Gentrification by Roma

Roma colonies – originally a phenomenon confined to Neukölln – are sprouting up across Berlin as cynical speculators use Roma migrants to drive out long-term, low-rent tenants and transform their properties into top-end luxury flats.

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Photo by Francesca Torricelli

Roma colonies – originally a phenomenon confined to Neukölln – are sprouting up across Berlin as cynical speculators use Roma migrants to drive out long-term, low-rent tenants and transform their properties into top-end luxury flats.

Until last year, Grunewaldstraße 87 had led the life of a sleeping beauty in the middle of Schöneberg. The ornate, gargoyled, heritage-listed property gem comprises 50 flats in three buildings, half of them empty. But then, within a matter of days, residents found themselves transported into a slum straight out of the backstreets of Bucharest or Sofia.

In 2012, the property, once family owned, was bought over by a mysterious real estate investment firm that goes by the name G 87 Grundbesitz GmbH. Starting in October 2014, under new managing director Klaus Breckner, the company allowed approximately 200 Roma migrants, including 50 children, to fill the vacant apartments – as many as eight to a flat, some sleeping on balconies or the rooftop. Rubbish piled up in the courtyards. The communal toilets in the stairwells soon blocked up, and residents began using mobile toilets in the courtyard – or, according to neighbours, simply throwing their waste off the balconies. Plastic sheets replaced broken windows. A spaghetti network of cables wrapped its way like vines around the buildings. Crime spiked, with knife fights, domestic violence, theft, break-ins and vandalism reported in and around the building.

A policeman shudders at the mere mention of Grunewaldstraße 87. ‘Jawohl, it’s far worse than what the papers say.’

Old-time residents’ nerves were shot to pieces. “I’ve seen it all in 3D, live,” says Jan. He is the last original tenant living in Grunewaldstraße 87’s rear block of flats. For him, the intention behind this sudden invasion is unmistakable. “I’m a victim of gentrification. I was born and bred in Prenzlauer Berg, and I’ve been driven out of four flats there. But I have never experienced anything like this. I just hope other property developers don’t pick up this business model,” he says. Alas, they have. And the trend is growing.

As Roma have been flocking to Berlin, driven out of slums in the western city of Duisburg, scared away by Hungary’s far-right politics and unwelcome in their homelands, greed-driven property companies such as G 87 have greeted them with open arms. By offering them flats in derelict buildings, cynical speculators hope to drive out existing tenants, paving the way for renovations and rent hikes.

And since no one rents flats to Roma, they’re easy prey. “Ten mattresses rented out at €200 each per month in a flat worth €450 quadruples the revenue. Dubious Germans who know their way around bureaucracy act as agents for the Roma, charging hefty fees for work permits and child welfare benefits,” says social worker Daniel Berger. Roma integration specialist and Aachener Housing Association property manager Benjamin Marx describes the phenomenon as a self-propagating scam: give one family member a place to sleep, and the rest of the clan will move in. “How many Roma do you need in 16 hours? Tell me the number and I’ll tell you the price,” he says. “They live in the sewers in Bulgaria and Romania. The chance to live in a hole in a cellar in Berlin is pure luxury. That’s European reality.” Marx, the man responsible for the successful transformation of one Roma settlement in Neukölln’s Harzer Straße, estimates that the number of such colonies in Berlin (over 50, according to recent figures from the city’s Department of Integration), will only increase, especially as shady property speculators and their frontmen perfect their “rat’s nest” development models. As in Grunewaldstraße 87.

Roma women flashing golden teeth stroll by, greeting old-time residents gathered at a sidewalk cafe. “I can’t put up with their hellos anymore,” says Maria, originally from Croatia. Complaining that her new neighbours’ friendliness is cynical and superficial, chain-smoking Maria is at her breaking point. “The Schöneberg council is hopelessly out of its depth – they’ve got one person to cope with over 300,000 homes. Frau [Sibyll] Klotz from the housing office tries to be neutral. She’s done all she can within her power. She’s gotten the broken windows fixed. I’m not going to brand all Roma as being the same, but I can’t say, ‘oh, poor Roma’ any longer,” says Maria. “Love thy neighbour” has its limits.

On the corner, a policeman on foot patrol shudders at the mere mention of Grunewaldstraße 87. “Jawohl, it’s far worse than what the papers say. Crime has gone through the roof since the Roma arrived. We’re constantly there. They’re EU citizens, so we can’t throw them out. Even when they’re not registered, they get away with it by saying they’re just visiting. There’s little we can do.”

Jan and his fellow Grunewaldstraße 87 residents’ letters and complaints to G 87 remain unanswered. The firm’s managing director, Klaus Breckner, was nowhere to be found and never replied to queries. He’s not available for comment, according to the three secretaries in the G 87 office opposite upmarket department store KaDeWe. Residents are not the only observers who suspect Herr Breckner is a frontman for millionaire property speculators from Eastern Europe (see below).

The Grunewaldstraße 87 residents’ only hope is to take the owners to court. They have staked their hopes on Berlin’s tenants’ rights lawyer Christoph Müller, who says he has spotted a weak spot in the armour of Berlin’s property speculators. “The G 87 company is a chimera,” says Müller. “It’s the Cayman Islands of property speculation. Mr. Brechner’s firm is a letterbox company. They’re trying to kill two birds with one stone. Drive the residents out and then renovate or re-sell their Berlin property gems for enormous profits. But some 200 to 300 police operations in the house represents a serious breach of contract and of the peace.” Müller expects court proceedings to get bogged down in red tape be fore a decision is reached. G 87’s obstructionism and Germany’s Napoleonic legal procedure are his greatest bogeys. “There’s no jury system – it’s all down to a magistrate to decide what’s right and what’s fair. That can take a long time,” he says. He expects a decision on Grunewaldstraße 87 within six months at the earliest.

In the meantime, however, the property company, which according to Müller purchased the building for €5.9 million, has begun offering long-standing tenants financial deals to break their contracts and move out. “They’re trying, but we won’t go for that,” says Maria. “We want our home back and we’re gonna fight for it.” Only one pair of renters – an ageing Turkish couple – has moved out thus far. The rest have stayed on. “It’s really sad. We’re being used as playthings. I’ve never had any bad experiences with the Roma here. They’re like all of us – they just want to feed their families and get on with their lives,” says Jan. As he is speaking, a violent, push-and-shove argument breaks out between two heavily built Roma men by the building’s entrance. A car with UK number plates and a bullocky Roma driver pulls up. Money changes hands. There is never a dull moment in the new Grunewaldstraße 87.

Dodgy landlords

The ownership structure of the building at Grunewaldstraße 87 is rather opaque. According to the Berlin property register, the house belongs to G 87 Grundbesitz GmbH, registered at Keithstraße 2-4, in Schöneberg close to KaDeWe. The managing director is Klaus Breckner, but the commercial register lists Crewkerne Immobilien GmbH as the majority shareholder, a company which is itself owned by a firm in Cyprus and a man in Kiev.