“The Mietendeckel wurde gekippt!” Shouted my housemate from his bedroom.
What? Verdammt. I really thought that Berlin could be different.
Who am I? I’m a US-American by birth, and since 2018 I’ve dared to call myself a Berlinerin. Upon my first visit to Berlin, I fell in love. There were ideas here that I was never allowed to explore growing up in the state of Iowa or grinding through my graduate education in rural Pennsylvania. People here in Berlin shunned capital, the role of companies, the protestant work-ethic and thought of the access to housing and creative spaces as a basic human right. We still do. Upon moving here, I read and talked to others as much as I could about the long history of city politics, and hoped and prayed that I could participate in the popular forces that keep this city weird, alive, and vibrant.
And I did. When the rent control (German: Mietendeckel) was passed, I was intrigued, although also confused. I didn’t come from a city like New York, where rent control is part of common working-class knowledge, even where, like most capitalist cities, rents are a never-ending burden.
At the time, I was living in an over-priced, albeit beautiful, Prenzlauer Berg apartment near Mauerpark, a part of the city infamous for what academics categorize as super-gentrification. It was not that I was longing to live in ‘Penzelberg’, even though the turn-of-the-century building style has been beautified nicely for the eye (not for the pocketbook). It was the only apartment I could find in 2018 when we moved to Berlin. We paid 1600 warm a month for 89m2. The apartment was “furnished” with an old tube TV, a decaying sofa (literally stuffed with hay), and a few other miscellaneous furniture items.
Several months later, the rationale behind the dysfunctional furniture in the apartment became clear: furnished apartments were exempt from the failed attempt at rent control from the city of Berlin. We also rented for one year at a time, as the woman who owned the apartment, the resident of the ground floor, claimed that she someday wanted to downsize by moving into our apartment.
Refuge in Wedding
In effect, these one year contracts nullified the tenants’ protections we had under German law. When the new rent control was passed, it became clear that we would be unable to take advantage of it. If we asked our landlord about it, we assumed she would decide it was high time to move into the apartment herself—or simply search for another tenant. So we decided to move to Wedding.
Der Wedding kommt. True, rents aren’t what they used to be in Wedding. You can no longer find an apartment for 200€/month here. But according to the city gentrification researchers, Wedding is the last central part of the city to gentrify. In an essay from 1900, Rothj Werke beautifully writes “Im Wedding hört die Grammatik auf und das Geld auch.”
In Wedding, we found a refuge in the form of a Hinterhaus Altbauwohnung with a long-term rent contract—albeit with a sweating, macho neo-Nazi housing manager. We are certain we got the apartment thanks to our race, family status and class. We are a white, married cis-heterosexual couple with two incomes and no children, and for the application, they asked for a photo of us. Later, the housing manager commented on our need to keep our future children away from the “curly haired children” of the neighborhood.
But with a long-term rental contract, we could call the rent control into effect on our apartment, and in some small way, fight the racist, classist garbage this housing manager and his company perpetrate. And we did, through hours of letter writing, free-legal consultationprovided by the red-red-green Berlin Senate, and hand wringing, and a bit of a rush at finally having success. The result?
Today, the rent control was overruled.
We will have to pay back one year of so-called underpaid rent. Luckily for us, we saved back the sum, and it was small enough for our apartment, which has never been renovated except to add a 2m2 bathroom. Many other Berliners weren’t able to save back the money that they could potentially pay back. The rent was just too high to begin with.
I have hope that Wedding, but also Berlin, will remain red. In our Kiez, several new buildings are going up which will contain one-room furnished micro-apartments, which the sign on the building boasts are “a fantastic investment”. Although the character of Wedding may change, the exploitation of the working class here will not. Those who will move in there will likely be white students and white-collar workers moving to the city who could not find anything else before the start of the semester or their new job.
But the biggest mistake we as residents of the Kiez can make is to fall for the lie that these newcomers are the ones ruining our Kiez, moving to Berlin, making rents rise, pushing out racial minorities, and bringing a Denns Biomarkt to the corner where it was never wanted. Yes, they (or better said, we) are complicit in this system by living in it, but we did not create it and actively reject it. We, like the original residents of the neighborhood, are forced to live in it.
That is the wiley weapon of the patriarchal white-supremacist capitalists. They divide us and colonize our minds by pitting us against each other. It is how they attempt to coerce workers to believe trade-unions will not protect them. It is how they attempt to take huge real-estate companies for emminent domain are an attempt to take your family home, all the while using the same tool to steal family farms for interstates.
In reality, it is not the fault of the family which cleans up litter in the park or the vegan-feminist-antiracist artist which pastes-up her latest creation for driving prices up in the neighborhood. That fault lies alone with the failure of the city of Berlin to protect her residents from unbridled profiteering on a basic human need. Now it also lies with the constitutional court.
I will fight it with every tool I have. Granted, the tools I have at the moment are limited. As a foreigner with an Aufenhaltserlaubnis, I cannot vote in any German elections. I will influence my spouse’s vote, just as women did in the days before our suffrage was won from the patriarchy. I will go to the demonstration tonight on Hermannplatz. I will write this article.
Verdammt, I will fight.