Small flats are on the rise in Germany, leaving city dwellers increasingly cramped

With rented apartments beginning to cost upwards of €20 per square metre, many average earners are leaving behind their dream of a perfect home.

Small flats are on the rise in Germany, leaving city dwellers increasingly cramped
A series of high-rise buildings in Berlin. Photo: DPA

If you are looking for a place to live in a big German city, you might have to say goodbye to your wish for a dream home. It now costs €1150 to rent a 60 square metre apartment in Cologne and €1100 for only 38 square metres in Munich. Tiny, student-like flats are becoming more and more acceptable.

“This is how it goes. We have to save on square metres,” says a real-estate expert from the Cologne Institute of the German Economy, Michael Voigtländer. A city like Munich is the forerunner rather than the exception.

“Only a few years ago we generally preferred big apartments to small ones”, continues Voigtländer. Since then however, city dwellers have been living in increasingly small spaces, with generously-sized homes only affordable in more rural areas.

“Many would prefer to live in a larger apartment, but they cannot afford it”, says Thomas Bauer, Vice-President of the Federal Association of German Industry (BDI). According to Bauer, the problem can only be solved if more people move from big cities to the countryside. However, the current trend is the opposite of this.

One of the main causes of the housing issues is the changing demographic of the population. Germany currently has an aging population and because of this there are a lot more one-person households.

This, has led to a rapidly increasing demand for housing in Germany’s cities. As a study found earlier this year, a consequence of this is that German cities have some of the fastest rising house prices across the globe. In fact Berlin’s housing market is growing faster than any other city in the world and experts predict that it will continue to grow.

SEE ALSO: Berlin has the fastest growing housing prices in the world, study finds

Photo: DPA

However, for many years there has been a lack of investment in city accommodation, and even if developers wanted to build new apartments, there is not enough land in most German cities. In June Frankfurt's mayor, Peter Feldmann, backed plans to build two new districts around the A5 Autobahn in the Frankfurt suburbs. Projects like this will become more common as Germany’s cities continue to become overcrowded.  

SEE ALSO: Germany's property boom will keep going, experts predict

For years Germans have become accustomed to living in increasingly roomy apartments. Since the turn of the century, the living space per person has grown almost continuously according to figures from the Federal Statistical Office (StBA).

In 1999 it was at around 39 square metres per capita, and rose to 45 square metres over the next 10 years. However, last year the number was at just 46.5 square metres and now the tides could turn in Germany’s big cities.

The largest German landlord, Vonovia, has responded to the housing crisis, which is described by CEO Rolf Buch as “dramatic”, by offering an increasing number of smaller flats in German cities. With floor-to-ceiling windows and large livings areas to make up for the cramped hallways and small bedrooms, residents are at least given the illusion of roominess. There are still some housing steals on the market: if you fancy a flat in Bochum, near Dortmund, the company asks for only €10 per square metre.

As Vonovia renovates and builds new buildings, they are aiming for flats to be around 55 to 60 square metres; sometimes they divide a large 160 square metre apartment into three small apartments. “In cities which are running so low on free apartments, some people live in huge spaces,” says Buch.

“It can be problematic introducing higher prices per square meter for smaller flats,” says Ulrich Ropertz of the German Tenants Association (DMB). The idea of smaller apartments makes sense as a solution for growing vacancies in large flats which can be difficult to rent.

However, the apartment must be empty in order to carry out renovation. “You cannot and must not terminate a lease in order to do this”, says Ropertz.

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‘Housing is a human right’: Rent activists step up pressure ahead of German elections

Housing campaigners from across Germany have banded together ahead of the September elections to demand an immediate rent freeze and affordable housing for all.

'Housing is a human right': Rent activists step up pressure ahead of German elections
People protesting for Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen at a demo in Berlin on August 21st. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soede

In a demonstration taking place in the German capital on September 11th, 2021, numerous campaign groups will take to the streets, among them the Berlin-based Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. campaign, the national Rent Freeze campaign and the Mannheim-based Action Alliance Against Desperation and Rent Madness. 

They are demanding a national rent freeze for the next six years to halt rising rents, along with a focus on building more affordable homes and the transfer of property from private landlords into state hands.

“With this rents demonstration, we’re protesting against the massive, persistent pressure that renters are facing in the whole of Germany,” campaigners said in a statement announcing the upcoming protest.

“Whether it’s Frankfurt, Dresden, Munich, Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne, rents are incessantly rising or have already reached unreasonable levels – und not just in the big cities.

“In many places, the availability of affordable living space has sunk dramatically for those entering a new housing contract. Homelessness is rising further and with it, the number of people who live on the streets without any shelter at all.” 

