Save Berlin: The devil inside

Faced with the option of buying their co-op, will Spreefeld residents cross into the dark side of capitalism?

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Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

As Berlin wakes from its pre-capitalist slumber, some residents on the Spree have a difficult choice to make. Dan Borden explains.

The residents of Spreefeld, the cooperative housing project on the Spree River, are bracing for an invasion by unwanted guests: rich capitalists. Not down the block or across the street, but right in their midst. When the tight-knit community of three buildings opened its doors two years ago, a contract loophole allowed original residents to buy their flats outright after three years instead of just owning a piece 
of the co-op. As that date nears, Spreefeld’s committed leftists are doing a lot of soul-searching. Buying would mean more than just security: they could make a fortune in a few years, selling to the highest bidder at a giant profit and betraying the project’s anti-capitalist ideals. It’s a ticking time bomb that could tear Spreefeld apart.

Spreefeld resident and housing activist Dr. Michael LaFond sympathises with his neighbours’ moral dilemma. Spreefeld, he says, is Berlin in a microcosm. High-minded Berliners used to laugh at their friends trapped in the high-rent hells of London, New York and San Francisco. Talk all you want about post-capitalism, but skyrocketing real estate prices, fuelled by foreign investors, are just now waking Berlin from its pre-capitalist slumber.

Two years ago, prices for apartments inside Berlin’s Ringbahn averaged €3000 per square metre. Today, they range from €4500/sqm in Friedrichshain to €8800/sqm in Grunau. That’s far from Manhattan’s average price of €16,000/sqm, so we’re safe, right? Well… last month, Berliner Zeitung reported that penthouses in the new Palais Varnhagen on Französischer Straße in Mitte are selling for €15,000/sqm. The buyers – from Mexico, Dubai and Hong Kong – expect a return on their investments.

Feeling the heat, more and more Berliners are tempted to study the capitalist playbook and jump the game. It took about 20 years for those other cities to morph from seedy bohemian melting pots into today’s slick bastions of zombie-like greed worshippers. It’s a slippery slope, and Berlin’s all greased up and ready to slide.

LaFond admits current prices would make it impossible to build Spreefeld today, but 
he preaches hope to those yearning to resist that downward spiral into wealth addiction. His ID22 Institute for Creative Sustainability hosts the annual Experimentdays festival, which touts a range of alternative housing options to shield us from the approaching capitalist storm and prevent us from giving into the dark side.

Anti-greed Jedis

There are a growing number of foundations and “ethical” banks whose mission is taking buildings off the speculative real estate market. Last year, the Swiss Edith Maryon Foundation (last seen saving ex-squat Schokoladen from eviction in 2012) bought a big chunk of the former Kindl Brewery in the heart of hipster Neukölln. The project, named Vollgut, is the brainchild of Spreefeld veterans and currently houses the gay club Schwuz as well as Agora Collective’s CRCLR space. Look for a new wood-framed apartment building nearby for refugees and at-risk women and girls.

United federation of punks

Berlin’s squatter movement may be dead, but its soul lives on in the Miethäuser Syndikat (MS). This anarchist alliance protects squats across Germany by turning them into GmbHs and securing the funding they need to keep afloat. Berlin has 16 MS projects including Malmö 29 in Prenzlauer Berg, a new million-euro, three-story building overlooking the Ringbahn. Twenty residents live in collective harmony under a banner declaring, “Now leaving the speculation sector.”

Sozial six-guns

Berlin’s toughest weapons against profit-driven price increases are the six city-controlled housing corporations that together run 400,000 rental apartments. After a decade of inaction, Gewobag, Degewo and Howoge have gone on the offensive. On January 1, they dropped rent prices for low-income Berliners to one-third of their income. Then they announced a €2.5 billion programme to construct 14,000 new units and buy up existing flats to bring under their rent control.

Given the difficult choice of the Spreefeld residents, would you hold fast or yield to greed? In March, the German business magazine Handelsblatt reported the sad tale of Günther Bloch, who sold his family’s 19th-century Charlottenburg villa in 2005 for €3 million. That buyer sold the house for €6 million, the next for €8.5 million; the current owner paid €12.5 million. Imagine those lost millions! Do you feel Günther’s pain?

There’s your answer.