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From shabby to chic

Jens Thurau / ew
August 17, 2014

Parts of the former German Democratic Republic are still plagued by poor housing conditions that repel new potential residents. But the Glaucha district in the city of Halle has found a way to turn the situation around.

A table and chairs attached to a decaying house wall in Halle (Photo: Thomas Koehler/photothek.net)
Image: Thomas Koehler/photothek/BMUB

For a long time, the Glaucha district in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, was considered a problem area - a place of high unemployment and crumbling 19th century architecture. But a few years ago some positive changes started taking place, thanks to the "Soziale Stadt" (Socially-Conscious City) project and a lot of individual initiative.

Many of Halle's older houses, built in the 19th century, are in a state of disrepair. Although they survived World War II, they were neglected under East Germany's communist government and decayed as a result. Following the German reunification, few of their new owners had a chance to rent them out at a price that would have justified expensive renovations. People started moving out of the city en masse and migrating to the west, just like in other parts of the former East Germany, where economic problems persist until today. Halle alone has lost around 100,000 residents in the process; eastern Germany as a whole has lost nearly two million.

Taking action

Today, Glaucha has around 4,000 residents and 60 percent of its houses are privately owned. For many years it was mostly home to migrants and older people, with a lot of its houses standing empty. But then a group of motivated locals decided to do something to improve the situation. With the help of public grants, 27 of the houses underwent a makeover. A further 17 were given the same treatment later on, this time without need for subsidies. Glaucha has once again become an attractive place to live and young families are moving in.

The German government supports large-scale urban renovation projects such as the one in Glaucha. It recently increased its investment into the "Soziale Stadt" project from 40 million euros ($54 million) to 150 million euros. Altogether, there are 580 such projects around Germany.

A dilapidated, uninhabited apartment building in Glaucha (Photo: Gernot Lindemann)
Before the renovations started, large parts of Glaucha were uninhabitableImage: Gernot Lindemann/Ausschnitt

"We first work on the background situation - try to convince the owners that the investment is worth it and give them more information," explained Ulrich Hatzfeld from Germany's Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. "Then we hope that the project takes on a life of its own. This concept worked well in Glaucha."

Gernot Lindemann, who has played a facilitating role in the initiative, explained what it often took to achieve the desired result. He first had to find out who a house belonged to and then he would approach the owner. When he wasn't able to convince them to make the investment, he would advise them to sell the property and then searched for potential investors.

Local artists also received support as part of the project. This included photographers who took photos of Glaucha's residents and made large-format prints of them to display in the streets. Bit by bit, Glaucha was beginning to make a positive impression and attracting more investment.

Still room for improvement

The only thing still in need of a touch-up is the streetscape. Many of Glaucha's streets and sidewalks are old and dilapidated. There are not many trees to be seen, either. According to Lindemann, the big renovation project can help here too.

"Before we launched the initiative, 30 percent of the residential dwellings here were unoccupied - now it's only 8 percent," said Lindemann. "But we need more day-care centers and more trees now."

Only one concern remains: will the current residents of Glaucha be pushed out of the area when all the old houses are gleaming again and attracting new residents? The initiators of the renovation project are assuring that this won't be the case, at least not for a long time. Meanwhile, the city of Halle is promising to keep the rent prices in Glaucha affordable.

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