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The Big Fix

Berlin's Invisible Gentrifiers

Berlin's Invisible Gentrifiers
Reuters

I still think sometimes about the Berlin apartment I came so close to buying this spring. With herringbone parquet floors and a big sunny balcony looking out over birches and pines, its two rooms cost around half the price of London’s cheapest studio. The subway was round the corner, and a huge new park was so close I could almost have flicked a beer mat into it from the kitchen window. After years of shuttling between Britain and Germany, I’d have finally had a permanent Berlin base (for a few months annually) that was also rentable to tourists via the Internet when I wasn’t in town.

Talking to Berlin friends, however, I realized that buying the flat would have turned me into one of the city’s current villains: the locust-like out of town buyer who is supposedly stripping the city of attractive property, leaving only stubble and chaff for the locals. With a glut of Berlin holiday apartments available online – some estimates place the number as high as 25,000 – some feel tourist accommodation is actually damaging the city.

In central neighborhoods filled with handsome early 20th century tenements such as Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg and Mitte, so many apartments have become holiday rentals that some buildings now have more temporary than permanent residents. Inevitably, this means full-time locals sometimes struggle to find affordable places to live. This is of course a version of a story being told all over the world – what makes Berlin slightly different is that the gentrification bogeymen blamed for rising prices are often rumored to not even live there.


People walk through the streets at the traditional MyFest street festival in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

This focus on buying apartments for holiday rentals, rather than long-term lets, might sound weird to an outsider. It’s so common because anyone seeking to make a quick, easy buck would run screaming from the average German rental contract like it’s a nail bomb about to blow. As things stand, Germany is a renter’s paradise. Sign a rental contract and the apartment’s essentially yours – landlords can only evict you by chasing you through the courts for unpaid rent, or if they prove they want to move in themselves. 

Landlords can’t even make tenants leave when they sell. It’s up to new buyers to chase existing tenants out themselves, again by proving that they plan to move in. Rent rises on apartments with existing tenants are also severely restricted, meaning landlords face fines if they push rents beyond levels deemed acceptable by local market experts.

All this makes German property less attractive to absentee landlords – find a cheap looking flat on the market and it generally has long-standing tenants in it paying a peppercorn rent. These tough laws might be seen by the profit-hungry as a way of stiffing landlords, but they have worked brilliantly to ensure fair, stable rents across the country and (until now) saved Germany from housing bubbles like the ones currently bursting across the West. In a city where (as of last year) 90 percent of residents rented, they certainly make city life that much more liveable for the majority. 

Still, it’s easy to see why landlords might snap up unoccupied apartments, and prefer tourist one-night stands to the long-term commitment of a tenant. Not only do they maintain control, they can also charge whatever the market will stand per night (though if you check out Airbnb, you’ll see that Berlin rates are generally reasonable). These ruses seriously irk locals, however, and as an unfair consequence, Berlin is experiencing a reported wave of Touristenhass ("tourist hate"), perhaps a rather overstated term for what boils down to grumbling, plus graffiti shouting things like "no more rolling suitcases."

Temporary guests in private accommodation can be antisocial, but some commentators have also detected an ugly note of xenophobia in the anti-tourist backlash. The wonderfully named writer David Hugendick commented recently in Die Zeit (German language link) that in areas popular with tourists:

Suddenly complaints are not just about vomit in the entrance hall, but around who did it. Indigenous German drunks are [treated as] local color in need of conservation, while Spanish students should just go back and puke where they came from.

While Berliners can indeed be a grumpy lot (their classic quality is supposed to be a form of bad-tempered wit), something clearly needs to change. It’s not likely to be Germany’s rental laws – in fact things are swinging the other way. This summer, the Berlin Senate has been debating the introduction of compulsory holiday apartment permits, possibly backed up with EUR 50,000 fines for illegal lets. Hamburg brought in similar laws earlier this year, and is already threatening unofficial tourist hosts with court appearances. Implementing the law would prove complex, nonetheless. The damaging social effect of an entrepreneur taking 10 flats off the rental market is easier to demonstrate, but what about, say, a family in town seven months a year cutting their expenses with a few months sub-letting? With grey areas everywhere, the authorities are setting themselves up for a tough, complex fight.

Whatever happens, I’ve decided I’d rather stay out. I withdrew my offer on the apartment, which apparently went to the parents of a Humboldt University freshman the very same day. I don’t regret letting it go. It was partly low rent that drew me here first, and I don’t want my sucking one more flat off the rental market to help further hasten its disappearance from the scene. Rents will rise without me, of course, but I just don’t feel comfortable both missing Berlin’s past and speeding its demise at the same time.

Top image: People queue up at reopened Konnopke's Imbiss snack bar in Berlin. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Feargus O'Sullivan covers Europe for The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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