Over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been working to learn more about the problem of rising rents and gentrification in Berlin, I’ve also had the great pleasure of meeting several people who are working on finding solutions.
One of the first was Barbara König, the director of the Bremer Höhe Genossenschaft (loosely translated as “co-op” in English). We met in a sunny Prenzlauer Berg courtyard on a crisp spring morning.
“The problem we have now is that no one is moving away,” she told me.
It’s no wonder, I said to her, gesturing to the garden around me. The air was ripe with the smell of the lilacs growing next to us. Just on the other side of the brick building surrounding us was Schönhauser Allee, the bustling, busy thoroughfare that slices through Prenzlauer Berg, with its traffic and its metro station and its cyclists fighting with pedestrians for sidewalk space. But in the courtyard, a little green oasis, it was calm enough to hear the bunnies rustling around in their pens one yard over.
“It’s so wonderful here,” I said. “Why would anyone want to leave?”
But that’s not the problem.
No, she explained, “The problem now is that no one can move out because no one can find a better apartment that they can afford.”
In a way, it’s as much a credit to the success of the organization as a critique of the reality outside it. Twelve years ago the residents of the buildings around us banded together to form Bremer Höhe in an effort to secure an affordable future for themselves and others.
In the face of the neighborhood’s now skyrocketing rents, their plan has been so successful that it would be nearly unthinkable for any of them to leave, even if they and their family have long outgrown their apartment.
Bremer Höhe is one of dozens of such housing Genossenschafts in Berlin. Some date back as far as the late 1800s, but Bremer Höhe’s history stretches just over a decade, to the late 1990s, when, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the government was struggling with the complex task of returning properties that had been expropriated by the Third Reich and the Soviet government of the former East Germany to their rightful owners. (Note: This process was happening in all five states that encompassed former East Germany, as well as east Berlin, and involved more than 2.5 million pieces of property. For a fabulous overview of the complex politics of this process, check out this article from the Geographical Review.)
Properties that were not claimed were supposed to be sold off by the government for profit, and in many cases this meant that large swaths of buildings were being sold off to investors.
“The renters were afraid. They knew it wouldn’t be good to have that kind of a landlord whose only goal was to earn a profit,” König told me. “So here a lot of renters said, ‘We don’t want that. We don’t want to be sold, we want to buy it ourselves instead.’”
And so the Bremer Höhe Genossenschaft was founded. At first the group of founding residents numbered about 50. Half a year later that number had grown to 150, each of whom threw €5,000 of their own money into the pot, and together with the help of a loan from the government with an especially low interest rate, they bought and renovated the building.
Today the co-op has 650 members and has since acquired several more buildings, including a small village (yes, an entire village of 75 apartments and one church) just outside Berlin.
Legally speaking, the co-op is more or less like any other private building owner. They pay taxes like any private owner would, and conform to more or less the same rental laws. But the internal structure is much different. The buildings belong to all the members together. Each member pays €5,000 upon moving in and is entitled (though not required) to receive that money back and revoke their membership upon moving out. The finances and operation of the co-op are run by a board of directors, who are voted in by the membership.
But perhaps the most important difference is that the board has a very specific bottom line: to take care of the interests of the co-op’s members, not to earn a profit.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the apartments are inordinately cheap: long-time residents here pay €5 per square meter, and new residents, €5.46, which is the Mietspiegel, or official average, for that type of apartment in the neighborhood (though tenants moving into and signing new rental agreements for regular apartment buildings in Prenzlauer Berg will often pay close to double that—read my recent post to learn more about this).
But the goal is to keep that price as affordable as possible while still covering the necessary costs (loan payments, maintenance, adminstration, and so on) and to not squeeze anyone out. This year, for instance, was the first year the co-op could afford to not raise the rents on the apartments as much as legally possible, so they didn’t.
So I asked König: in a time when so many are concerned, like the residents of Bremer Höehe once were, about getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods by rising rents, this sounds the ideal solution. Why isn’t everyone doing this?
“There’s a lot of talk around Genossenschafts at the moment as people look at what we can do about the development of rent prices. And we always say, yes, Genossenschafts are a good model because it’s for the people who live here and they do everything themselves,” she says. Everyone has to agree to a rise in the price of rent, for instance, she explains. Not once in all 12 years has someone disagreed, because they know that the Genossenschaft has their best interests in mind.
“But the big ‘but’ is that this only happened with a lot of public support,” she adds. The cost of the original buildings, for instance, was €12 million, and the necessary renovations on top of that tacked on another €25 million. “Genossenschafts cannot build or renovate for any cheaper than anybody else. They have to pay the same as anyone else for the building costs, or the cost of land, unless the government assists the process.”
König says this support could come in a number of ways—not just through money or loans, for instance, but also land. The Berlin government has more than 5,000 state-owned properties that a government subsidiary known as the Liegenschaftsfond, is responsible for selling off to the highest bidder. They could instead be used for innovative solutions for affordable housing, like Genossenschafts, she said.
She is not the first to have pitched this to me. Stay tuned as I dig into more examples of innovative ideas Berliners have for Liegendschaftsfond spaces. And tell me below if you know of any more yourself.
In fact, whether you’re from Berlin or not, tell us below: Who is coming up with innovative solutions to keep rent affordable in your city?
Photos: Christine McLaren.