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HOUSING

German housing co-ops: What are they and how do I sign up?

With rents surging in many major cities across Germany, many long-term renters are now on the lookout for a more secure alternative. Housing co-ops may just provide the answer.

German housing co-ops: What are they and how do I sign up?
A Wohnungsbaugenossenschaft in Heidelberg in 2017. Photo: DPA

In recent years, a fair few disillusioned renters have chosen to move out of the rental market entirely and purchase their own property, but others are instead opting to become a member of a Wohnungsbaugenossenschaft (housing cooperative).

If, like many internationals, you’ve developed a severe allergy to bureaucratic words like Anmeldebescheinungen and Einkommensteuererklärung, coming face to face with yet another eight-syllable compound noun is probably not a welcome experience. But in this case (as with many scary-looking German words), the concept is simpler than the name suggests. 

Wohnungsbaugenossenschaften are a historic and fundamental part of Germany’s housing policy, offering an affordable and secure alternative to both renting and buying. Co-ops are essentially non-profit companies run on principles of self-help, community and solidarity, which buy and build housing for their members. 

To access most of this housing, you first have to become a member of the co-op and purchase a certain share in the initiative which is used to build and maintain the co-op’s housing stock. 

When a suitable flat comes up, you pay a monthly fee – similar to rent – for use of the property. Once in, members have the right to remain a member of the co-op – and stay in their current flat – for life.

This has made co-ops a popular choice for the elderly, young families and people on low incomes who are currently being priced out of the private rental market. 

READ ALSO: ‘Be patient’: What you should know about buying property in Germany

Living in a housing co-operative 

The word housing co-op may conjure up images of hippie communes with shared living spaces, allotments and huge pots of lentils steaming on the stove – but although communal living has been an aspect of some recent housing projects, the experience is normally pretty similar to renting privately.

“There’s a much better sense of community than in other housing blocks I’ve lived in,” says Rachel Riesner-Marriott, who lives in a flat in Berlin’s Treptow-Köpenick district.

Originally from the UK, she became a member of her German husband’s housing co-op when they moved in together a few years ago, and recommended her parents as members when they moved to Berlin. 

A Wohnungsbaugenossenschaft in Lichtenberg in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Ellie Stephenson, who found a co-op flat in the sought-after Berlin-Neukölln area, agrees. “It’s the norm that you’re nice and friendly to your neighbours in the co-op,” she says. “So for someone who loves wild parties or needs a lot of privacy, it may not be the best option.”

The co-ops organise regular events for members – Ellie’s, for instance, hosts flea markets and garden parties – but there’s no obligation to join in with the communal fun. As with monthly meetings and other organisational matters, members are free to choose how much they participate in the social side and everyday running of the co-op.

There is, however, an emphasis on community and solidarity, reflected in the choice to use local tradespeople for maintenance and repairs, and the drive to keep costs for tenants as low as possible.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ellie received a letter from her housing co-op to explain that none of their members would lose their flat as a result of the pandemic. “It was a lovely letter, offering use of their hardship fund for people who couldn’t afford their rents,” she says.

Fees for tenants in co-ops tend to be below market rate, especially in older buildings, and both Rachel and Ellie describe them as highly affordable. In her previous co-op apartment, Ellie’s rent went up once in the space of six years.

When it did, she was sent a long letter full of numerical charts and legal explanations, delivering the news that she would now be paying a grand total of €4 more per month.  

According to anecdotal reports, the age of residents in co-ops tends to skew a bit older, although this is changing year on year. 

“It’s a mix, honestly,” says Rachel. “I see young families, single people (who often live in the one-room flats) and older people, but generally there is a lean towards older people.” 

According to Ellie, however, the demographics of her housing co-op are also slowly but surely becoming more diverse – and noticeably more international. “I’ve started to hear English in the corridors a little more,” she says. 

It seems that the shifting demographic makeup of the country has started to impact life in the housing co-ops, too, especially in urban centres like Berlin. 

Check out The Local’s hundreds of listings in Germany on our apartment rental page

Sounds great – where can I find one? 

In 2016, there were almost 2,000 housing co-ops across the country, providing more than two million flats for around 5 million people.

As you’d expect, most of these tend to be concentrated in larger cities: Berlin, for instance, has at least 80 co-ops with around 160,000 apartments, while Hamburg has 30, which offer around 130,000 apartments in total.

Housing stock can be anywhere in the city – including some of the most desirable residential areas – though statistics from the Institute for Research into Buildings and Cities (BBSR) suggest that they’re more likely to be concentrated outside of the centre to keep costs low for tenants. 

