• Berlin
  • Sublet Sagas: How Berlin’s housing crisis is driving residents to the edge


Sublet Sagas: How Berlin’s housing crisis is driving residents to the edge

Berlin's grim housing situation has trapped some residents in a purgatory of temporary tenancy.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Lauren* has lived in Berlin for almost two years, and in that time, she’s had 10 different apartments – all of them sublets. Her current flat in Mitte has a particularly strange caveat: she’s required to let the owners use the apartment as their office, turning her living room into a coworking space and her kitchen into a break room where her landlords make their lunch. “I never know when they’re going to walk in the door,” she says. It’s far from the first time she’s agreed to a subpar arrangement; the pressure of finding the next place to live sometimes means ignoring your instincts. “I should have known it would be red flag, red flag, red flag,” she says of her housing hunt. “But when you’re in a desperate state, your perspective of what you can agree to changes – especially when you have this fear of, well, what else? Where else, what else could I do?”

“Logistically, it’s a huge huge problem, because everything in Germany is so tied to this concept of the Anmeldung.

Lauren’s story is far from unusual in Berlin. The city is in the throes of a housing crisis. There is a shortage of new apartments, and finding a permanent lease has become a golden ticket. According to the Berlin-Brandenburg Office for Statistics, at least 141,000 more people were living in Berlin by the end of 2022 than five years ago, and a city urban development plan released in 2019 claims Berlin needs at least 194,000 additional apartments by 2030 to keep up with all this population growth, a number that’s likely even higher now.

Photo: Makar Artemev

This housing shortage makes the rental market far more competitive. In a recent analysis by the real estate portal Immowelt, asking rents in Berlin jumped by a whopping 27% between November 2022 and March of this year. Lucky Berliners who already boast an indefinite lease are clinging fast to their apartments as housing becomes more and more valuable (across Germany, it’s considered reasonable for rent to be about €6.50-€7.50 per square metre; in Berlin, it’s as high as €12.55). If they do want to move out, there’s plenty of incentive to keep their names on the old lease, hold on to their hard-to-find asset and simply sublet. All of this has created an industrial complex of sublets, thriving off an unwilling mass of people caught in a loop of short-term accommodation, extended Airbnbs, house-sits and other temporary arrangements.

Sublet story: Garret has been through 20 apartment sublets in the last 2 years. Despite being a Berlin resident for a decade, he’s been unable to find a permanent lease and is so fed up that he wants to leave Berlin.

This is a situation I’m all too familiar with myself, having bounced across 25 apartments since moving here in 2018. In the beginning, it can feel freeing – we stuff our suitcases, trying to reframe the two bags our entire life fits into as a bold, minimalist move as we drop the keys through the letterbox and say goodbye to that little studio apartment near that coffee shop where they had just begun to know our faces. Then, a new Kiez. A new corner of Berlin. After a while, not only does the fatigue kick in, but with more moves comes the increased likelihood that you’ll start to gather negative experiences. 

Bad Roomates

For Fred*, a researcher who arrived in Berlin in 2017, it takes a minute of mental gymnastics to even recall the number of sublets he’s been in, having trailed his possessions between eight homes across Weisensee, Wedding, Moabit, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte before finally landing a contract in Pankow. Constantly thinking about where he would live next exacerbated pressure to take gambles with his well-being, he explains.

“It’s not just the toll of always moving, which in itself is exhausting, but it’s also the reasons you had to move. You take what you can get and you don’t really get to know a person before you move in, and then you’re living with them and then you realise either at best you have different lifestyles that conflict, or at the worst, that they’re a dangerous person,” he says. “There was one time where I was really desperate, I needed a place ASAP. I moved into the apartment without meeting the guy beforehand, we’d only communicated through Messenger – that is a big mistake,” Fred warns. “Just even one conversation in person I think you can get the vibe, and that was something I regretted doing and I did move out of that sublet a lot earlier than expected.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

He’s cautious to reveal identifying specifics of some of the more harrowing experiences. “I’ve lived with people who were inviting women into the WG only based on their appearance, and because they were the contract holder, other people in the WG didn’t have a say. And that same person left candles burning in the apartment as he’d go out partying. The candle burnt down and fell into his hamper and caused the entire apartment to light on fire.”

