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  • Seymour Gris: Refugees and the Berlin housing crisis


Seymour Gris: Refugees and the Berlin housing crisis

The flood of refugees into Berlin has forced the city to do something about the housing shortage.

Image for Seymour Gris: Refugees and the Berlin housing crisis
Photo courtesy of the Bundesarchiv (1954)

The refugee crisis actually is a crisis on many levels no matter what my colleague Konrad Werner says and away from the international headlines, among other things, it seems that the 70,000 asylum seekers expected to arrive in Berlin this year are already having an impact on the capital’s housing situation. Out of the blue, the Berlin government, the Senat, has announced plans to build 30,000 new flats on 60 different sites across the city within the next 12 months to house refugees and other low-income Berliners, assures Andreas Geisel, Senator for Urban Development. We are told we can expect cheap, pre-fab modular buildings “without cellars”. Not container-villages but something between that and normal apartment blocs. Environmentalists aren’t happy about the plan: a lot of green space is going to be developed. Apparently, disused cemeteries and forested areas are being considered. Trees will be cut down. But apparently such concerns are secondary in these extraordinary times. Details such as how much the new flats will cost exactly are till extremely patchy.

After years and years of doing basically nothing about the housing shortage and rising rents, the Senat has lurched into action over the past few months. In the spring Berlin was the first Bundesland to adopt the new federal law capping rents for new contracts – which immediately led to a modest drop in prices for flats. It’s cracking down (albeit with limited success) on illegal Airbnb rentals and recently the Senat introduced a relatively ambitious new proposal to build subsidised affordable housing for the first time in many years.

The Senat was prodded into action by the threat of a referendum on the issue after Berliner Mietenvolksentscheid gathered tens of thousands of signatures of support earlier this year. But still, better than nothing. The new mayor Michael Müller seems to be a lot more sensitized to the issue than party boy Wowi who welcomed each and every real estate investor with open arms until he resigned last autumn.

And now comes a commitment to construct cheap accommodation on a massive scale. Money has been found where there was previously none. A more paranoid person than I might suspect that the Berlin “construction mafia” figured out a way of turning the refugee crisis into a taxpayer-financed business opportunity. But that would be cynical.

The authorities are scrambling to find space to house refugees as the weather gets colder. There was talk of using Tempelhof Airport (causing the prompt cancellation of the Bread and Butter fair in January 2016 out of concerns that a massive fashion party would be tasteless if held within earshot of refugee dormitories) or even the Velodrom indoor cycle track on Landsberger Allee and other sports arenas. None are particularly well suited. But neither is the tent city in Spandau.

The Berlin Senat’s radical new housing initiative is good news. This summer I had the feeling there were more people sleeping on the streets than ever. It’s the kind of pragmatic Realpolitik that the refugee crisis and housing crisis require. As even Martin Reeh writes in the left-wing Taz, we cannot welcome every Syrian refugee. But we can treat the ones we do – and the poorest Berliners – with dignity and provide adequate shelter.