Sharp rise in rents

Of all the cities in Germany, Berlin has by far the fastest rising rents: a recent study by housing portal Immowelt found that asking rents in the capital have soared by more than 40 percent over the past five years alone.

READ ALSO: COMPARE: The cities in Germany with the fastest-rising rents

However, the same study also found that middle-sized German cities like Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern were experiencing significant rent hikes over the same period, while the country’s priciest cities like Munich and Stuttgart continued to see rents go up – though not quite as steeply as in previous years.

Not just Berlin: Medium-sized cities such as Heidelberg have seen steep rises in rents over the past half a decade. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

As Germany prepares to head to the polls on September 26th in both the federal and a number of state elections, the campaign is aiming to step up pressure on the next government to embark on a “radical change of course” in the country’s housing policy. 

READ ALSO: Election 2021: How do Germany’s political parties want to tackle rising rents?

In Berlin, people with German citizenship will also be given a vote in a referendum on whether the state government should buy out thousands of flats owned by for-profit landlords with 3,000 or more properties – including Vonovia and Deutsche Wohnen – in order to better control rents and living standards.

“On September 26th, Berliners have a unique, historical chance to stand up against the selling off of our cities,” Rouzbeh Tehari, spokesman for the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. campaign, told The Local.

“The referendum to nationalise large property firms offers the opportunity to remove hundreds of thousands of apartments from capitalist speculation and manage them as social housing.”

READ ALSO: Berlin to vote on radical bid to combat housing crisis

Even if the referendum passes, however, the campaign expects to face a fierce battle with the newly elected Berlin Senate to see the policy put into law. 

“We won’t stop after the vote,” Tehari explained. “We know we’re facing strong opposition and it will be difficult to get it implemented.” 

A ‘yes’ poster for the referendum being put up in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Either way, the success of the campaign – which managed to collect well over the 170,000 petition signatures needed to call a referendum – will have sent a strong message to the venture capitalists that speculating on Berlin housing is a “high risk” strategy, he said.  

A national rent cap?

The national Rent Freeze campaign, one of the key activist groups involved in Saturday’s demo, is calling for a new six-year rental cap – but says it must be done on a national level.

Earlier this year, attempts to impose a six-year rent freeze in Munich and Berlin were both rejected by Germany’s Constitutional Court on the basis that such as move couldn’t be done on a state or regional level.

In the case of Berlin, the rent cap had been in place since 2018, but was removed after the court found the law to be unconstitutional.

A tweet from the ‘Prevent Forced Evictions’ campaign ahead of the demo on Saturday reads: “According to a new study, a national rent cap is possible. The only thing missing is the political will.” 

At the time, renters were dealt a double blow as the court ruled that landlords also had the right to reclaim back-dated rent for the entire duration of the cap – leading some tenants to be presented with bills amounting to thousands of euros. 


But the national Rent Freeze campaign, which started in Bavaria, has now amassed support from around 140 other organisations and activist groups, and is gaining momentum ahead of the elections.

“Many tenants are desperate,” said Matthias Weinzierl of the Rent Freeze campaign. “They’re legitimately afraid of losing their homes because rents continue to rise and Covid-19 hasn’t changed a thing. 

“That’s why we’re calling for a national six-year rent freeze now, which must be brought in directly after the new government has been elected. Such a rent freeze would be an acute help for tenants – and it’s also urgently needed.” 

‘Existential threat’

The date of the demo is the national Day of the Homeless, and was selected to highlight what campaigners see as the real threat of the housing crisis.

“In many places, high rents are becoming a genuine poverty risk and loss of housing is becoming an existential threat,” said Ulrich Schneider, CEO of the Parity Welfare Association, which is also supporting the demo.

People sleeping rough in Berlin in February 2021. Campaigners believe the housing crisis and homelessness are closely linked. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“It’s completely unreasonable to force single parents, people with disabilities or those in need of care, for example, to give up their homes and lose their entire social environment.” 

The protest on Saturday has also received support from the National Working Group for Help for the Homeless (BAGWH), who have linked unaffordable rents to a rise in the number of employed people losing their homes. 

In one recent study, BAGWH found that 15 percent of people classified as ‘homeless’ are currently employed – suggesting that rents in Germany are now outstripping wages, especially for lower earners.

Commenting on the findings, Werena Rosenke, CEO of BAGWH, said that the figures were “proof of the precarious living conditions in which many people find themselves in this country and the trends that are emerging in our society”. 

Any new government elected after September 26th must face this issue head on, she added.