Flat-hunting: A Personal Story
So, look, I was 24 years old when my oldest boy was born – I look back now and think I was just a tiny baby myself. Hartz-IV, the whole system, was new, and I was living in a women’s refuge in West Berlin (remind me to one day tell you guys the story of my women’s refuge experience, how much fun it was, like a slightly twisted, scary boarding school for broken women, how everyone smoked like crazy around my new-born, and how there wasn’t a ramp for you to get in with a pram, but I was so young, I didn’t even take it personally). My son was born in September 2004 and in the new year 2005 the new Hartz-IV system came in.
In my memory – and it could be that my memories are faulty, just like the climate scientists say the boomers are all wrong about the summers in their childhoods being hotter – when I was looking for flats, for me and my boy, a 2-room flat is what we wanted, one room for me and one room for him – in my memory a LOT of the flats were “sozialhilfeniveau” or “Hartz-IV tauglich.” That is to say that a LOT of the flats available were affordable for people like me, who were planning on getting the Job Center to pay their rent and essentially function as guarantors. And one thing’s for sure: those flats which were “too” expensive? They were a hundred euros too expensive, or two hundred euros too expensive. There weren’t many flats two or three or even four times as expensive as the maximum budget allowed to an unemployed person.
Fast forward fifteen years. I’m not going to lie: I am ashamed to admit this. I’m not anti-capitalist enough to not feel ashamed. But still here goes: aged 40, now a single mother with two kids, here I am, trying to find a Hartz-IV flat all over again.
OH MY GOD YOU GUYS IT IS LIKE TRYING TO FIND A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK ONLY YOU HAVEN’T GOT YOUR CONTACTS IN AND YOU’RE ONLY ALLOWED TO USE YOUR LEFT HAND THAT IS LITERALLY WHAT IT IS LIKE. On my darkest days I imagine just buying a tent and moving to Grunewald – or maybe we could move to Chemnitz or somewhere – often I fantasize about moving back to Britain. How bad can Brexit Britain be?
You hear a lot of people defending landlords theses days. You hear people saying this reasonable-sounding, sympathetic stuff about how landlords are just people and they also need to live too. People will tell you stories about plucky, hard-working landlords who just want to provide people with houses but now rent control is going to leave them all destitute.
I listen to these arguments, and part of me thinks they sound reasonable enough. But I also think – and forgive me for being controversial here – I also think the following thing: PEOPLE HAVE TO LIVE SOMEWHERE. Don’t they? Human beings have to live somewhere. And if landlords can’t provide affordable housing and survive off their “work” themselves, then maybe, yeah, just maybe, the state needs to step in. Maybe rent control is a bit of a red herring. Maybe all we need is affordable social housing.
I decided to talk to Thom McGath, a US-American who is active for Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen. I asked him if my memories of 2005 and the glory days of Hartz IV were right. And if so, how come? How has this happened? Was it all a plan by the city government to get rid of single mothers and poor people from the city?
“Well,” explains Thom, “it’s essentially been a complete dereliction by government coalitions, starting with the r2 one in 2004. They sold off almost 70,000 public housing apartments and helped create Deutsche Wohnen, the largest corporate landlord in the city now. Beyond that, there has been almost no investment in building Sozialwohnungen. So people who have a WBS (a certificate entitling you to social housing) can’t get an apartment.”
So it’s not like a dastardly plan to get poor people out of the city, or force single mothers to stay with men who are abusive? It’s just a coincidence?
“Well, Germany also abolished its law that regulated the “Gemeinnützigkeit von Wohnen” which favoured price-bound developments with tax incentives. Add this to the lack of new building and the way that social apartment price binding expires – remember, they are owned by private landlords. So now you see this massive decrease in social apartments.”
The city isn’t planning this then, or anything? It’s not like they don’t want poor people or ordinary people living here – they just don’t care where they live or even if they can afford to live anywhere?
“I don’t think they have a plan, to be honest,” Thom says. “I don’t think they are actively pursuing a policy of making it impossible for poor people to live in the city. But the politicians are prepared to accept this displacement as “collateral damage” so to speak. And they just aren’t building enough social housing. Their plan is that the Mietendeckel – the rent control – will help keep the rent down so people can afford it.”
I tell Thom about how newcomers to Berlin – especially newcomers from more aggressively capitalistic, cut-throat countries than Germany, will often express on expat housing swap groups a lot of sympathy for the poor impoverished landlords, who just want to make money doing a decent job.
“But making money doing what, exactly? Private landlords don’t offer affordable housing in strained markets. Most landlords in Berlin are investors, they aren’t compatible with your image of these mom and pop landlords who just need money for their retirement. And, to be honest, if you can’t offer affordable housing as a landlord, it shouldn’t be your business. And just like any investment, there are risks involved.”
My personal feeling is that if it’s really impossible to provide affordable housing for ordinary people – not just single mothers on Hartz-IV/welfare, but working single mums, or working families with two parents working in retail or caring jobs, for example – if that really is impossible then the state will just have to provide housing for us? It’s, like the only solution, isn’t it?
“They do want to build much more public housing, which is good. The Berlin city government wants to build a lot of new public housing – they want 75% of new building built to be social housing. But it’s not enough. Look at Vienna, where 80% of new housing built is social housing. They decided that ten years ago and the situation in that city is completely different to ours. Last year in Berlin, out of 17,000 new builds, only something like 1000 of them were social housing apartments.”
What exactly is Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen campaigning for?
“So, I’m part of the referendum that wants to expropriate and socialize corporate landowners in Berlin who own 3,000 apartments or more. This includes Deutsche Wohnen, Vonovia, Akelius, Covivo and Pears Global. Our idea is to turn these apartments in to a new institute of public law – kind of like the BVG. One that is run democratically by renters.”
And what do you think the future holds for the Berlin housing market? Do you think the Mietendeckel will be overturned?
“I really can’t say, it will be a judicial decision. I think Berlin might try to buy some time for the next election so who knows! But actually, if the Mietendeckel is overturned, there will be a lot more pressure to move in our direction. At the moment the SPD is against socializing apartments but the Greens and the Linke support us. Who know what the future holds!”
One thing, I think, is certain: it can’t go on like this for much longer!
For more information, see the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Website. Thom McGath will be speaking about affordable housing in Berlin at the LINKE Berlin Internationals Summer Camp. Jacinta will also be there, reading from her new book.