refugee crisis

Tight Quarters in Germany

family of refugees on way to a house reuters
Seeking apartments to house people needing asylum.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    There are concerns that public opinion could turn against accepting refugees as resources become tight.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • German law allows authorities to requisition property to combat homelessness. Rent must be paid to the property owner.
    • In exceptional cases, tenants have had their apartment leases cancelled to make room for refugees.
    • According to some estimates, as many as 450,000 new apartments must be built to house the refugees granted asylum.
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Housing is tight in Germany, the number of refugees arriving is growing and estimates are rising as to the number of asylum-seekers the country expects this year.

Presently, as thousands of people flee war and unrest in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, many are being housed in temporary accommodation ranging from tents to barracks and sports halls.

Cities and councils have resolved that with winter coming, no people should be forced to sleep in tents.

Officially, 800,000 refugees are expected but the situation might be more acute than previously thought. Yesterday, Bild, Germany’s most popular tabloid, citing a secret government document, reported that the German authorities are actually anticipating as many as 1.5 million refugees this year.

The document reportedly warned there could be a breakdown in provisions. Handelsblatt has not been able to independently confirm the report and politicians in Berlin have not publicly corrected the numbers.

This is the latest in a series of upward revisions of the number of people estimated to be on their way to Germany but whether 800,000 or 1.5 million refugees arrive this year, more accommodation is needed.

Some municipalities are taking drastic measures, requisitioning vacant buildings and in a few exceptional cases, tenants have been forced out of their apartments.

In Hamburg, the city parliament has passed a law that makes it easier to seize real estate; a similar measure is in the works in Berlin.

Large commercial buildings have been the primary focus of authorities so far and the owners of the properties receive rent from the government.

“When communities force renters out of their apartments to house refugees, they undermine public acceptance.”

Jan-Marco Luczak, CDU expert on tenant law

Local communities are already making use of laws passed after the Second World War, when West Germany was overwhelmed by German refugees from the east. The laws allow authorities to requisition vacant living space to prevent homelessness, though they first have to exhaust all possibilities on the private housing market.

“What’s happening in practice is that the authorities try to avoid legal battles by paying very generous sums in order to get those affected to cave in,” Joachim Wieland, an expert in public law at the University for Administrative Science in Speyer, told Handelsblatt.

But authorities may not be able to avoid litigation for long as property owners have reacted with alarm. Law firm CMS Hasche Sigle has seen a steady increase in queries from real estate companies about their rights in cases where the government requisitions their property to house refugees.

“This issue primarily applies to properties like administration and office buildings and big-box stores,” said CMS attorney Sebastian Schmitz.

Tenants are also being affected. In southern Germany, the village of Eschbach cancelled a 56-year-old woman’s rental contract in March in order to make room for refugees. The woman was given 10 months’ notice to vacate the apartment, which is owned by the city. She’s been publicly critical and the village hasn’t made a final decision on whether or not she has to move out.

“The renter hasn’t appealed and has rejected the apartments that were offered in exchange,” said Mayor Mario Schlafke. “We’re considering revisiting the issue.”

The incident in Eschbach is not an individual case. In the village of Lindlar, an 81-year-old woman’s rental contract was cancelled so the building could be turned into transitional housing for refugees. The woman has since found a new apartment.

“It was an exception, we’re not going to take that approach again,” said Mayor Georg Ludwig, who maintains that Lindlar made the right decision in this particular case.

Politicians in Berlin have been critical of incidents like those in Eschbach and Lindlar. But according to Jan-Marco Luczak, there’s little the federal government can do.

“When the community is the owner of the building, then they can of course do what they want with their property,” said Mr. Luczak, an expert on tenant law with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

According to Michael Gross, the Social Democrats’ spokesman for housing policy, only vacant apartments and commercial buildings should be requisitioned. “Renters cannot be forced out of their apartments,” Mr. Gross declared.

From a constitutional perspective, Mr. Gross isn’t entirely accurate. While the German Basic Law affirms the rights of property owners and renters, it also makes clear that these rights come with social obligations. “The social obligation has priority,” said Mr. Wieland, an expert in public law.

While constitutional, redistributing housing to refugees is politically explosive. Alexander Wiech, spokesman for Haus und Grund, the association that represents property owners in Germany, warned that threatening property owners with requisition is counterproductive and could turn public opinion against the refugees.

“It’s catastrophic to play renters against refugees,” said Mr. Wiech.

Mr. Luczak, the tenant law expert with the Christian Democrats, called on authorities to cooperate with renters.

“I urgently advise finding a mutually agreeable solution with the renters in such cases,” Mr. Luczak said. “When communities force current renters out of their apartments in order to house refugees, they undermine public acceptance.”

The real challenge still lies ahead. Refugees whose asylum applications are recognized will
eventually need to be moved from transitional to permanent housing. Rolf Buch, the president of Germany’s largest property company, Vonovia, anticipates about one million refugees per year if 40 percent of asylum applicants are accepted.

According to Mr. Buch, that would require building 350,000 to 450,000 new apartments annually. It would take years to make so much new housing ready for occupancy. Meanwhile, winter is quickly approaching.

 

Handelsblatt’s Heike Anger writes about politics from Berlin; Silke Kersting covers the construction industry, the environment and consumer protection policy; Reiner Reichel writes about real estate. To contact the authors: anger@handelsblatt.comkersting@handelsblatt.com, reichel@handelsblatt.com

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