Earlier this week screenshots circulated of a post on one of Berlin’s many English-speaking community Facebook groups. The post, offered a room for €100 a week in the trendy Weserstraße area of Neukölln but it wasn’t a room it was a bathroom and the new tenant would have to bring their own mattress. The post also stipulated various conditions of the offer including a “house showering schedule”, which required the occupant to vacate their bedroom between the hours of 6:30 and 8am.
As the screenshot spread across Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, a few of the more outlandish details caused many to speculate about whether or not this was a genuine offer. It’s true many aspects of the advert did seem a little far-fetched: a three legged dog called Jodi; the claim the former tenant’s 4 ft 8 (142cm) girlfriend slept in the bath; and the suggestion that said bathroom would make a good home for a musician due to the fantastic acoustics. The characters took on a life of their own when followers of the Instagram account Berlin Ausländer Memes created memes featuring Jodi the dog, the 4’8 girlfriend, and various pop culture references to bathrooms. Joke or not, the bathroom sublet had certainly touched a nerve.
The Housing Crisis
Despite its more outrageous details, the fact that many believed the offer to be true, spoke volumes about the current state of Berlin’s growing housing crisis. Online comments pointed to similar extreme situations in cities such as Dublin, San Francisco and Paris. While there are many causes and local-specificities to international crises , the situation in Berlin mirrors that of ,global cities from Hanoi to Buenos Aires. Time and again, average housing costs exceed incomes, forcing people into insecure and informal housing and opening up many opportunities for exploitation.
Historically low-rent and working class neighbourhoods, such as Neukölln, have seen housing prices rocket and long-term residents forced out as non-German speaking professionals move in. And like in many other cities, the existence of these new residents has caused significant tension in the city. In Neukölln it’s common to see “Yuppies Go Home” graffitied on new businesses perceived to be gentrifiers, including managed apartments and high-end shops. The crisis has accelerated in recent years. Three decades after Berlin’s reunification, the city has continued its transformation into a hub for start-ups, offering some relatively high-salaries, in what is still one of the poorest regions of Germany. The crisis in Berlin also reflects the international dimensions of the housing issue. Young people arrive in large numbers from even less affordable cities, where people have no option but to remain living with their parents well into their 20s and 30s.
A defining feature of the national and international housing crisis is property speculation. And despite their willingness to pay rents well above the city’s legally defined upper limits (Mietpreisbremse), it is not wealthy migrants causing the housing crisis. It is instead commodification that is at root. The investors who took an opportunity during Berlin’s state sell off of DDR housing in the 90s then speculated, leading to the sharpest increase of property prices in the world. These investors and their predecessors, are often big-players Akelius, Deutsche Wohnen and Pears Global. They see property not as homes and community spaces but as opportunities for accumulation, and have no qualms raising the rents and evicting long-standing tenants. The recent evictions of bar Syndikat and Leibig34 show as much.
All is not lost
Berlin’s housing crisis has not yet reached the extremes of Dublin and San Francisco where sharing a bedroom with one or many other tenants for upwards of €1000 a month is commonplace. Crucially, unlike these cities there is at least some political will in Berlin to do something about it. The new Mietendeckel laws seek to drastically reduce and cap rents. But they currently face significant legal challenges and it remains to be seen if they will become a reality. But the fact these new regulations have got this far shows some willingness in local government to take radical action. Campaigns to end the stranglehold of corporate investor landlords, namely Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen are working towards a city-wide referendum on expropriation. Meanwhile the city’s active tenant unions including Berlin Mieterverein advocate for tenant rights while providing legal advice and education on the existing rental laws.
Although they are not to blame for the housing crisis, there is a political passivity to Berlin’s new and often transient residents. Without the right to vote and often lacking German language skills, many are not engaged with local politics and unlikely to exercise their existing rights when it comes to housing. It may not be an immediate solution to exploitative sub-letters offering a bathroom with added three-legged dog, but collective tenant pressure is important. This focused on local government and unscrupulous property investors, plus new demands for wide-ranging sustainable house building programs, could lessen the opportunities for exploitation of Berlin residents old and new. The Berlin Ausländer memes are good – but it’s time to organise too.