Others encountered even more explicit harassment. One such subletter, Ash, an IT worker who moved from Dublin to Berlin two years ago, saw the darker side of the rental market on the 30-40 apartment viewings she went to before finally landing a long-term home. “[People] would be nice over Messenger and then I’d go to the viewing and they’d be making jokes about how we could share a bed, just really inappropriate jokes, and when someone is desperately trying to find somewhere to live, it makes the whole thing scarier.” She developed a security routine: “I’d send my location to a guy friend in Berlin and someone back home in Dublin before every viewing.”

Moved to Tears

Even if you manage to land a safe, reasonable situation, it’s likely temporary, which means subletters often have to keep their belongings to a minimum. Large wall art, big kitchen items and furniture all mean more to haul when you move. “You never know how much the next place could cost. Nor where your next neighbourhood could be, nor how many roommates you’ll have,” says Moira*, who came to Berlin from Argentina a year ago and has since moved three times, squeezing her life into two big suitcases and an accordion. Berlin is a city that once built an international reputation as an affordable place for artists, yet Moira, a musician who subsidises her artistic pursuits with a job in hospitality, finds that her income makes it nearly impossible to find somewhere affordable. In her current apartment, her roommate renews her contract every three months, creating indefinite housing instability. “As an immigrant, you’re just doing your best to root yourself in the city,” she says. “The only upside – although I wouldn’t call it that – is that I can get to know the city a bit better.”  

Photo: Makar Artemev

Ash, who bounced across eight apartments between Prenzlauer Berg, Neukölln and Friedrichshain before finding a contract, also sees an upside. She enjoys change and exploration and found moving neighbourhoods exciting – for a time. “In the beginning, I was just so happy to be here,” she recalls. “I was figuring out the city, so every time I moved I’d have to explore a new place. But after maybe the fifth move it did get tiring, really tiring.”

It’s physically taxing to move so often, of course, but there’s also a mental toll to all this housing instability. After five years in his four-room apartment in Neukölln, Garrett* was forced to leave in 2020 and has been subletting since, sometimes staying places for just a week or two at a time – he’s lost count after more than 20 different apartments. “The situation has become so toxic,” says Garrett, who arrived in the city in 2013, and feels that after a decade of calling Berlin home, finding reasonable housing should be his right. “My network is big after so many years, so [finding sublets] has not really been a problem. The issue is just that nothing is really amenable or comfortable. It’s just exhausting living in somebody else’s life,” he says. “The idea of having to start again from scratch at two or three times the price is such a [difficult] proposition.”

Sublet story: Lauren* has been through 10 apartments in 2 years, all of them sublets. She has to let the owners of her current apartment use the living room as their office on weekdays.

Garrett, like many in Berlin, is a self-employed creative, and the severe housing insecurity has made it difficult to produce work. He also works from home, which adds “extra pressure” to the situation. It’s disrupted details of his life both big and small. “For me, it’s not even being able to order anything from Amazon… it’s not being able to plan anything.” He hasn’t been able to register his address at any of the sublets; he’s able to get mail at his old place, but only intermittently. “I’ve gotten myself into a huge amount of administrative trouble by only picking up the mail every two or three months. Logistically, it’s a huge huge problem, because everything in Germany is so tied to this concept of the Anmeldung.”

Playing Landlord

The vulnerability of desperate subletting tenants is sometimes matched only by the greed of lease-holders, who play de facto landlord, subletting their apartments despite often living elsewhere long-term, sometimes not even in Berlin. Some do it because they haven’t yet found a new place they can register at, caught in the system themselves. Others are holding onto a lease after moving in with a partner – new housing is too hard to come by if the relationship doesn’t work out. And of course, many do it for profit.

Laura*, a Californian who moved to Berlin in 2018, bounced around several sublets as she searched for a permanent home. In 2019, she was living in a WG in Kreuzberg. “It was a big Altbau with all the beautiful moulding on the ceilings and beautiful panelled floors. The main tenant, who hadn’t lived there in 10 years but was registered there, had been treating the WG as a real estate investment since he was in university. He paid very cheap rent,” she explains. “He was using the money from all four of us to finance his nicer flat in Charlottenburg.”

