"Housing is a human right." "Art needs space!" Saturday, 40 000 Berliners, according to the organizers, parade to denounce the Mietenwahnsinn – "crazy rents". There were also parades in several other German cities, such as Leipzig, Dresden, Cologne, or Stuttgart. In the German capital, many leftist activists demonstrated: alters, anarchists, antifas, anticapitalists, communists and ecologists, but also less openly politicized protesters, pensioners, parents strolling their babies in strollers, students.
These Berliners came to shout their concern for the second year in a row, they were already 25,000 last year. Housing issues are their main concern in a city where 85% of the city's residents are tenants and rental prices have doubled in ten years. Berlin is the city in the world where property prices have increased the most in 2017, according to a study by the British firm Knight Frank published late 2018.
The pressure is growing year by year: while the city remains poor, the unemployment rate is much higher than the national average (7.8% for a national average of 4.9% according to data from March ). In sum, Berlin is "Poor but sexy," to use the words of former mayor Klaus Wowereit. In 2016, a study by the Institute for Economic Research in Cologne compares the economic place of European capitals in gross national income per capita. If, without Paris, France would be 15% less rich, in Germany, one would be 0.2% richer without Berlin.
Saturday, in the Alexander Square, protesters conspire real estate companies, but also those who contribute to rising prices in the city. T-shirts "Airbnb: fuck off" are sold on stands, while activists distribute stickers "Fuck off Google". It is worth remembering that last autumn the people of Kreuzberg managed to prevent the implementation of a "Google campus" project – a start-up incubator in their already highly gentrified neighborhood. "Poor and arrogant", that's what happened to Berlin, commented then Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Read also Google in the former premises of the Stasi? A simple history of gentrification
On Karl-Marx Avenue, a large, Soviet-style thoroughfare that once served as the benchmark for the SED's political elite, the former socialist party, Frau Koll, 77, is walking slowly. This retired Ossie, from Leipzig, came to the demonstration Mietenwahnsinn for the first time. She lives in Kreuzberg, where prices jumped 71% between 2016 and 2017, and she finds "insupportable" this real estate pressure. This makes her almost nostalgic for the old regime. "It was not that bad, the GDR … well, at least we could stay …"
These bad housing stories always start in the same way. In a city that attracts investors, apartments, buildings and even entire streets change ownership and are sold to real estate companies. They carry out renovations and then lease them with a very significant increase in rent. Sandrine is part of the association AmMa65, co-organizer of the event.
At the end of 2017, her building, located in the popular Wedding district where she has lived since 2001, was sold to an investor. Tenants of this building with old charm (coal heating and no double glazing) but very low rents (around 300 euros for 80 square meters) felt that things would go wrong. "We have studied the mode of operation of the investor, it is always the same. He buys buildings, founds an LLC, then resells a few years later, to another group for much more expensive. He does not touch the building at all, and does not invest anything. "
The inhabitants of the Sandrine building then formed an association, and lobbied their new owner. Sending letters, exchanges on social networks … It lasted a good year, until the latter announced, to their great relief, that he had sold the building … to a housing company.
Collectives like Sandrine's are very numerous in Berlin; the everyday Tagesspiegel has identified a hundred. "People become activists because they have no other choice, she says. They can not change apartments because rents are rising too fast. They could not rent another one. "
In Neukölln, another formerly popular district in the process of gentrification, the BoeThie collective – representing 300 residents of 14 buildings between Thiemann and Böhmisch streets – succeeded in evicting their future owner, the Danish pension fund PFA. Elena and Simone, two twenty-somethings mid-student and half-freelance writers, have mobilized so that the city can pre-empt the buildings.
Danish pensioners against Berlin retirees
Elena recounts the exhausting weeks to save "BoeThie". Sitting in her room with a cigarette in her hand, she recounts the many meetings of tenants and the collection of their email addresses, then the organization of a press conference, translations in English, Arabic and Turkish so that all world is understood, the organization of an event, and the animation of a Facebook page dedicated to the collective. She puts at the foot of the wall the green city councilor of his district: "I'll call you every Monday to get an update on the situation. And if you do not answer the phone, I'll come and wait for you in front of your desk. "
Elena contacts the Danish press and questions them: "Did you know that Danish pensioners are financing the deportation of Berlin pensioners?" The BoeThie buildings have 60 retirees, including Lehmann, 79, whom he likes to say was born in the building in 1940. The efforts end up paying: the Danish press has raised the story, PFA finally gave up his purchase, and the city of Berlin was able to buy the houses. Today, Elena, crossed at the demonstration Mietenwahnsinn, wishes to continue its activities of advising tenants on a full-time basis, by founding an association.
Real estate companies have an obvious enemy: long-term tenants. Those who, like Sandrine, live in their apartment for years, with a low rent whose increase is capped. Those, everything is done to make them leave. Sandrine talks about "Psychological warfare". That's about what Ali says. He lives in a building in Tempelhof, another neighborhood in the process of gentrification, for twenty years. The building was sold a little over ten years ago to a Danish real estate group. Since then, a third of the former inhabitants have left, mainly because of the disastrous state of the apartments which cumulate leaks and lack of maintenance. Tired and discouraged, some tenants left. This is not the case of Ali. But he is tired, and unlike Elena, Sandrine and the others, he is alone: the inhabitants of his building did not constitute themselves in collective.
It's not just greedy investors who are threatening the tranquility of Berlin. The increase in the value of apartments creates tensions. Michel is a restaurant owner in the district of Kreuzberg. This naughty Breton arrived in this neighborhood before the fall of the Wall in 1989, in a city teeming with squatters, gauchos and artists. He has lived for twelve years in a building managed by a genossenschaft, a kind of cooperative of inhabitants, the building was formerly a squat.
Everything went pretty well for years between members of the cooperative. After bickering, the members of the genossenschaft have excluded him from the cooperative and now want him to leave his apartment. In twelve years, they will indeed be able to privatize property, sell or rent more expensive. Michel believes that they have every interest in getting rid of him in order to increase their share of the pie. At the time of the creation of the cooperative, the building was worth 300,000 euros; today it's about the value of a single apartment …
Popular initiative referendum and expropriations
Michel tells of weeks of harassment. He claims to have paid 8,500 euros in legal fees. In one year, he received 8 eviction notices. "I can not go into the common garden without a witness, otherwise they try to provoke me. If I complain about the noise made by children in the garden, they accuse me of traumatizing them. If I ask for the names of the newcomers, they complain about harassment. I already had my bike stolen, my tires flat, my car damaged … " Recently, he received a notice of eviction for "Trying to crush a neighbor with her car". An umpteenth accusation. "These are common stories in Berlin, in many genossenschaftit becomes like that. And climbing speculation does not help. "
What to do to counter this real estate madness? Ali, the tenant of Tempelhof, does not really believe in political action. He recalls that the city of Berlin sold, in the early 2000s, a large part of its housing stock for a pittance. And that today, she bites her fingers.
A petition has just been launched to propose the expropriation of real estate companies holding more than 3,000 homes in the capital. This text is aimed in particular at the real estate group Deutsche Wohnen, which has more than 110,000 apartments in Berlin. If this text collects 170,000 signatures, it will be possible to convene, as local law allows, a referendum of popular initiative. According to a survey conducted in February, a small majority of Berliners support this measure. And Sunday, in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag, the co-leader of the Greens, Robert Habeck, has not been against it either …
Johanna Luyssen correspondent in Berlin