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Are Germans really fleeing the cities for an idyllic life in the countryside?

With cultural life in the major cities mothballed for over a year, ever more Germans seem to be deciding that they'd prefer a quite life in the countryside. But where are they moving to and which cities have seen the biggest impact?

Are Germans really fleeing the cities for an idyllic life in the countryside?
Döringstadt, a village in Bavaria. Photo: dpa | Nicolas Armer

For 200 years the trend has been going in one direction only – into the cities. 

While in 1800 just five percent of people in what is now Germany lived in cities, by 2019 that proportion had jumped to 77 percent.

The reasons are pretty obvious. The jobs were in the city, while industrialisation of farming made manual labour in the countryside less necessary.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the equation. Suddenly employers have been forced to make use of technologies and infrastructure that have already been there for a while, but which they were reluctant to adopt.

Good Wifi connections and video conferencing have allowed workers to move into home office in an almost seamless fashion.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s new working from home rules

With home office now proven to function for businesses, more people could be tempted to live away from the major cities all of which have been dealing with housing crises and soaring rents for at least a decade.

A survey the Local reported on in February showed that almost 30 percent of young professionals would consider moving to the countryside if they could stay in home office once the pandemic is over.

Stagnating cities

The statistics for 2020 show that at least for the pandemic year, the surge in the population sizes of major German cities was put on hold.

Berlin recorded a drop in its population for the first time since 2003 in the first half of 2020, although growth in the second half of the year meant that the population grew by about 400 people.

Some of this stagnation was caused by foreigners escaping back to their homelands. Some 1,700 Americans along returned to the USA.

But 11,000 Germans also left the capital last year.

SEE ALSO: ‘Life here is worth living’ – meet Germany’s countryside influencers

The population of Hamburg, which has been growing by between 10,000 and 20,000 a year for the past decade, also flatlined throughout most of 2020 before bouncing back in the last two months of the year.

It was a similar story in Munich. After years in which more people moved to the city than left it, that trend was reversed last year.

“This is an unusual development for Munich,” city authorities commented. “If you look at the migration balance of the past 10 years, its always been a plus of 10,000 or more – even if this trend has flattened out a little in recent years.

Berlin’s normally busy Alexanderplatz shopping district has been shut down for months. Photo: dpa | Annette Riedl

‘The process is accelerating’

Matthias Günther, an economist at the Eduard Pestel Institute in Hanover, is convinced that the pandemic and resultant move to home office have added fuel to a trend that had already slowly begun.

“Now it is accelerating,” he told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland. “There are various places that are suddenly seeing a demand that we didn’t have before.”

According to Günther, properties that have sat empty for decades are suddenly being sold.

“Many people can now imagine working three days a week from home and only travelling to the workplace on the other two days,” he says. That type of commute is overall less than a daily schlepp from an outlying district into the city centre.

Flight to the Speckgürtel

The observation that the inner cities are becoming less popular is one that estate agent Engel & Völkers has made too. 

But their research on 2020 has led them to conclude that the real boom is actually taking place in suburban areas outside cities rather than in remote rural settings.

Engel & Völkers performed a market market analysis of 700 German councils that lie just outside the limits of the major cities, and compared prices in 2020 with those from 2015.

They found a huge price increase in what Germans call the Speckgürtel, (literally the fat belt), or what we call suburbia, where prices have soared by 58 percent on average.

“During the pandemic people increasingly want to move to the countryside, but at the same time they don’t want to miss the advantages of urban life and the security of first-class medical care,” said Kai Enders, a member of the board at Engel & Völkers.

“Small towns around metropolitan areas are proving to be up-and-coming residential and investment locations.”

Good internet connections decisive

Broadband cables being laid in Mecklenburg. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

Most experts agree that one of the most decisive factors for making a rural district attractive to young people is the modernity of its digital infrastructure.

Broadband is far from a given in many rural parts of Germany. Although the federal government has for years offered a huge pot of money for local councils to invest in broadband, not all have been far-sighted enough to make use of the offer

“Places that can’t offer broadband are basically out of the question as a place to live,” economist Matthias Günther told broadcaster NDR. “What do I get from the new freedom of home office if I can’t use it in my new place of residence?” 

READ MORE: Germany’s (dis)connectivity: Can the broadband Internet gap be bridged?

‘No sign of flight from the city’

Not all experts agree though that the pandemic has caused Germans to fall in love with bucolic bliss en masse.

A study by the Leibniz Institute for Economics published last week looked at the real estate market and came to the conclusion that there was no evidence that Germans were fleeing the cities.

“For years, house price increases have been driven primarily by metropolitan regions,” the report stated. “The pandemic has not changed this: the price development in the seven largest cities showed a positive trend almost throughout 2020.”

The only exception was Berlin, where house prices in the regions of Brandenburg surrounding the capital did rise even more sharply than in Berlin itself.

This difference was sometimes quite dramatic. In the district of Oberhavel to the north of the capital, prices shot up by an eye-watering 43 percent last year.

But the boffins at the Leibniz Institute caution that “it isn’t clear whether this is due to the pandemic.”

Berlin’s “overheated housing market” and the left-wing city government’s rent cap law are possible explanations for the sudden desirability of homes outside the city limits.

READ MORE: Berlin’s rental cap has ‘more than halved the size of market’

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‘Housing is a human right’: Rent activists step up pressure ahead of German elections

Housing campaigners from across Germany have banded together ahead of the September elections to demand an immediate rent freeze and affordable housing for all.

