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Germany's daunting urban housing market

September 21, 2018

Finding an apartment in a German city is hard work these days. That is especially true for those who have little money. Some critics say it's a dangerous development that could have dramatic political consequences.

Berlin apartment search sign
Image: Imago/Seeliger

"It's so frustrating," complains Michiko Park, who works at the Troisdorf women's shelter to help single mothers find rental apartments in and around the western German cities of Cologne and Bonn. Indeed, these days finding affordable housing is a tremendous challenge, especially for single mothers. "Sometimes," Park says, "these moms will get up to five rejections in a single day — that really takes its toll psychologically."

Eight mothers and 12 children current live in the shelter. Most of them were victims of domestic violence. Once the women feel they're ready to return to their normal lives, the nerve-wracking flat hunt begins.

Christmas miracles are exceedingly rare

Park remembers one family — a single mother and her children — who, after weeks of flat hunting, finally found a place just after Christmas. But then the landlord suddenly demanded an additional €2,500 ($3,000) for the kitchen unit — more than she could afford. "So we published a plea for help," Park recalls. "And someone actually called up, saying they'd read our message in the newspaper and now want to pay for the kitchen." Thinking back still gets her emotional. "That really was a Christmas miracle!"

But alas, most flat hunters aren't that lucky. Should it not therefore be up to municipal authorities to ensure affordable housing is available for those who need it most? "In theory, that's the case," says Park. "But I can't remember any of these single mothers ever being granted a social housing flat despite being eligible." Applicants are usually placed on a waiting list and then nothing ever happens, she adds.

A German single-parent family
Finding affordable housing in Germany can be very difficult for single-parent familiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kusch

Finding a flat is hard work

Jürgen Schönfeldt is well aware of the difficulties. A lawyer who works for the German tenants' association in the Bonn region, his organization represents 22,000 renters. He says that in this area, landlords are in a powerful position. "That means they are extremely picky about their tenants," he says.

But even perfect tenants need to compete against huge crowds of other people equally desperate to find a home. "These days, it's common that up to 50 prospective tenants will be shown an apartment in a single day," Schönfeldt notes. "That illustrates the dramatic situation in Germany when it comes to rental apartments."

Lack of housing could have dramatic political consequences

For years, Schönfeldt says, his organization has warned about the lack of affordable housing in Germany. But politicians never seemed particularity concerned. "Cities and municipalities said no extra apartments were needed," Schönfeldt remembers. They referred to Germany's declining population, saying that building additional housing would be superfluous. Which is why as of the 1990s the German state largely sold off state owned buildings and land, and stopped building new housing.

The result is that today many cities hardly even have low quality public housing to offer. Schönfeldt believes this is a dangerous development that could ultimately even have dramatic political consequences. "People are growing increasingly bitter and are no longer seeing the point in voting because to them it seems to make no difference at all," he says.

Jürgen Schönfeldt Schönfeldt
Schönfeldt says that government officials have not done enough to address Germany's difficult housing marketImage: DW/O. Pieper

Germany's neglected countryside

Bernd Viebach works for Bonn-based real estate agency Kraft Immobilien, one of the region's biggest. He agrees the situation in Germany's rental market is tense. "But we ourselves are to blame for this problem because there actually is sufficient housing, it's just unevenly distributed," he says, adding that in the countryside, there are plenty of options for everyone.

However, Viebach admits rural Germany has been woefully neglected for many years, meaning that public transport infrastructure is often inadequate, broadband internet is rarely available and there are not enough schools. So understandably, few Germans have been willing to move there. And German cities refused to invest in urban social housing, Viebach says, "because they thought the situation would somehow take care of itself."

Platforms such as Airbnb that facilitate the short-term rental of regular apartments have had a major impact on the rental market, as well. "One in three Bonn apartments is now available for short-term rent only, and in Dusseldorf half of all apartments are affected," says Viebach. Which means, he explains, that one-third of all Bonn apartments has permanently vanished from the regular rental market, as have half of all Dusseldorf flats. That is why he recommends shifting our attention from cities to rural Germany and massively investing in the countryside to make living there more appealing.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.