How locals are helping refugees navigate Hamburg’s crowded housing market

How locals are helping refugees navigate Hamburg's crowded housing market
Housing space is scarce in densely populated Hamburg. Photo: Patrik Stollarz/AFP
About 50,000 refugees live in Hamburg, Germany's second largest city. More than half of them currently stay in public housing. They are supposed to move after six months; but on average, refugees remain in these temporary solutions for more than three years.

Hamburg’s housing market makes it difficult to find affordable housing – especially for foreigners. The initiative Wohnbrücke Hamburg tries to support refugees in finding their own living space and to reduce fears and prejudices in the minds of landlords. 

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

The diamond-cut glass stones of the chandelier scatter the light in fragile patterns across the ceiling of the large living room. It is one of the first pieces of furniture chosen by the five-member Al Habbal family for their new apartment.

They only moved in a few weeks ago and have not yet finished furnishing all the rooms. The two daughters share a room with large windows facing the street, while the parents sleep with the youngest son in the other bedroom. The balcony which adjoins the living room is big enough for a laundry rack and the three hookahs that belong to the father of the family. From the living room window one can look out over the neighbours’ gardens, out to where a single palm tree stands on a mowed meadow.

The family used to live in Syria. “We lived 100 metres from the Mediterranean Sea – but the people around us hated each other,” says Abudi Al Habbal. The 47-year-old worked as an engineer in Syria, and during the war he fled with his family to Lebanon. From there, with the support of the UNHCR aid network, they were given seats on a plane to Europe, landing in Germany on April 6th 2014.


Four of the five members of the Al Habbal family. Photo: Hannah Lesch

After their arrival in Germany, refugees are first taken to an initial reception facility. There they are registered and receive medical care. The Al Habbal family moved immediately into a small apartment in a refugee shelter in Hamburg.

There were still some tenants living in the house who had refused to move out when the building was converted into a refugee shelter. “They did not want to have refugees as neighbours. We had very bad experiences with old people there. We were new in Germany at the time and these encounters scared us very much,” Al Habbal reports.

A neighbour called him a “half-human”, and as he talks about it today, one can still see the anger and horror he felt. Further restrictions contributed to the family's feeling of unease in the accommodation: “Our apartment was checked unannounced, we were not allowed to hang anything on the walls,” Al Habbal remembers.

Then the family of five moved again to another public housing shelter. “The second accommodation was new and there was plenty of room for the children to play. But we weren't allowed to stay there for long either,” says the father.

The family looked for a home on their own and early on received support from Christine Becker, a Hamburg native. Becker has shoulder-length blonde hair, a centre parting and wears large glasses with a brown rim. “She is my sister,” says Al Habbal. Becker laughs, but does not contradict him.

The 55-year-old met the family six years ago, when she got to know the family whilst helping the two daughters with their homework through a volunteer programme. “Since then she has been with us frequently and also supports us by phone, WhatsApp and so on. She is part of the family,” adds the Al Habbals’ 15-year-old daughter.


Christine Becker, a volunteer with Wohnbrücke Hamburg. Photo: Hannah Lesch

'30,000 other people are also waiting for an apartment'

Together with Becker, the family started writing applications for apartments. The largest municipal housing provider in Hamburg is the SAGA group, which owns one-sixth of all apartments. The family put itself on their waiting lists. Al Habbal remembers: “Staff there told us: 30,000 other people are also waiting for an apartment.”

In 2018 the 1.89 million people of Hamburg were staying in about 1 million households. Housing space is scarce in this densely populated city.

“According to a staff member of a specialist office for housing emergencies, there are an average of 150 interested people for every apartment that becomes available,” says Alena Thiem. The 36-year old has alert eyes, which are sometimes covered by her straight brown hair. She coordinates the Wohnbrücke Hamburg project, which means “housing bridge”.

The goal of Wohnbrücke is to support refugees in their search for flats. The project does not rent apartments itself but mediates between landlords or housing companies and refugees.

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In Hamburg, more than 13,000 refugees with the right to move into their own homes are still staying in public housing. They acquired this right by either having a residence entitlement, living in shared accommodation for at least six months with a temporary suspension of deportation and the future outlook of staying at least one more year in Germany, a family member having their own income, or for other reasons. A further 10,000 are currently living in public housing without this authorization.

“The demand will certainly not be able to be met even with the current new building projects. Housing shortage is an issue in our city,” explains Thiem.

