Berlin’s Housing Crisis Solution is to Buy Houses

Montreal
Not Berlin, but a good city nonetheless.

If you’re like me and was born in the 80s then you’ve lived through a time in which housing policies have been gutted and basically no new public housing has been built. That’s at least 30 years of neglect by politicians and society to literally build for the future; and the future is here. The people of Berlin got tired of a lack of action and have seized the moment to fight back against predatory landowners to ensure that the next generation won’t suffer through such rent-seeking behaviour. Berlin has decided to buy housing (which was organically public housing and privatized in the 90s/00s) to ensure that the people of Berlin aren’t getting ripped off by speculators and greed.

Remarkably, the city’s government has agreed. This month, Berlin’s senate said it would step in and buy three buildings, amounting to 316 apartments. Meanwhile, the local borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg would buy a fourth building containing 80 apartments, meaning the majority of flats for sale will be converted to public ownership.

The authorities could do this through an existing law that allows them a right of first refusal over buildings for sale in areas that are undergoing steep rent rises. The law hasn’t yet been applied on this scale, and even though the city and borough will ultimately recoup the costs from rent, the buyout will require an investment of up to €100 million.

That’s already a major investment—but why stop there? The overwhelming majority of units that Deutsche Wohnen owns today in Berlin used to be public housing, and were sold off by the state over the past few decades. As galloping rents make daily life increasingly difficult, many Berliners are starting to regret such a shift. Sure enough, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller promised last month to buy back 50,000 of Deutsche Wohnen’s units for the city, along lines not yet fully clarified. Renters’ associations want to extend this proposal to all landlords with more than 3,000 apartments in the city, a wish that led to their referendum plan.

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Rent Strikes Gaining Popularity

the suburbs

Last year a community in Toronto launched a rent strike and won! This initiative to ensure affordable housing (and not being verbally abused by landowners) worked for the involved residents; and similar actions are working in the USA too. Last week in California a ballot initiative for rent control failed, but champions of housing argue that the ballot was merely one idea of many to help people stay in homes (after all, it’s hard for a grassroots movement to fend off a multibillion dollar industry). Over at The Slot they’re running a piece on the history of rent strikes and how they can be effective even if they don’t win in the ballot box.

Altogether, the strike lasted six months, ending in August with an agreement from the landlord to drop all pending eviction cases. In the months since, tenants have continued to organize, including around Prop 10. “We were not comfortable because the conditions of the building are really bad,” Camero says. “We don’t get that much money every year in our jobs, and all the money we make is for the rent. So I wondered what we could do to push back against a bad owner. To keep things in control of the tenants.”

The Burlington strike was one of several launched in Los Angeles since 2016. Sometimes, as in Burlington, they allow tenants to stave off immediate rent hikes or maintain a version of the status quo. But in 2017, after tenants in Boyle Heights (a rapidly gentrifying, historically Latinx neighborhood) went on strike in response to a proposed 80 percent rent increase, they not only avoided eviction but also successfully negotiated collective bargaining rights with their landlord. The building was not rent controlled and the tenants had no clear legal protections; the victory was built on organizing alone.

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Berlin’s New Rent Laws Helping People Faster than Predicted

In cities all over the world housing people is an issue and some cities have it worse than others. In Berlin, where things weren’t awful they decided they waned to stop a downward trend that cropped up in the rental market. Renters were confronted with a market that was inhumane and the city took action.

Barely a month after the German capital introduced a new set of rules that limits rent increases within a given area, figures collected by ImmobilienScout24 show that the average cost of new Berlin rental contracts has dropped 3.1 percent within a month. This can’t be written off as an example of a general countrywide downward trend. In other German cities where such laws haven’t yet been introduced, rents have remained more or less static. This is good news for the legislators of Berlin’s Senate as their new law is doing exactly what they promised the electorate that it would.

The new law introduced on June 1st—called the mietpreisbremse or “rental price brake” in German—works like this. An overseeing body fixes a standard median rent per square meter for each city district, using figures based a biennial state census of rents. No new rental contract within the district is then permitted to charge over 10 percent more than this amount. This still means that price increases for new rentals are possible, but if they come, they happen far more slowly.

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P.E.I Rental Units Go Smoke Free

The Canadian province of Prince Edward Island has encouraged landlords to make their rental units smoke free in order to encourage safer homes. They mention health concerns as a motivating factor for this, I wonder if the threat of accidental fires was also an issue. Either way, good for P.E.I for making safer smoke-free homes.

Under P.E.I. law, property owners can evict a tenant if they violate a no-smoking policy that’s included in the lease. Cora MacDonald, superintendent of the smoke-free Parklane Place Apartments in Charlottetown, told CBC News Tuesday the policy saves money on repairs from smoke damage, and helps fill the building.

“We figured it would be a drawing card for some tenants, because a lot of our tenants are seniors and some have health issues,” said MacDonald.

“We are fully rented now, and I think we’re ahead of what we expected as far as being totally rented.”

The Council for a Smoke-free P.E.I. is hosting a public workshop for landlords on smoke-free buildings at the end of October. Council member Frank Morrison said many landlords don’t know about the policy, but more are taking advantage of it.

“I think it has definitely risen in the last few years,” said Morrison.

“Certainly if you go back five years, I wouldn’t have known of any that were smoke free at that time.” He said roughly 10 per cent of rental properties in P.E.I. now have no-smoking policies.

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