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As winter approaches, German municipalities are hurriedly looking for accommodation for refugees. Some tenants living in publicly owned apartments are receiving eviction notices - creating a socially explosive situation.
It takes a number of calls before Bernd Niessen answers his telephone. A few days ago, he told his story to one of the big German tabloids. Since then, television crews and radio and print journalists have been coming in and out of his apartment - an 80-square-meter (860-square-foot) source of much contention in his village of 300 residents.
In August 2014, Bernd and Anita Niessen received an eviction notice from their landlord: the municipality of Mechernich. The letter informed them that they would have to be out of their apartment by May 31, 2015, because the city planned to use it to house refugees. The municipality had only "a limited number of accommodations to offer" and needed "to terminate your lease for the apartment on the basis of our own needs."
The apartment is on the second floor of a former country school in Kallmuth - a tiny hamlet with no stores and no public telephone, a place where everybody knows each other. "The egg man comes around once a week," Niessen says sarcastically. The 60-year-old was born here; his wife, in the neighboring village. One of their four children still lives here as well. They renovated the apartment with their own money and installed a new kitchen. Niessen says that moving out is not an option. He says he'll fight "tooth and nail" to stay. There have already been two hearings on the case at the regional courthouse. Currently the court has a proposal for financial compensation. It stipulates that the Niessens be offered an 8,000-euro ($9,000) relocation fee and be given until the end of the year to move out. "What good is that?" Niessen asks, adding: "Don't worry. I'm not doing that."
Winter is coming
Thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries have to be settled into winterized housing before the weather worsens. They cannot remain in the hastily constructed tent camps in which they are now housed, but most municipalities don't have enough adequate publicly owned space.
Mechernich, for example, has a total of 27,000 residents distributed across 44 towns and villages. Right now, Mechernich is hosting 380 refugees, Deputy Mayor Thomas Hambach says. He expects that number to exceed 500 by the end of the year. "We just have very little space, and we want to use the space that we do have to fulfill our obligations," he says.
Other mayors, too, say that the decision to offer currently occupied municipally owned apartments to refugees is not one that they take lightly. Tenants are receiving eviction notices in a number of cities and villages throughout the country. Most of these cases are still in the courts.
Anti-migrant groups have used the evictions to make their points about the dangers that foreigners - and political decision-makers - pose to Germans.
Municipalities are invoking "own need," the most commonly used basis for evictions in Germany. But that is a very specific type of justification that usually permits landlords to evict tenants so that they can move into the properties themselves. The claim only allows the owner to terminate a lease with a tenant in exceptional cases, says Thomas Hänsel, a tenancy lawyer who is representing the Niessens. As a municipality rather than a human being, Hänsel says, Mechernich's needs are more in line with those of a corporation, which cannot physically move into the property.
The Niessens could still come up with the short end of the stick if the court is satisfied that the legal requirement that municipalities accommodate refugees constitutes "need." The powers of the state are very broad. Bernd Niessen has already promised to take his case to the European Court of Justice. He is also fairly convinced that there is a plot against him led by the mayor. He says he received the eviction notice after pointing out several deficiencies in the apartment. Hänsel is less convinced of that: "One can only speculate whether that has anything to do with it."
Mechernich now has two weeks to respond to the compensation proposal put forth by the court. If the municipality is able to come to an agreement with the Niessens, then 10 refugees would move into the apartment, which is near the village kindergarten. Authorities said they wanted to assure the best possible integration conditions for the new arrivals.
Out here there are just trees, Bend Niessen says, trees and fields and farms. "They are nuts," he says. He means the municipality; he doesn't have anything against the people who are coming from so far away - quite the opposite. He says his son has a construction company: "We hope that one day some of the refugees will work for us."