Can Europe Make It?

What neighbourhood and gentrification mean for Berlin immigrants

Even without the threat of racism, many immigrants are unhappy about changing their neighbourhood.

Defne Kadıoğlu Polat
10 September 2015
Renovation in Neukölln district of Berlin.

Renovation in Neukölln district of Berlin.Flickr/Alper Çuğun.Some rights reserved.Berlin has some of the fastest rising rents in Europe and a rapidly changing consumption infrastructure. Despite continuing regulations, such as a new rent cap law enforced in June this year and prohibition of luxury restorations in the relevant quarters, gentrification is taking its toll on the local population. Particularly low-income immigrants are adversely affected.

Generally speaking, in countries with strong welfare traditions such as Germany, the negative effects of gentrification are not easily detected. Often immediate displacement can be avoided through strict rent control. This year, in fact, Berlin was the first city in Germany to issue a rent cap law that forbids landlords from charging more than ten percent over the average local rent for new tenants. However, Berlin-based reporter Michael Scaturro in The Guardian has already noted that the law remains ambiguous, giving landlords the opportunity to make use of legal loopholes.

From my own field work in Berlin’s up-and-coming Reuterkiez neighborhood, located in the historical working-class and immigrant-heavy Neukölln borough, I can tell that landlords are eager to push low-income residents out of apartments and rent out to middle class newcomers and students who pay more due to flat sharing. Particularly immigrants are disadvantaged when it comes to defending themselves since they frequently lack language skills and know-how of the German legal system. 

Moreover landlords and housing administrations often intentionally fall short of fulfilling their responsibilities in order to get old-established immigrant tenants to leave voluntarily. Given Neukölln’s historic roots as a working-class location, apartments are relatively basic. One major problem is moist, which can only be avoided through proper renovation. In one instance, Fatima[i], a woman with Arabic roots and broken German, told me her housing administration blamed her for the moist and refused to take care of it. In this and similar cases it seems that low-income and often welfare-dependent immigrants are more easily intimidated because they are not aware of their legal privileges. Murat Yıldırım, a lawyer active in the neighborhood, notes that many of his immigrant clients get themselves into legal difficulties by signing contracts they do not fully understand. After they have signed, it is often too late. 

Meanwhile, many immigrant residents in Reuterkiez are willing to do whatever it takes to stay put in their neighbourhood. Spatial proximity is crucial for low-income inhabitants with limited social capital, but it is even more crucial for residents with a migratory background, female migrants in particular, who have often arrived after their husbands, do not work outside their homes and are less mobile. Accordingly, having everything nearby - such as doctors who speak their mother tongue, ethnic food shops or homework-assistance for their children - becomes a vital issue.

In my experience, immigrants in Neukölln’s Reuterkiez neighborhood are therefore willing to reduce their quality of life in order to stay in or close to their familiar environment. So, a female immigrant from Turkey, Emine, told me she had moved into a one-and-a-half room apartment with her husband and three children offered to her by her landlord after the pipes burst in her old apartment. Since she did not know when the damage would be fixed she signed up for a new - way too small - apartment in the same building, fearing she would have to leave the neighborhood if she did not take what she was offered. Emine’s landlord then proceeded to sell the building, and the new owner fixed the damage and rented the space out to students.

But it does not always have to be a landlord on the make who leaves tenants in distress. A typical scenario for Reuterkiez is that a family with new offspring wants to move into a bigger place but is simply unable to find a new apartment in the same area for a rent they can afford. So they stay in the same apartment despite its becoming too small for their growing family.

The German welfare agencies are not helping to alleviate the situation either: several long-term immigrant residents told me that the local unemployment agency advises them to move to Marzahn-Hellersdorf in East Berlin where rents are still low. Marzahn-Hellersdorf, however, is infamous for neo-Nazi activity. Understandably, most families would rather live in a badly-maintained and overcrowded apartment than move to that area. And even without the threat of racism, many immigrants are unhappy about changing their neighbourhood. Emine sums up the problem for her and other immigrants in her quarter:

“Our family relations are close. They don’t understand it. We help each other. The fact that there are many Turks here is our refuge. They say you got used to living here so you will get used to living in another neighborhood but we are foreign in this country and at least we have a home here. We can’t get out to the surrounding places. We didn’t learn the language; we stayed dependent on this neighborhood. In some sense it‘s desperation.”

What these and similar stories from Berlin’s Reuterkiez neighborhood tell us is that German policy-makers and bureaucrats urgently need to dig deeper and understand what neighborhood means to long-term residents and particularly to low-income immigrants in order to produce effective solutions.

Rent regulations are signs of good intent and certainly helpful in slowing down the gentrification process. However, legal loopholes and increased competition on Berlin’s housing market make it difficult for socio-economically weak groups to assert themselves. However, given that these disadvantaged groups are particularly dependent on spatial proximity, the consequence is often that they would rather reduce their own quality of life by remaining in overcrowded apartments or moving in with relatives than leaving their familiar environment.

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[i] All names of interviewees have been changed.

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