The slow death of affordable housing: A primer on Berlin’s housing market in three acts. Act 1: Housing in the divided city

Housing is possibly the most relatable urban policy topic there is. We all have to live somewhere, after all. And anyone who lives in a big city will know the pains of talking about the housing market at some point in every single get-together. I have actually begun distracting people with American politics to get out of talks of rising rents and stagnating wages.

I bite my tongue in these discussions. To be honest, it’s just not a can of work-related worms that I want to open in my free time. And as a renter, these discussions can be pretty anxiety-inducing, even in our so-called “tenants’ culture.”

So, today, I want to begin to walk you all through Berlin’s housing policy – the renting and owner-occupied segments, and why it’s developing/has developed the way it has. Buckle up, kids. This is about to get complex. And because it’s going to get complex, I’m going to break it down into three bite-sized articles to round off the year. Today: housing in the divided city.

(Just a quick disclaimer: I’m not going to touch on every single nuance. There are plenty of books and articles about that. Today’s article is an attempt to give an overall picture of the situation.)


The historical development of the housing market in divided Berlin

After the Second World War, the two halves of the city developed along different courses, albeit always with an eye towards what was happening on the other side of the Wall.

West Berlin

West German planning law applied to West Berlin as well, despite the fact that it was first later officially recognized as part of West Germany. This means that the primary concern after the war was creating affordable housing for large portions of the population. This was the goal behind the first housing construction law (erste Wohnungsbaugesetz, 1. WoBauG). This policy measure led to the construction of the large-scale post-war housing estates we know today.

A policy shift in the 1970s coincided with a paradigm shift in architecture and urban planning. From that point on, urban development was concentrated on the inner cities – filling holes, renovating housing stock, and building decidedly urban structures – the postmodern turn and Stadtumbau were upon us!

Due to the central location of the wall, much social housing (with time-limited occupancy controls (Belegsbindung)) was constructed right in the center of the city, concentrating migrants and low-income groups in now-central districts such as Wedding, Neukölln and Kreuzberg. So at the time the Wall fell, we had a situation in which the primary concentration of low-income and disadvantaged groups was either in the high-rise housing estates on the edge of the city or in the city center near the Wall. The tenement buildings in the city center were either renovated in the 50s and 60s (a time in which modernism was king and plaster work was frou-frou nonsense) or, if they were inhabitable, continued to be used in their post-war state and patched as necessary.

Social housing in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

East Berlin

The state-run economy on the other side of the Wall led to a somewhat different situation in East Berlin. Similar to West Berlin, large-scale housing construction took place, above all in the northeast. The main difference between the two halves of the city in this regard is that these housing estates were still being constructed when the Wall fell. The combination of major housing shortages and budget shortfalls led to the construction of industrial, prefabricated housing being the primary form of housing provision.

Housing in the GDR was centrally allocated. Housing was used as a reward system – young families and those who were ideologically conforming received preferential treatment. Rent in East Berlin was 3% of your net income, independent of the size and quality of the flat. Municipal budgets did not allow for both housing construction and renovation of existing stock, so any renovations which took place in the inner-city tenement housing districts (other than selected, very limited state-funded projects in the 1980s) were strictly DIY.

While the architectural and urban development postmodern turn did start to be an issue in East Berlin in the 1980s, in particular around the time of Berlin’s 750th anniversary, in-filling in the city center never took hold. So at the time the Wall fell, we had completely different socio-spatial situation than in West Berlin. The preferred housing was located on the outskirts, in the large-scale housing estates, and the tenement buildings (which were in dire disrepair) were primarily inhabited by the elderly and political and social dissidents.

Tenement housing in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse.

Two cities, two housing policy trajectories, two built realities, soon to be managed as one! Next week, act 2 will examine how these situations developed in the two decades after the fall of the Wall.

4 thoughts

  1. Thanks for this. Deserves study. We’re traveling to the States for New Years, returning on the 14th of January. I’ll make myself a note to get in touch then?

    — Topper


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