As the temperatures drop and students head to universities for the start of the winter semester in Germany, tens of thousands of undergrads and postgrads alike find themselves without long-term housing and little to no prospect of a bed in student dorms or a reasonably-priced flatshare.
As a sign of just how bad the situation is, the Student Association in the central German city of Göttingen has rented a hotel where students can stay at reduced rates for the first couple of weeks of term. In Munich in southern Germany — where students have to shell out an average of €720 ($760) a month in rent — one camping site offered homeless students the chance to camp out at a discount.
Earlier this year, a study by the Eduard Pestel Research Institute found there to be a shortage of more than 700,000 apartments in Germany, especially in the affordable segment. And rents have risen dramatically, first and foremost in the big university towns.
The lack of affordable housing for students in big cities has been a "deplorable state of affairs" for decades, Matthias Anbuhl, the head of Germany's Student Association (DSW), said in a statement released on October 16. The DSW currently manages around 1,700 dormitories across Germany with around 196,000 places and has more than 32,000 students on its waiting list.
Couch surfing and long commutes
Sitting with his laptop on a shabby old sofa at Berlin's Free University (FU) campus, Merlin, a 22-year-old freshman, hasn't managed to find a room in a flatshare and is currently lodging between his parents' home in Kleinmachnow just outside of Berlin and his aunt's place closer to the FU campus. "I can afford to spend about €500 a month on rent and a lot of the time I don't even get a reply from landlords," Merlin says.
In the next comfy armchair along, 21-year-old veterinary science student Talina says she was given just one month's notice to move out of her apartment to make way for a family back in August. Her coursemate Elli, 21, is living in a sublet and needs to find somewhere else to live before the end of the year.
That won't be easy: the average cost of renting a room in a shared apartment in Berlin has doubled over the past decade to €650, which is €100 more than it was last year, according to research by the Moses Mendelssohn Institute and the flatshare platform wg-gesucht.de. The current student allowance for accommodation under the federal student loans and grants scheme (BAföG) is €360.
As a result, increasing numbers of the 200,000 students are applying for places in student dorms, Berlin Student Association spokesperson Jana Judisch told DW. The association has 9,000 beds and 4,900 students on its waiting list. The current wait time is three semesters. "Many students are moving out to the far edges of the city and even beyond that into Brandenburg and accepting the long commute," Judisch said.
Rolling up a cigarette in the fall sun, Carla, a 30-year-old language student at FU, is one of the lucky ones. She found her flatshare a few years ago when rents were much cheaper than they are now. But things have changed. "We've had students subletting rooms at our place who then had to sleep on our sofa because they couldn't find anywhere else to move to," she says.
International students particularly affected
In his office on the FU campus, Thomas Schmidt, representative for Social Affairs on the General Student Committee (AStA), says finding accommodation is one of the most common problems students turn to AStA for help with.
"Some students are able to rent a place using a financial guarantee from their parents, but it's especially difficult for international students because they often aren't able to provide such a guarantee," Schmidt told DW.
He would like to see more funding from the Berlin Senate especially for the building and redevelopment of student accommodation, alongside the implementation of ambitious political demands like the reintroduction of a rent cap to help reduce rents for all Berliners.
The number of students in Germany has increased by about 1 million to reach around 2.9 million over the last 12-15 years, but there has been a failure to invest in the necessary social infrastructure to cope with rising numbers of students, according to Stefan Grob, the Vice Secretary General of the DSW.
"We fear that we are heading towards a two-class society with richer people who can afford to study wherever they want and who can afford accommodation, and then the others who can't, and this would be disastrous because then money would decide where people can study and not how brilliant or smart they are," Grob told DW.
Government pledge to invest in housing
While DSW would like to see an increase in the monthly housing allowance as part of the federal student loans and grants scheme, it also acknowledges that only 10-11% of students are eligible for BAföG.
To help ease the situation, Germany's coalition government announced a federal subsidy of €500 million in 2023 as part of the youth housing scheme "Junges Wohnen" to provide more affordable accommodation for students, apprentices and trainee police officers.
The Ministry for Housing, Urban Development and Building says the plan is for the $500 million subsidy to be paid out again in 2024 and 2025. It's a move welcomed by the DSW, but it won't help the thousands of students currently struggling to find a decent roof over their heads this winter semester.
"Students are competing for accommodation with other social groups like elderly people, young families, people on low incomes, refugees and so on and so, what we are talking about is not just a problem for the higher education system, it's actually a social problem," Grob said.
Edited by Rina Goldenberg
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