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John Riceburg: Robbed by the landlady

John's Hausverwaltung may be illegally charging him more money for a relatively common practice among tenants here. And, with regret, he's just going to let it happen...

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Photo by Incase (CC BY 2.0, Flickr)

I’ve been robbed!

But don’t worry – I wasn’t harmed. Just humiliated. You see, this wasn’t an assault with a knife. No, this is just the everyday extortion of Berlin’s housing market.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’m subletting a room while my partner is traveling. And for that, I am legally required to get permission from my landlady. If I sublet without permission, I could potentially get evicted without notice. (And in my apartment building, I’ve already had to witness one eviction in the middle of winter.)

The woman from the Hausverwaltung, for her part, can impose all kinds of conditions before giving her consent. In this case, she demanded €30 per month on top of the standard rent. Right there in my rental contract it says that she is allowed to charge a fee for Untermiete (subletting).

I’ve spoken to three different lawyers about this. According to them, German courts are clear that my landlady can demand a fee if – and only if – there are objective reasons. For example, if the subletting means more people will be living in the apartment, leading to additional wear and tear.

But the fee, like everything in German contractual law, is subject to Verhältnismäßigkeit, i.e. it needs to be reasonable. And in my case, there are still just two people living in the apartment. Nothing’s really changing. So the €30 fee, without an exact list of what exactly that’s paying for, is not reasonable – it’s arbitrary. The clause in the contract illegal.

So what should I do? All three lawyers agreed: Write her a stern letter explaining why I refuse to pay her illegal fee. Then, it can be presumed, she would refuse to agree to the subletting. Then I would file a lawsuit to force her to give permission. This has all been hashed out in German courts, and it’s an open-and-shut case: She would have to pay the court costs, as well as my lost income from the room.

But – and this is a big but – I would need to spend a few months in a legal battle with the Hausverwaltung. For my lawyer friends, this is their profession and their passion. In their dry explanations of legal precedent, I can hear them chomping at the bit to go into battle. But me? I don’t have the nerves for this. Even getting letters from a lawyer falsely accusing me of illegal filesharing made my hair stand on end.

So what to do? We need to fight back. If renters are successful in imposing illegal fees like this, they will only be encouraged to invent ever new ones. Don’t put up with their bullshit. Join a tenants’ association (Mieterverein). Put these sharks on notice that you know your rights and will fight for them.

Me, on the other hand… The idea of an ongoing legal battle with the person who has the power to kick me out of my home… I don’t want to say I would never be up for it, but certainly not for €30. So… my new roommate graciously agreed to pay, since she doesn’t want a long fight with the Hausverwaltung either.

This is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” blogs. I’m going to pick other battles to fight. But if you want to fight a battle like this yourself, I’ve got your back.