There aren’t even statistics available for how many sublets there are in Berlin, or what the average rent for one is.

Last fall, after the tenants requested a Nebenkostenabrechnung, a receipt for the apartment’s cost on top of rent, the main tenant booted them all out, claiming he wanted to renovate and move back in. Laura suspects he was simply avoiding the potential legal action. “We were all bummed because all four of us knew we had no rights as subletters. I was the last one of us to find a new flat,” Laura says. “The main tenant even started renovating the flat while we were still living there. By the end, I couldn’t use the kitchen or the bathroom, and he wasn’t even reducing my rent. Now, four new people live there and he took his name off the doorbell. I’m sure the Finanzamt would be interested in his earnings! He still won’t give me back my €1,000 deposit, and I’ll have to go through the Mieterschutzbund [tenant association] to get it back.”

Matt came to Berlin in 2019 from New York and is now on sublet number 13. The rent in Berlin felt cheaper than the $3,000 a month he was paying in the US, but he wasn’t used to dealing with landlords who could change the conditions of his housing at whim. His Neukölln landlord initially charged him €1,200 but kept upping the price. “There was this desperation of her trying to extract more money out of me. At the end of the day, she never gave me a rental contact for a reason; it was always, we’ll take it up the next month, and then the next month, and then in the last two months she has just been ignoring my requests. The only time she gets in contact with me is to ask for more money, suddenly showing up at my door demanding,” he says. “Through Covid I’d struggled with depression, and a symptom that came through this experience has been dealing with agoraphobia and acute anxiety, so the prospect of changing homes for me was not just an inconvenience but psychologically distressing.”

Sublet Me Go

There are some proposals in the works to curtail an increasingly chaotic subletting whirlpool in Berlin, but it’s not clear how much they’ll be able to help or when things might settle down. For example, in 2015, Berlin passed a rent cap law dictating that cold rent may not be more than 10% higher than the comparative rent of the local area. In 2020, the system was formally extended through 2025. But there are loopholes. The cap doesn’t apply to short rental periods or furnished apartments – and as of earlier this year, more than half of all apartments currently listed in Berlin are furnished. The law also doesn’t specify how much can be charged for furnishings. A new proposal from Berlin’s Senate is aiming to change that by making it mandatory that landlords offering furnished apartments list the cold rent and the furnishing surcharge individually, which would limit the rental cost based on the value of the furnishings. If tenants thought their landlord was inflating the value of the bed, sofa or dresser, they could challenge it.

Photo: Makar Artemev

If all this sounds bleak, it’s because it is. There aren’t even statistics available for how many sublets there are in Berlin, or what the average rent for one is – though a quick look through a site like Wunderflats will show you just how prolific the short-term rental industrial complex has become. Unfortunately, there’s little to be done on an individual level to make such a sweeping situation better. When housing is so scarce, no one wants to rock the boat and challenge an overcharging Hauptmieter or dispute the legality of auto-renewing short-term contracts. If you find yourself in a tough situation and want answers, it’s always a good idea to join a Mieterverein – tenants’ associations that can help you with legal support and advice – but otherwise, the best you can do is stay informed and patient as you navigate the mess.

For some, a solution isn’t coming fast enough to make staying in Berlin possible. “All I’m trying to do now is get out,” Garrett says. “This experience, plus what happened in corona, has completely morphed the relationship I have with this city. There’s basically nothing left for me here, even though I’ve lived here for 10 years… it’s so alienated me from life here, to live like a ghost. It’s been an extinction-level event.” He’s working to leave Berlin permanently, headed “anywhere but here”.

Many fear the situation is only going to get worse – or that it could take years, if not decades, to untangle the mess, and the city will never feel as accessible as it once did. “Berlin was very dreamy for many years,” Garrett recalls. “But many of the same things that make it very dreamy can also make it into a nightmare. And that’s what’s happened.”

*Names changed or shortened to protect anonymity