“Every month, two or three families I know move away. Whoever gets the chance moves somewhere else,” reports Al Habbal. He often got overwhelmed trying to find an apartment. “For Germans it is difficult – for me it is a catastrophe.”

Thiem also sees these challenges: “People who are just starting to learn German and are on welfare benefits and have no experience of living in our country have a particularly hard time finding a place to live. This is exactly where our work begins,” she says.

Every refugee household that registers with Wohnbrücke needs a ‘housing pilot’, a person who offers the landlords an additional contact person during the tenancy. The housing pilots are fluent German speakers who bring along experiences as tenants in Hamburg and try to support the families as volunteers – like Christine Becker.

With support from the Wohnbrücke and Becker, the Al Habbal family found their new apartment in Hamburg city centre. After searching for a home for more than five years, they now have an apartment where they can stay.

'Because home is a place to start'

The Wohnbrücke initiative was launched in November 2015. Since then, successful mediation has enabled 785 households to leave their public housing and move into their own homes. This corresponds to 2,390 people.

But the mediation needs the right timing and a bit of luck. At present, around 400 households are still looking for homes with the Wohnbrücke Hamburg, i.e. they are either on the waiting list, or already in the process of mediation.

The Wohnbrücke belongs to the not-for-profit association Lawaetz-wohnen&leben gGmbH. The motto of this association is “Because home is a place to start”. Having your own living space is the fundamental basis for taking an active part in social life and integrating into social and cultural contexts, says its brochure. An apartment is the prerequisite for being able to pursue a job or an education consistently.

The group of companies not only provides housing for refugees. Other initiatives also try to find housing for women from women's shelters, for young people from sheltered youth homes or for people who have been affected by homelessness.

Since living space is so essential, compromises must be made sometimes. “Often three rooms and 75 square meters are the best I can offer a family of five,” explains Thiem. The average size of an apartment in Hamburg is about 75 square metres. However, most people in Hamburg live alone, and only about 18 percent of households are living with children.

“A major challenge in finding an apartment was the size of the family. This limited the options in Hamburg even further,” says housing pilot Becker. But she and the Al Habbal family were lucky; the new apartment is around 95 square meters.


The Al Habbal family in their apartment with Christine Becker. Photo: Hannah Lesch

Becker was often frustrated by the search for apartments: “The fact that Abudi was still in retraining and the family had a foreign name made it particularly difficult.” Usually she contacted apartments initially in her name, and “as soon as I explained that I was looking for the Al Habbal family, communication often dried up. But openly, these prejudices were rarely expressed.”

To diminish these prejudices with landlords is also a goal of the Wohnbrücke. The housing pilots play an important role in this. Since the beginning of the project, more than 900 volunteers have been trained as housing pilots, learned legal basics and how to create application folders for apartments.

The housing pilots should not act as guardians of the refugees. Thiem describes their role as mediators and supporters: “Living is different all over the world – in Syria, the apartments are larger, the neighbours are further away, the architecture is completely different. Thanks to the communication and exchange, everyone can learn from each other here.”

The landlords with whom Wohnbrücke works volunteer to join the initiative. But even here, preparatory talks sometimes focus on concerns about different cultures, “for example, prejudices about Arab families receiving constant visitors,” explains Thiem.

Such issues need to be discussed and solutions found. “As soon as we create encounters, many prejudices are immediately washed away. The images you had in your head disappear when people stand in front of you,” says Thiem.

“I see the fact critically that our work is necessary,” reflects Thiem. “We live in a society that is not free of prejudice and we live in a metropolis where housing is a scarce commodity. The world would be a better place if our work was not necessary.”

Becker also thinks it is questionable that refugees seem to need a housing pilot to succeed: “If you look at it politically, it shouldn't be necessary at all for me to help the family find an apartment. But the reality is different and for example for arrangements with the landlord such support makes sense,” she concludes.

For family man Abudi Al Habbal, the move and the new address in Hamburg mean a lot. “This apartment is like my country, like my home. I had to flee my country. I don't want to leave my apartment,” he says.

Through this achievement, he can now pursue other goals. Al Habbal has taken a retraining course to become an electrician in recent years and will soon enter the profession: “I can work and be successful because I am so satisfied here.”

Hannah Lesch is a freelance journalist in Hamburg, mainly writing about health, science and society for Der Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung and NDR, among others. She particularly enjoys writing about people who have found solutions – in Germany or abroad. Since she spent a year working in media literacy for the Deutsche Welle Academy in Namibia, she has also been involved in this area.


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