Finding a home in Berlin

Think finding a flat is hard? Try it as an unemployed welfare recipient. For Berlin’s most vulnerable residents, the housing shortage is becoming a homeless crisis. People in Germany's Hartz-IV system are facing the streets.

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Illustration by Agata Sasiuk

Think finding a flat is hard? Try it as an unemployed welfare recipient. For Berlin’s most vulnerable residents, the housing shortage is becoming a homeless crisis.

Everyone who has scoped properties for rent in Berlin recently understands that it’s tough to find a decent affordable flat, but none of us have felt the pinch more than Bruno (name changed), a 35-year-old who has been homeless since 2009 following a stint in jail. The Mitte-born Berliner received a six-month sentence for being caught several times without a BVG ticket and charged with assault for pushing a ticket inspector.

As he was no longer considered a ‘job seeker’, the Jobcenter stopped paying rent on his Neukölln flat while he was in jail. Upon his release, he was greeted with an eviction notice. Bruno now lives off minimum welfare in a supported living accommodation. He has applied for flat after flat to no avail: since 2009, he has visited an average of 12 flats per month and gotten over 300 rejections from landlords.

Bruno is just one of the hard-up residents who are being kicked in the teeth by the disappearance of affordable housing in Berlin. Apartment blocks are changing hands and after ‘luxury renovations’ the rent goes up, sometimes doubles, and the old tenants are pushed out. With no rent limit for new tenants, most landlords aren’t upset to see the old residents go.

“The landlord is, under current law, able to allocate 11 percent of the modernisation costs on the tenant’s rent. The higher the cost of the modernisation, the higher the allocation,” explained Wibke Werner of the Berliner Mieterverein (Berlin Tenants Association). Their internal survey revealed that the average rent increase after a modernisation is €1.50 per square metre. “In some exceptional cases this price can be significantly higher,” added Werner.

Since May of last year it has become easier for landlords to evict, too. They can effectively get a court order after just one month’s missed rent. The chance for tenants to object to modernisation has also decreased under the new law and the right to lower the rent payments during construction has been made impossible for the first three months of the work.

Der Arbeitskreis Wohnungsnot (AK-WO), a consortium of 70 institutions of public and private providers for the homeless in Berlin, say that the affordable housing shortage could become a homeless crisis. And they are warning that it is becoming a case of once homeless, always homeless. The group’s job is becoming impossible as more and more of the 319,718 Berlin households dependent on Hartz-IV payments, including those in badly paid full-time jobs that need topping up by social benefits, spiral into debt, rent arrears and forced eviction – a situation only exacerbated by the social welfare system’s inflexible bureaucracy.

No one can say how many homeless people live in Berlin. Politicians who have asked the Senat for statistics in the past were told that it was not possible as each court deals with evictions in their own area and no overall figure is kept.

“This is a city where we can tell you how many dog licences and fishing licences were issued last year, yet no one can say how many people were evicted? We know from our work that the number is shocking, but requests for the figure to the Berlin Senat have been left unanswered,” said Philipp Wolffram, a social worker for Neukölln homeless organisation Neue Wege e.V. and a member of AK-WO.

While there is no exact figure for Berlin, the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Wohnungslosenhilfe (Federal Working Group for the Homeless), estimates that the number of homeless in Germany has risen a staggering 15 percent to 248,000 in the past two years. They cite low wages, escalating rent prices and wrong decisions by the Jobcenter as the cause. In Berlin in particular, job centres have come under much criticism, with 40,000 outstanding legal cases against them clogging up social courts in 2012.

Much of this criticism has to do with their strict sanctions on those who do not comply with their requests. Benefits and rent payments can be withheld if an applicant’s paperwork is not in order or they miss interviews or appointments.

Last year, unemployed rapper Leonard Kroppach, aka Tapete, was threatened with sanctions simply for a line in one of his songs: “Thanks to Father State for letting me live at his expense.” After the Jobcenter discovered the lyric online during a routine investigation, case workers summoned Kroppach and told him that they did not see why his bills should be paid while he makes fun of them. Kroppach then received a letter asking him to explain the phrase in writing.

Still more troubling is their rigid adherence to rent limits. For the first six months that someone is on Hartz-IV, the Jobcenter pays their rent in full. After that, they are subject to a rent cap of around €400 per month, varying somewhat according to building size and heating type. If their rent is higher than that – even by “€20 or €30 per month”, according to Wolffram – they are asked to find a cheaper flat. Which, given the current housing market, is a tall order. “Finding a flat that meets the Jobcenter’s housing benefit limit is like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Wolffram. “Even if a flat is found, some of the job centres require weeks to process the application for the rent, and by that time the flat has gone to someone else.”

Wolffram also points out the short-sightedness of a system under which the Jobcenter might save pennies in the short term by stopping paying housing benefits for those who have not complied with their regulations, yet ends up spending much more, to keep these people in homeless shelters. Many of the city’s guest houses are now full with Hartz-IV recipients who have been evicted. The government pays up to €25 per person, per day to the guest house owners. That’s €750 per month, per person. Yet the apartments they were forced to leave may have cost just €450 per month.

To highlight just how impossible it is for those people to be rehoused, AK-WO invited the press along to a flat viewing with one of their clients in Weisestraße, Neukölln. A 34sqm flat advertised as a “lovely bright studio apartment with large kitchen” is going for €399 cold. It’s more like a box with a kitchenette. Nevertheless, Bruno visited it – along with about 20 others. The landlord took his name down on a list and promised to contact him by phone, but Bruno doesn’t believe in miracles.

“I feel hopeless when I’m in the queue with many, often far wealthier, competitors,” he says. A CV stating “jail” and “Hartz-IV” is arguably not helping either. He wants to work, but it’s hard to get your life together when you don’t even have a permanent roof over your head. His back still prevents him from doing car maintenance or the building work he once did.

One housing company employee said she didn’t believe people on benefits should be entitled to an apartment in the city centre.

With few affordable homes on the market, many of Berlin’s poorest know Bruno’s plight all too well. As part of their work, several homeless organisations find and rent affordable accommodation and sublet it to the most needy, but this part of their job is growing harder and harder. As Wolffram says, “With a clean credit sheet and resources to refurbish apartments, we can find hardly any new homes, so what chance has a homeless person who has debts?”

The AK-WO cite failures in Berlin social housing policy as a strong reason for the housing shortage. In the past 20 years there was a vast withdrawal of the government from the state-owned housing companies. Strapped for cash, the Berlin government sold off streets of flats to private contractors who are free to modernise and resell the flats with no consideration for previous tenants. An example of this process has come to the public eye with the Märchenviertel in Köpenick. Seven hundred flats, once state-owned, are being sold to private investors and long-term residents are left fearing for their homes as they will not be able to afford new rent prices. Many have already packed up and left.

The Berlin Senat estimates that, per year, 10,000 new flats have to be built to meet demand, but the Berliner Mieterverein is sceptical whether this will resolve the affordable housing shortage: new buildings tend to equal rent increases. And while some housing companies receive government funds to provide social housing, says AK-WO, they seem to be more committed to profit than to their social responsibilities.

This was highlighted in 2012 by sociologist Christine Barwick, who looked into the criteria for getting a flat with the six main housing companies that the Berlin government holds shares in. Although those companies are supposed to build affordable social housing, Barwick found that in many cases their flats exceeded Jobcenter limits. She also found prejudices against people on Hartz-IV: one housing company employee even said she didn’t believe people on benefits should be entitled to an apartment in the city centre.

With about 10 percent of Berlin’s population depending on such social benefits, the much-quoted “right to housing”, says Wolffram, is for many people a fiction.