE – or Germany’s own Deutsche Wohnen.
In Charlottenburg, Deutsche Wohnen owns a large building complex in Mollwitzstraße, right next to Schlosspark. Retired social counsellor Peter Weiss (name changed) has been living there for nine years. When he moved in, the house seemed to be the ideal place to spend his retirement: small but functional apartments, rooms for communal activities, guest rooms on every floor and a great location. Designed for the International Building Exhibition in the 1980s, it belonged to the publicly owned GSW housing cooperative until 2004, when Wowereit’s government sold GSW to a consortium of US investment firms in order to pay off some of the city’s debts. They closed the communal space and locked the guest rooms. Still Holger enjoyed a quiet life in the building, until Deutsche Wohnen took it over in 2016. “In the past few years, things have seriously gone downhill. There were three fires that started in the building’s rubbish chutes and destroyed the phone lines, internet connection and doorbells. We were cut off from the outside world for months. Two older residents died and they weren’t found until weeks later!” says Weiss, adding it took Deutsche Wohnen half a year to send someone to fix things. “By that time, the drug dealers had made it their domain. The hallways were littered with their needles and excrement, and the old residents barely dared to leave their flats.” During the last fire, it was discovered that the fire hydrants on the premises were not working. And as for repairs, Weiss tells the story of a neighbour whose water supply was cut off: “He couldn’t use his bathroom for nine months!”
He has been writing letters to Deutsche Wohnen on behalf of himself and his neighbours, asking the company to fix what’s broken and threatening them with legal action. So far, he has received no replies. “I think they might actually want us old people to set the house on fire. Not fixing the hydrants after the first or second fire is proof.”
In the meantime, current tenancy law ensures that rents keep going up. In a case last month, Berlin’s constitutional court ruled that the Mietpreisbremse, the 2015 law that limits rent increases on new contracts to 10 percent (or 15 percent with modernisations), was unconstitutional. The statement was non-binding, but leaves wiggle room for landlords to bypass the law until the constitutionality is fully decided on. Both Merkel and SPD chairman Martin Schulz want to keep the law the way it is, while organisations such as the Mieterverein criticise it for not being strict enough: the benchmark for legal rent increases is calculated from new lease agreements made over the last four years, ignoring cheaper pre-existing contracts. “It obviously isn’t working,” says Werner. “Since 2015, Berlin rents have gone up by almost 10 percent – and with a CDU-led government there is little hope for improvement.”
The rent for Weiss’ 43.5sqm at has gone up from €380 to €420 since he moved in, but he is determined to stay. He wouldn’t know how or where to find anything cheaper in the neighbourhood, anyway. Deutsche Wohnen is advertising a smaller at in his building for €549.86. In the current context of Berlin’s fast rent-rising market, that’s still cheap enough to quickly attract an eager tenant.