BERLIN — Even hundreds of protesters couldn’t thwart the eviction last Thursday morning when more than 800 police officers and a helicopter were deployed to dislodge the Gülbol family from their home of more than 13 years.
After years of legal wrangling, the house painter Ali Gülbol’s dispute over rising rent has become a cause célèbre in the lefty Kreuzberg neighborhood in central Berlin. His family of five, portrayed in the local press as hard-working Turkish immigrants, has turned into a symbol of Berlin’s most pressing problem: the lack of affordable housing amid creeping gentrification.
The opposition Social Democrats are making the nationwide shortfall of 250,000 apartments an election issue as they seek to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel in September. A government report published last autumn revealed that an increasing number of German cities face rising housing costs and that rents in Berlin had gone up by 7.4 percent over the previous year.
It wasn’t always like this.
When I turned up here as a backpacker the summer after the Berlin Wall came down, I found refuge among East German punks squatting in a building in the grim Friedrichshain district. We kept cobblestones in a bucket on the balcony to hurl in case of an attack by skinheads. In the late 1990s, when I set up shop as a journalist, I lived in a Kreuzberg tenement with a coal-burning stove for heat and the shower in the kitchen.
I paid for the first accommodation with a bit of beer money, and my second pad didn’t cost more than $100 a month. Since then the neighborhoods in which the apartments are located have been scrubbed down and filled with the organic food shops and yoga studios that are the stamp of hipsterdom the world over.
Still, I’m not convinced that Germany’s rents are as out of control as they’re being made out to be.
A survey published last month by an international consultancy firm found that Munich, Germany’s most expensive city, ranks No. 20 in Europe and No. 65 worldwide in terms of rent. Berlin places No. 38 in Europe — way behind Vilnius or Warsaw — and No. 96 globally. Moscow, the city I called home for most of the past decade, holds first place in both categories.
The problem is that Germans have been spoiled by proactive government policies designed to fund affordable housing and promote mixed-income living spaces. Speculative bubbles that drive up rents astronomically were long seen as an ailment of the U.S., Spanish or British real estate markets, not of Germany’s.
State subsidies have been cut in recent years by policymakers who believed that Germany’s aging and shrinking population would make more housing available. Instead, immigration has created a net population gain, the number of single households is rising, and investors from around the world are drawn to German real estate as a safe haven.
Poverty is not an issue usually associated with Germany. Yet globalization has undermined the social welfare state that West Germans had built up as a counterweight to East German communism. And as in all Western industrialized countries, pressure on the middle class here is increasing as the wealth gap grows. Between 1998 and 2008, the share of national wealth held by the richest tenth of the population rose from 45 percent to 53 percent, while the poorer half’s share declined from 4 percent to 1 percent, according to government figures.
The Gülbols’ slice of the pie got noticeably smaller last week. For now, they will keep the same roof over their heads: They have temporarily moved to Ali Gülbol’s parents’ apartment just a few floors up. Wherever it ends up, though, the family will have to make do with less, just like millions of other people across Germany.