Berlin, Part IV

Lessons from urbanization in Berlin’s past

berlin urbanization
Berlin: Under construction. Source: DPA, Unsplash [M], Christoph Schmid / Handelsblatt

The question that drives Gero Bergmann, an executive at real-estate bank Berlin Hyp, is this: How can Berlin house the tens of thousands of people arriving every year while preserving its culture and accessibility? “I have no answer,” he admits.

Some smaller cities, such as Vienna and Zürich, are role models in increasing social housing and keeping rents affordable. But the best model for Berlin might be itself, historian Andrej Holm says. From 1875 to 1900, Berlin’s population doubled to nearly 2 million people, begging residents to ask the same kind of questions they’re asking now. How do we house all of these people? Where will they work? How will we afford to keep living here?

In the 1880s and 1890s, 200,000 housing units were built in a very short time, and the city grew steadily until World War I. Then there was no construction for seven or eight years, and the refugees coming to Berlin after the war created another housing shortage. The city building director, Martin Wagner, promoted public housing and ushered in an era of nonprofit housing associations. In the 1920s, progressive taxation of private real estate investors was used to subsidize even more public housing. That taxation also made the city unattractive for speculators, which lowered land prices.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the divided city had new problems: blight and flight. Kreuzberg in the West was on the verge of becoming a poor working-class ghetto, Mr. Holm says. But the overall plan for Kreuzberg focused on maintaining the district’s social composition, basically a mix of anarchists, squatters and the working poor. So the city government subsidized rents for these characters, with leases at fixed rates for 20 or 30 years.

In the 1980s the city devised a plan for “careful renewal” that included demolishing dilapidated housing in the neighborhood. But in reality, tenants were evicted and the buildings were never torn down. Squatters moved in, and the low rents discouraged private real-estate investment in Kreuzberg until the leases started expiring after 2003. And that’s when housing prices started rising again.

To solve the housing problems in Berlin today, the city should therefore learn from its past. The lessons are: Fund social housing and build fast; don’t sit around for years debating master plans.

alexanderplatz circa 1900, berlin
Urbanizing on Alexanderplatz, 1900. Source: DPA

“Over the past 30 years we helped cities learn how to invest in local economies and creativity and making them places, and it worked, but it worked too well,” urbanist Richard Florida says. The urban revival is creating a lot of opportunities, but the renewal has to be equitable.

Gentrification is actually mostly about feeling guilt about inequality, and inequality is mostly about becoming aware of pervasive poverty. Cities are the new arena for class struggles, Florida said. Any government reform to increase equality has to come from the city level — the problems of Munich or Hamburg are much different from those of Berlin and can’t be fixed with one-size-fits-all policy.

The coexistence of rich and poor households makes the quintessential “Berlin mix” that is worth preserving, says Katrin Lompscher, Berlin’s senator for urban development and housing. But building alone won’t halt rent increases, the Left Party member says; Germany needs changes in federal tenant law and more public-interest-oriented housing players.

Florian Schmidt, the urban development councilor in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, is also not convinced that just creating new housing is enough. “It’s a mix of building new buildings and making them really safe so that they can’t be sold,” he says. “It’s not easy, but I’m optimistic that civil society will not give up.”

pro affordable rent graffiti berlin
Writing's on the wall Affordable rents Graffiti near Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg promotes affordable rents, which are getting harder and harder to find in Berlin. It's a major issue considering 85 percent of residents are renters. Source: dpa
where do we go now? protest against evictions in berlin
No space, no art Where shall we go now? That's what squatters at the collective Kunsthaus Tacheles asked before being evicted from their art studios in 2012. The future of the turn-of-the-century shopping center in Mitte remains under construction. Source: dpa
berlin rent protests
Rent Taking it to the streets Protesters at a demonstration in Kreuzberg in 2017 demanded "No profits from rent!" and "Stop evictions." Source: dpa
death of affordable rent, protest berlin
Rest in peace The end of an affordable era An unknown artist created a sidewalk tombstone in honor of €6.20/sq meter rent in the Wrangelkiez section of Kreuzberg in March. Source: dpa
graffiti protest on a mattress in berlin against a hotel
Check out Going to the mattresses This mattress message suggests Kreuzberg should build youth centers, day care or subsidized apartments rather than a hotel in the empty corner lot. Source: dpa
Mietenwahnsinn, berlin renter protests
Against rent insanity Get up, stand up Protesters raised awareness for the April 14 renters' rally in Berlin by sitting down in the crosswalks of Kreuzberg. Source: Handelsblatt

Civil society is showing its force this Saturday: A coalition of nearly 200 tenant and neighborhood groups is protesting on Potsdamer Platz against rent increases and evictions. More than 10,000 people have already RSVPed on Facebook.

Berlin’s population has blossomed from a millennial slump of fewer than 3.4 million to more than 3.7 million today, and the city has the hottest real estate market in the world, with prices jumping by 20.5 percent last year, per property consultancy Knight Frank. Affordable housing isn’t just a Berlin issue. Cities around the world are attracting ever more migrants for the opportunities and freedoms that come with living in a metropolis. In 1950, just a third of the world’s population lived in cities, but by 2016 more that 50 percent did, according to UN numbers. By 2030, two-thirds of people will live in cities.

Though people move through a city for a fleeting moment, Berlin’s memory is long. Who does the city belong to? Simultaneously all of us and none of us. In the long now, we are only transient inhabitants of our cities. We change the city we inhabit in some small way, we reshape it in our own image. Cities existed long before we were here and will exist long after we’re gone. All we can do is leave them in better shape than we found them.

“Berlin is a perennial late bloomer,” Mr. Holm says. Now that the city has seen how gentrification has played out in London, San Francisco and Paris, it has the chance to develop in a new direction. Mr. Holm invokes a German proverb: “Die Letzten werden die Ersten.” The last become the first.

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Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author:

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