Berlin's Gentrification Row Locals Rage Against Rising Rents

Berlin's Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts were once known for cheap rents and diversity. But their edgy urban charm has attracted both affluent residents and international investors, jacking up rents in the process. Now long-time locals are fighting to keep their flats.


By Christopher Cottrell

Above the gritty caverns and stale air of the Hermannplatz subway station, thousands of Berliners came together last Saturday in the city's Neukölln district in a gesture of solidarity. Middle-aged parents pushed baby strollers alongside leather-clad adolescents with colorful hair, protesting what they all see as the systematic displacement of the city's lower (and even middle) class residents.

"A lot of people showed up from very different backgrounds," said local resident Lisa Wendt, an active member of her local "Kiez Initiative," or neighborhood association. The 26-year-old helped organize the demonstration, which she claimed attracted around 6,000 protesters -- although police put the figure at 2,500. "People joined in along the way too. Clearly this is an issue that affects everybody," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

For years, Berlin's unique Bohemian flair has attracted students and creative types. But the affordable rents of the past have slowly begun to disappear as the city continues to undergo a rapid post-reunification transformation. Now international investors have set their sights on the German capital as typically working-class districts like Neukölln and Kreuzberg -- which have traditionally had large immigrant populations -- become increasingly popular with middle-class Germans and new arrivals already accustomed to paying more money for less space in the cities where they came from. This influx of outside money has sent rents in Berlin's central districts through the roof. And that, in turn, has angered long-term residents who feel turfed out of their homes.

Cost of Living Spikes

Nearly 62,000 people have moved to Berlin in the last decade, many of whom have settled in the Mitte or Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg districts, according to a 2010 rent review published this summer by Investitionsbank Berlin, which supports development in the city-state. One effect of the population growth has been a six percent average rent increase in the last two years, the Berlin 2011 rent review showed. But city-wide figures fail to highlight the fact that in some areas -- like those at the heart of Saturday's protest -- the cost of living has exploded.

The Berlin tenants' association, the Berliner Mietverein, recently cited a 2010 study from the Topos Institute which said apartments in the Reuterkiez area of Neukölln were going for 13 percent more than in 2007. Market analysis carried out by the left-leaning German daily Die Tageszeitung, meanwhile, claimed this summer that rents in Neukölln have increased by 23 percent. While rent in Berlin is still cheaper compared to other large German cities, income tends to be much lower than in places like Hamburg and Munich. But the percentage of income spent on housing tends to decrease as income rises regardless of the city, leaving low-income earners disproportionately affected by the increased cost of living.

Wendt, for example, used to live in Friedrichshain, a district across the Spree River from Kreuzberg which had been part of East Berlin before the Wall came down. By the time she moved in, a deal had been agreed to privatize the state-owned apartments built by the city's housing society -- a public body tasked with providing low-income residents with an affordable place to live. Between 2002 and 2007, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit approved the sale of around 110,000 apartments owned by the city. He also axed a support program for 28,000 state-subsidized apartments.

Eventually, ownership of her apartment building changed hands too, and Wendt and her neighbors began receiving notices about planned renovation and visitation appointments -- the new owners were looking to sell her apartment to the highest bidder. The improvements were more than necessary, she said. And even though she would have only had to pay for a fraction of them, the increased living costs eventually pushed her across the river to more affordable Neukölln.

'It Just Gets More Expensive'

For 18 months, Wendt has lived in a building in Neukölln which belongs to an investment firm in Luxembourg. "For a while, no repairs were done. We had water damage more than once and no one cared," she said. "But now that they're looking to sell the place, they sent us all letters requesting access to our apartments so they can assess the value and renovate." Wendt, having been through a similar process before, called a meeting of all the tenants and together they decided not to give the owners access to their apartments, thereby preventing any renovations. "If they want to bring our building up to code, fine," she said. "But if they want to modernize everything then it just gets more expensive for us." That was three months ago. Since then, they haven't heard a word from their landlords in Luxembourg.

Wendt was far from being the only Berliner at the demo who regards the privatization of the housing market with contempt. Berndt N. has lived in the Bergmannkiez neighborhood of Kreuzberg for 28 years -- having moved in when it was still separated from the other side of the river by the Berlin Wall. Leaning on his bicycle while delicately rolling a cigarette, he recalled the days when Kreuzberg used to be home to countless artists and students. Fortunately, he lives in a rent-controlled apartment, paying as little as a quarter of what some residents around him do.


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