Guardian, 18 September 2012

Berlin’s housing bubble and the backlash against hipster tourists

Skyrocketing housing costs in Berlin can’t be blamed on an influx of ‘foreigners’, but are in fact fuelled by the global financial crisis

I recently moved back to Berlin after four years in London, and it seems half of London had the same idea. When I walk down the familiar streets of my old neighbourhood, where the most exotic sight used to be the local kebab shop, I now hear posh kids from the home counties discuss their nightly exploits and see stylish Swedes sipping espressos. It all suddenly feels like Dalston.

I was lucky enough to be able to move back into my old flat in Neukölln, one of Berlin’s poorest districts with high crime rates and crumbling infrastructure, but ridiculously cheap rents. The money I used to pay for my room in north-east London would easily get you a decent two-bedroom flat here. Or, rather, it used to: rents here are suddenly skyrocketing. According to a recent article in Die Zeit, they rose over 23% between 2007 and 2010, the biggest increase over the whole city. Many locals are blaming “the foreigners”, the tourists and bohemians from Britain, Spain or Scandinavia, for this sudden rent hike. Last year, Der Spiegel reported on a backlash against the growing international community in the district, spearheaded by one of the local bar-owners whose video manifesto against “the fucking students, artists and layabouts” went viral. Just a few months ago, a grumpy local told an English friend of mine who was having fun in one of the pubs in the area to “go and laugh in your own country”.

As understandable as this rage against supposedly gentrifying hipsters might be, it is odious and it is misdirected. Neukölln’s rising rents are a just one symptom of a much broader development. While house prices continue to fall worldwide, they are on the rise in Germany, and the country’s unlikely property hotspot has been Berlin. The capital has long been notorious for its languishing housing market, and its reputation as a mecca for alternative culture is very much founded on the oversupply of affordable living space. But these days might soon be over: according to a study by the economic thinktank Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft,property prices in the capital rose nearly 40% between 2003 and 2011, far more than in the rest of Germany. And my run-down, dirty and scruffy old home is in the centre of the capital’s housing boom. According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine, property auctions of the district council are suddenly packed with estate agents, young families and professionals from around the world. House prices in Neukölln have doubled in the last few years, and the new owners often try to get back their investment by raising the rent.

How did it come to this? Ironically, it is the international financial crisis, triggered by the collapse of the US housing bubble, that led to Berlin’s property boom. Germans who normally would have invested their savings on the stock market are now putting their money into relatively secure real estate. This run on property is fuelled by historically low interest rates. And it’s not only scared Germans who are looking for a secure investment: in their yearly forecast published in February, the self-styled “wise men of the real estate industry”, an expert council of economists and analysts, glowingly reported on Germany’s status as a “safe haven” for international property developers. The boom has already alarmed the ministry of finance, which in June warned of “first abnormal developments” of the housing market in parts of the country’s metropolitan areas. Even the chairman of Berlin’s association of estate agents has recently spoken out against unsustainable property prices in Neukölln. These are the weird ways of globalisation: a real estate crash in the US leads to a housing bubble in a run-down city-centre district in Germany a few years later.

But these are no natural forces. They can be kept in check with the right policies, like a cap on rents or laws against property speculation. Decent, affordable housing is a basic right, for locals as well as for international students, artists and layabouts.


Part of the Germany: the accidental empire series