'Housing is a human right': Rent activists step up pressure ahead of German elections
People protesting for Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen at a demo in Berlin on August 21st. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soede

In a demonstration taking place in the German capital on September 11th, 2021, numerous campaign groups will take to the streets, among them the Berlin-based Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. campaign, the national Rent Freeze campaign and the Mannheim-based Action Alliance Against Desperation and Rent Madness. 

They are demanding a national rent freeze for the next six years to halt rising rents, along with a focus on building more affordable homes and the transfer of property from private landlords into state hands.

“With this rents demonstration, we’re protesting against the massive, persistent pressure that renters are facing in the whole of Germany,” campaigners said in a statement announcing the upcoming protest.

“Whether it’s Frankfurt, Dresden, Munich, Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne, rents are incessantly rising or have already reached unreasonable levels – und not just in the big cities.

“In many places, the availability of affordable living space has sunk dramatically for those entering a new housing contract. Homelessness is rising further and with it, the number of people who live on the streets without any shelter at all.” 

Sharp rise in rents

Of all the cities in Germany, Berlin has by far the fastest rising rents: a recent study by housing portal Immowelt found that asking rents in the capital have soared by more than 40 percent over the past five years alone.

READ ALSO: COMPARE: The cities in Germany with the fastest-rising rents

However, the same study also found that middle-sized German cities like Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern were experiencing significant rent hikes over the same period, while the country’s priciest cities like Munich and Stuttgart continued to see rents go up – though not quite as steeply as in previous years.

Not just Berlin: Medium-sized cities such as Heidelberg have seen steep rises in rents over the past half a decade. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

As Germany prepares to head to the polls on September 26th in both the federal and a number of state elections, the campaign is aiming to step up pressure on the next government to embark on a “radical change of course” in the country’s housing policy. 

READ ALSO: Election 2021: How do Germany’s political parties want to tackle rising rents?

In Berlin, people with German citizenship will also be given a vote in a referendum on whether the state government should buy out thousands of flats owned by for-profit landlords with 3,000 or more properties – including Vonovia and Deutsche Wohnen – in order to better control rents and living standards.

“On September 26th, Berliners have a unique, historical chance to stand up against the selling off of our cities,” Rouzbeh Tehari, spokesman for the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. campaign, told The Local.

“The referendum to nationalise large property firms offers the opportunity to remove hundreds of thousands of apartments from capitalist speculation and manage them as social housing.”

READ ALSO: Berlin to vote on radical bid to combat housing crisis

Even if the referendum passes, however, the campaign expects to face a fierce battle with the newly elected Berlin Senate to see the policy put into law. 

“We won’t stop after the vote,” Tehari explained. “We know we’re facing strong opposition and it will be difficult to get it implemented.” 

A ‘yes’ poster for the referendum being put up in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Either way, the success of the campaign – which managed to collect well over the 170,000 petition signatures needed to call a referendum – will have sent a strong message to the venture capitalists that speculating on Berlin housing is a “high risk” strategy, he said.  

A national rent cap?

The national Rent Freeze campaign, one of the key activist groups involved in Saturday’s demo, is calling for a new six-year rental cap – but says it must be done on a national level.

Earlier this year, attempts to impose a six-year rent freeze in Munich and Berlin were both rejected by Germany’s Constitutional Court on the basis that such as move couldn’t be done on a state or regional level.

In the case of Berlin, the rent cap had been in place since 2018, but was removed after the court found the law to be unconstitutional.

A tweet from the ‘Prevent Forced Evictions’ campaign ahead of the demo on Saturday reads: “According to a new study, a national rent cap is possible. The only thing missing is the political will.” 

At the time, renters were dealt a double blow as the court ruled that landlords also had the right to reclaim back-dated rent for the entire duration of the cap – leading some tenants to be presented with bills amounting to thousands of euros. 


But the national Rent Freeze campaign, which started in Bavaria, has now amassed support from around 140 other organisations and activist groups, and is gaining momentum ahead of the elections.

“Many tenants are desperate,” said Matthias Weinzierl of the Rent Freeze campaign. “They’re legitimately afraid of losing their homes because rents continue to rise and Covid-19 hasn’t changed a thing. 

“That’s why we’re calling for a national six-year rent freeze now, which must be brought in directly after the new government has been elected. Such a rent freeze would be an acute help for tenants – and it’s also urgently needed.” 

‘Existential threat’

The date of the demo is the national Day of the Homeless, and was selected to highlight what campaigners see as the real threat of the housing crisis.

“In many places, high rents are becoming a genuine poverty risk and loss of housing is becoming an existential threat,” said Ulrich Schneider, CEO of the Parity Welfare Association, which is also supporting the demo.

People sleeping rough in Berlin in February 2021. Campaigners believe the housing crisis and homelessness are closely linked. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“It’s completely unreasonable to force single parents, people with disabilities or those in need of care, for example, to give up their homes and lose their entire social environment.” 

The protest on Saturday has also received support from the National Working Group for Help for the Homeless (BAGWH), who have linked unaffordable rents to a rise in the number of employed people losing their homes. 

In one recent study, BAGWH found that 15 percent of people classified as ‘homeless’ are currently employed – suggesting that rents in Germany are now outstripping wages, especially for lower earners.

Commenting on the findings, Werena Rosenke, CEO of BAGWH, said that the figures were “proof of the precarious living conditions in which many people find themselves in this country and the trends that are emerging in our society”. 

Any new government elected after September 26th must face this issue head on, she added.