When visitors want to experience this city’s much celebrated “alternative” culture, they often make their way to Heinrichplatz, a graffiti-covered square in the Kreuzberg neighborhood that for decades has been a hub for independent arts, underground night life and radical politics.
But on a recent Saturday afternoon, the usual clusters of selfie-snapping tourists and cafegoers were met by hundreds of demonstrators carrying signs that read, “We’re all staying” or “Say no to crowding out,” and protesting rising rents, forced evictions and rampant real estate speculation.
“Massive crowding is happening to the extent that a lot of people can’t pay their rent, or they are having their leases canceled for the slightest triviality,” said Sara Walther, one of the organizers, stubbing out a rolled cigarette. “People are finally starting to defend themselves.”
Over the past decade, people have poured into Berlin, attracted by its relative affordability, cultural wealth and anything-goes spirit. But now the city is trying to regulate what has elsewhere proved to be unstoppable: gentrification.
Under pressure from a growing grass-roots movement, the city authorities have put into effect a slate of measures, including rent caps, a partial ban on vacation rentals, development-free zones and increased social housing subsidies. The goal is to bridle the bullish housing market and conserve the diverse social and cultural makeup of the city center.
“The problem of rising rents and lack of living space is one of the most important issues for Berlin,” said Petra Rohland, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Urban Development and Housing.
Not long ago, these problems would have been unthinkable. With the reunification of Germany in 1990, this city was littered with uninhabited buildings and large sections of valuable but disused land along the strip where the Berlin Wall once stood. To spur development, city officials sold off land and more than 110,000 government-owned apartments to foreign investors, while also funding urban renewal campaigns.
At the same time, a government program to subsidize some apartments was eliminated, meaning that as Berlin became a popular destination in the late 2000s, it was fertile ground for rampant rent hikes.
Last year, more than 60,000 people arrived here, a pace similar to much larger cities. Prices have soared in fashionable districts like Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, where rents rose in the past decade by more than 80 percent, according to data from the Empirica Institute, which tracks property prices. But incomes in Berlin remain relatively low, with more than half the population qualifying for public housing, meaning that many longtime residents and other low earners are being priced out.
“People have lived and worked here for a long time, and even if they aren’t making much money, they are part of the city,” said Malte Voss, a freelance videographer who is part of an embattled tenant collective at Lausitzer 10-11, a brick loft complex that houses artist studios, workshops and left-leaning nongovernmental organizations. “They are the reason Kreuzberg is like it is.”
Late last year, the tenant collective learned that its landlord, Taekker, a Danish development firm, intended to sell the building to private investors who planned a conversion to luxury loft apartments.
The tenants set up a publicity team and, with informal support from the city, began negotiations with Taekker.
“More and more tenants are organizing themselves,” Wibke Werner, deputy director of the Berlin Tenants’ Association, said. “Not since the squatter movement of the ’70s and ’80s has there been so much momentum.”
Today, the streets of Kreuzberg are peppered with stickers, fliers and graffiti expressing support for grass-roots coalitions. One group, Bizim Kiez, came together in 2015 in defense of a Turkish family-owned grocery store threatened by eviction. The eviction was eventually canceled under heavy public pressure, but last year its owner was forced to give up the store, Bizim Bakkal, because of health problems that he said had stemmed from the fight with the landlord.
The phrase “Bizim bleibt,” or “Bizim stays” became a rallying cry for the wider movement and gave birth to the Bizim Kiez organization, which is fighting to maintain diversity in the neighborhood.
After tenant outcry, the city also saved at least two apartment blocks in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg from being sold, using a legal tool known as the “right of first refusal,” which lets officials intervene if they can find funding for the purchase. In another case, the city recently stepped in and purchased a large disused freight station in the eastern district of Köpenick, which it plans to convert into affordable housing.
But like the “right of first refusal” rule, which depends on flush state funding, many of the anti-gentrification measures have limitations. The system of rent caps, which forbids landlords to charge more than 10 percent above the district average for a new rental contract, has many exceptions and loopholes. Often, landlords simply ignore it.
“People are happy if they find an apartment in the city they can afford,” said Ms. Werner of the tenants’ association. “It’s not the first thing they do to enter into a conflict with their landlord.”
More effective are the so-called milieuschutz laws, translated as “social environment protection,” meant to prevent landlords from imposing expensive renovations that would effectively price out the current tenants. Today, there are more than 30 milieuschutz zones in Berlin, with more expected, though the protections are not ironclad. These zones prevent landlords from converting rental apartments to condos — unless they promise to sell only to current tenants for a period of seven years.
“But then it’s very probable the landlord will try to kick out the tenants and sell the condos for lots of money,” Ms. Werner said. “We think the transition from rental to condos should be forbidden totally.”
Amid so much grass-roots resistance, there are concerns that all of this new regulation will create an undue burden on property owners and frighten away potential investors.
“These measures lead to a significant restriction of property investment,” said Carsten Brückner, chairman of the German homeowners’ association Haus & Grund. “Everyone has the right to live everywhere. That this possibility is also dependent on the economic performance of the individual should not surprise us.”
The rent caps and milieuschutz laws, he added, combine to make modernization difficult, if not impossible, leading to “deterioration of the property portfolio.”
Yet there are also concerns that the booming property market is not sustainable. Recent figures released by the German Property Federation show that purchase prices on residential real estate in Berlin grew by 94 percent from 2010 to 2016, while rents increased by only 40 percent. This gap seems to be widening, the report says, “which generally raises concern for a real estate bubble.”
Johannes Novy, a prominent German urbanist, said Berlin’s affordability, mixed social makeup and spirit of experimentation “are what made it attractive to begin with.” The recent regulation and grass-roots organizing are positive steps, he said, “but many of these measures have come far too late, and at this point it’s very difficult to stem the tide.”
“In a typical capitalist city, gentrification and pricing out is normal,” said David Schuster, one of the organizers of the Kreuzberg protest, which ended up drawing more than 1,000 people, far more than expected. “But that’s not what we want.”
Manuel Kony, a 28-year-old sales manager watching the demonstration from the side of the street, said balance should be the goal. “I think you have to find an equilibrium, where people can find reasonable rental prices, but the city is still allowed to develop further,” he said.
“Otherwise, you end up with a kind of banlieue situation,” he added, referring to the crime-ridden exurban districts that have garnered so many headlines in France. “Do we really want what happened in Paris?”