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HOUSING

‘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. 

READ ALSO: 

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. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s ‘historic investment’ has failed to solve the housing crisis

Five years after Sweden's government promised to solve the country's housing crisis with a "historic investment", things are as bad as ever, David Crouch argues. Radical action is needed.

OPINION: Sweden's 'historic investment' has failed to solve the housing crisis

Forced to move house 20 times in the past eight years, Maria’s situation was desperate. She and her daughter had arrived in Stockholm from Latin America in search of a better life. She found work, no problem – but housing was impossible.

“Sometimes I was paying 12,000kr in rent and it was very hard because I only had 15,000kr in monthly salary,” says Maria (not her real name). So she took a high-interest loan of 240,000kr and tried to bribe someone in the Housing Agency to get to the front of the queue for affordable housing.

But she was caught. Her fate is unknown. And she didn’t even get an apartment.

This recent story, in the excellent newspaper of the Tenants’ Association, sums up the problems facing people who move here to work. The market for rental accommodation is tight as a drum. Finding a home means competing with Swedes, but with all the disadvantages of being an outsider. So people find themselves pushed into short-term, insecure rental contracts at inflated prices.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Five years ago this month, the government announced a “historic investment in housing”, including subsidies for construction companies, easing restrictions on building permits, and making more land available.

The housing situation at the time was grim. Spotify had threatened to leave Sweden if things didn’t improve – how could the company attract skilled young people to a city where there was nowhere for them to live? More than half Stockholm’s population – 600,000 people – were in the queue for a coveted rental apartment, because strict regulation meant these rents were low. But it took as long as 20 years to get to the front of that queue.

The result was a thriving rental property black market, with large bribes changing hands. Many tenants exploited the situation by sub-letting their homes, or parts of them. “It is almost impossible for immigrants and new arrivals to penetrate this market – it is all about who you know and how much money you have,” said Billy McCormac, head of the Fastighetsägarna property association, in 2015.

READ ALSO: 

So what has been the outcome of the grand promises the government made five years ago? House-building at the time was already rising steadily, and it has continued to do so. Look around you in the big cities and you will see that new apartment blocks have sprung up here and there.

But we shouldn’t go only on appearances. To understand the reality, we need to look at some numbers.

The gap between demand for housing and the existing housing stock has indeed started to shrink. “As housing construction has gradually increased and population growth has begun to slow down, the gap has decreased since 2017,” Stockholm’s Housing Agency noted in December.

The Agency has broken records four years in a row for the number of rental homes it has provided. The proportion of young adults living independently has also increased somewhat, the Tenants’ Association found, probably due to the pace of construction.

But this smidgen of good news is outweighed by an avalanche of bad.

The average queuing time in 2021 for a Stockholm apartment was more than 9 years; for somewhere in the city centre you have to wait 18 years. Only 936 homes came with a waiting time of less than one year. More than three-quarters of a million people are now registered in the queue for housing – a big increase on five years ago.

The rate at which the housing shortage is shrinking is nowhere near fast enough to alleviate the huge accumulated demand.

Assuming that the current pace of construction can be maintained, it will be the end of this decade before any significant dent is made in the deficit of homes, according to Boverket – the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning. The current rate of construction is “only marginally more than the long-term need”, it says.

The challenge is even greater when it comes to producing affordable housing, Boverket says, especially for the young and those entering the housing market for the first time. Almost one in four young Swedes up to the age of 27 are forced to live at home – the second-highest figure since the measurements began.

There are already signs that housing construction is actually slowing down, owing to higher building material prices, rising interest rates and an incipient labour shortage. Construction prices rose by more than 8 percent last year, and there is concern in the industry that war in Ukraine will further affect costs, in turn slowing the pace of building.

There is another fly in the ointment, a consequence of the collapse of Sweden’s governing coalition in November. The new, minority administration was forced to adopt the opposition’s budget, which halted investment subsidies for house building, throwing the construction industry into confusion.

In short, the “Swedish model” for providing people with a roof over their heads is failing. The folkhemmet, or “people’s home”, has not enough homes for its people.

Swedes themselves understand this: in a survey last month, nine out of ten voters said they thought that politicians did not take the housing shortage seriously.

We have waited too long. It is time for fresh thinking and radical action to solve the housing crisis.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University

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