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Leverkusen tests new refugee housing model

Asylum-seekers in Germany are typically housed in group homes, where living conditions are often crowded and lacking in privacy. But the city of Leverkusen, near Cologne, has developed an alternative.

Out of fear, he doesn't want to say where he fled from, or why. But he is happy to talk about his experience in Germany - and how pleased he is to be living in his own apartment.

Ahmed K. is sitting in the Caritas office for integration and migration in Leverkusen, which hired the Catholic charity to advise and mentor refugees. They currently number around 500 here and were assigned to the western German city according to a national allocation formula.

Engels-Barry of Caritas (Photo: Marcus Lütticke / DW)

Engels-Barry of Caritas supports the refugees in Leverkusen

Ahmed K. is happy to have been sent to Leverkusen. He's been in Germany for two years, and his family of four has been living in their own apartment for the past year. "It's a 70-square-meter, three-bedroom apartment," he says proudly. "That's very good."

Mass housing typical

Having one's own apartment is the norm in many parts of Germany, but not for refugees. German regulations on the asylum process provide for collective housing for asylum-seekers that "reflect the public interest and interests of the foreigner."

Whether the accommodations provided truly meet that standard is questionable. In the past, there have been instances of German asylum-seeker group homes being set ablaze - sometimes to applause of locals. Recent protests and counter-protests at a Berlin group home show that refugees' presence can still be divisive, and the housing developments continue to be targets for right-wing extremists.

Untenable conditions

Frank Stein, head of Leverkusen's social department

Stein promoted decentralized living for refugees in Leverkusen

For the past 10 years, Leverkusen has been implementing a housing policy intended to minimize refugees' isolation. Frank Stein, head of Leverkusen's social services department, described the transitional housing that was used before as being "in a completely desolate state." He explained, "When you have portable units where 40 or 50 people are living with just one toilet and one shower, you can imagine how shameful the situation was, especially for families."

Today there's just one transitional home, in a somewhat rural zone at the edge of the city. It doesn't seem particularly inviting here, either: from the outside, the facility looks rather old and run-down. Perks include a children's playground and the proximity to a nearby bus stop. About 300 people live here - the majority of the approximately 500 individuals living in Leverkusen while seeking asylum.

Less than welfare

Ahmed K. lived at this facility with his family for a year before moving into an apartment. "The common housing was not so good," Ahmed K. told DW. "There was only cold water in the room, and the toilet and shower at the end of the hallway had to be shared. For a family, that was not a very good situation."

"Of course, families try to move out as soon as possible," said Lioba Engels-Barry, head of Caritas' integration and migration office. About a third of the refugees manage this within a year.

Asylum-seeker transitional home compound in Leverkusen (Photo: Marcus Lütticke / DW)

The transitional home compound doesn't appear particularly inviting

Although Caritas provides some support for the families in their apartment search, they are mostly on their own along the way - which is no small task in the metropolitan area around Cologne, where there's a shortage of affordable housing.

For their apartment, the state grants asylum-seekers about 20 percent less than a welfare recipient: 442 euros ($583) for rent without utilities, per month, for a family of four.

City pays less

Aside from the societal and humanitarian benefits of decentralized accommodation for asylum-seekers, there are also financial advantages since costs for renovation and personnel are reduced. "Over the past decade, we've saved in the magnitude of roughly a million euros," Stein said.

Ahmed K. and his family were able to find an apartment in Leverkusen after about a year. He reported that his ability to communicate in German has markedly improved since the move, as he now has contact with German neighbors.

These days, he's able to live in a way that he describes as half-way normal. But it's unclear how long that will last. He has permission to stay in Germany only for the next two years, and his asylum application is still under review.

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