The property boom in Germany's most popular holiday island Sylt is driving housing prices for locals to unaffordable levels. Heirs are selling their parents’ thatched houses and moving to the mainland.
Sylt is the most popular holiday island in Germany. Each year an average of about 90,000 visitors spend their holiday on the North Sea island. About 20,000 people call Sylt home year-round, but every year there are fewer and fewer. Due to high real estate prices, it has become much less affordable for the natives of Sylt to continue living on the island.
Many residents have moved to the mainland after having seen the price of a home double in just ten years. The displacement of the islanders has earned a familiar name: gentrification.
Prices continue to rise
Westerland, the island's capital, has about 9,000 inhabitants. But in fact, far more people inhabit the city. The statistics do not include second home owners, who use their property only on holidays or to rent to guests. This is the case for the whole island and these second home owners far outnumber the islanders.
Sylt covers only 99 square kilometers (38 square miles), but over 70 registered real estate brokers have their hands full. Real estate on this trendy island is in high demand among prospectors with deep pockets. Last year the property and land that changed hands amounted to a sales value of over 750 million euros.
"Prices are indeed trending up," said broker Lars Axmann. "Of course the investors also know this. It is obviously a good investment."
And strong demand is driving prices higher still. Depending on the location and size of a property, Axmann said the price tag can soar up to two million euros. "But this could easily go up to eight, nine or ten million,” he said.
Construction cranes everywhere
Standing beside the Sylt lighthouses are the landmark construction cranes. Despite the settlement boundaries in Westerland and the villages on the island being largely exhausted, unrelenting construction has continued. This is a development the doctor and environmentalist Roland Hoff Klocke has carefully monitored.
"There are hardly any open spaces or vacant lots anymore, so that now in the villages there are actually very few old houses from the 1960s and 70s because they are being demolished to make way for larger units. In addition, of course, the outskirts of the villages are sought after." As a result, prices for reasonably affordable housing for young families is pushed up so high that cooperatives cannot bid.
Even for those who inherit a house on Sylt, the property grab can cause problems. Longtime pastor of Kampen and Keitum, Traugott Giessen, shared his insights on this issue. Often if siblings are to be able to pay the inheritance tax due, said Giessen, then the sale of the house is the only option. In his experience, the money from the sale could help three inheritors each buy their own home on the mainland. Maintaining the family's island property, however, is something hardly anyone can afford.
"It is a pity, of course, and, at the same time, the price to restore these beautiful houses can never be derived from the proceeds earned by renting it.”
Kindergartens close down
Peter Jensen, chairman of the cultural committee in the Sylt community of Archsum, agrees that heirs can hardly pay the accumulated backlog of investments needed to keep up an old thatched house.
"If you do not want to be a slave to a property," Jensen said, "Then it's clear: the property must be sold and goes back to people who have money."
Talk to investors and real estate companies, and you will find that after the sale, the heirs leave the island to go to the mainland, he added.
The development in the island village Archsum is one example. The community now counts just 200 people as Sylt residents. The number of second home owners is significantly higher. Many are no longer happy with the development, "but it can no longer be averted," Jensen said.
Meanwhile, kindergartens and schools are closing on Sylt. There is a lack of young people, and over 3,000 migrate from the mainland daily by train to jobs on the island. The flight from Sylt has also affected the number of firefighters. For example, the town of List is already lacking young volunteers, so the community had to enlist the aid of seniors in order to maintain operational strength.
The last decade's developments may signal more problems to come for Sylt. An island native and chair of the Frisian Cultural Circle, Maike Ossenbrüggen, shared her thoughts: "In the stock market you can buy and acquire shares of stocks without ever seeing the factory. They are making us like a factory. But we are not a factory. And the climate here is not such that you could market us like you would Mallorca.”
Vacationers and second home owners love the North Sea island, but due to the property boom Sylt residents are turning into an endangered species.