Unfortunately, at the moment, the demand for this type of housing far exceeds the supply – especially in metropoles like Berlin. 

According to a spokeswoman for the Housing Co-operative Marketing Initiative, this has made finding a co-op flat an uphill struggle.

“Taking Berlin as an example, the co-ops there have far more interested tenants than they do flats, and for that reason many of them are no longer taking members until they’re able to offer these newcomers an apartment,” she explained.

A housing co-op in Schwerin. Photo: DPA

This type of situation has led to horror stories of prospective tenants languishing on waiting lists until their hair turns grey – but luckily for anyone dreaming of the co-op life, the outlook isn’t as gloomy as it may appear.

“In spite of the strained housing market, Berlin co-ops offer around 5,000 new apartments every year, and about half of these go to new members, so it’s absolutely still possible to get hold of a co-op flat,” said the spokeswoman. “Just don’t expect it to happen so quickly!”

While rising demand may be hard to keep up with, both state and federal governments now see housing co-ops as a cornerstone of German housing policy and a potential solution to the desperate need for social housing.

A few years ago, the governing coalition in the Hamburg Senate set a target of making half of all building community plots available for newly founded housing co-ops.

Meanwhile, co-ops such as Ellie’s are keen to open up their stock of apartments and raise awareness of the model among a new generation of house-hunters. A note on their website states that the co-op is currently “trying to revive the cooperative idea, especially among younger people and families”.    

OK, so how do I get into one? 

If you’re thinking of joining a housing co-op, the first step is to find one near you. The Housing Co-operative Marketing Initiative – Wohnungsbaugenossenschaften.de – has more than 400 members, including many of the largest co-ops, which are all searchable by region or city on their website. 

Most of these co-ops will be named after neighbourhoods in your town or city, but you shouldn’t always take this at face value: in reality, their stock of apartments might be concentrated elsewhere in the city, so it pays to do a little digging on their websites as well.

If you’re in a large city where demand for these flats outstrips supply, you may need to be a little less picky about area and simply look for housing co-ops that are still accepting new members. 

Otherwise, it could be worth asking around to see if anyone you know is already in a co-op. To ensure you get in at the right time, ask them to keep an eye out for vacant flats in their building and recommend you as a member either before – or as soon as – an empty flat appears.

READ ALSO: Renting vs. buying in Germany: What is actually cheaper?

This is how Ellie secured her first co-op flat. Having noticed that a ground-floor apartment in their co-op had been vacant for a while, a friend recommended her for it, and, after what she describes as “a lot of chasing” – and completing an application for membership – she was able to move in.

Whether or not there are any apartments currently on offer, it makes sense to sign up as a member with a co-op and buy shares in it in order to have a good chance of securing a flat in the future. The cost of these shares varies quite a bit, and seems to be dependent on both location and the financial health of the co-op.

In Freiburg, one housing co-op asks new members to buy three shares at a total value of €930 before they can secure a flat; at another co-op in Dortmund, meanwhile, members are asked to buy one share at €550, while in Berlin-Mitte, two shares in a local housing co-op will cost you around €320. In addition to this, there’s usually a one-time entry fee of around €50 to pay.

Once in, shareholders will receive annual dividends. 

To give yourself the best chance of getting accepted when a property does become available, it’s a good idea to brush up on your German a little.

While this is by no means essential for membership, it may help you make a better impression at viewings and become a more active member of the co-op community.

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For members

LIVING IN GERMANY

10 life hacks to make you feel like a local in Germany

It can be difficult to settle into life in Germany, so here are 10 ‘life hacks’ that will make you feel more at home.

10 life hacks to make you feel like a local in Germany

1. Don’t be late

In the German-speaking world, punctuality is highly rated and lateness is considered rude.

To really fit in, follow the golden rule: be on time. Whether it’s for meetings, appointments or just casual dates with German friends if you want to fit in in Germany, leave home a bit earlier and plan to be on time.

But if you are going to be late – make sure to call or text the person to let them know in advance.

2. Understand how Germans tell the time

Crucial to being on time is understanding how to express time in the German language.

When taking your first steps in German, you probably already learned the slightly confusing way that Germans express the half hour: where the “half” refers to the hour that is approaching rather than the hour that has begun.

14:30, for example, is expressed as halb drei (half three) instead of halb zwei (half two) as in English.

But things can get even more complicated when it comes to speaking about quarter hours.

While many Germans will express the quarter hours as in English – with 14:15 as viertel nach zwei (quarter past two) and 14:45 as viertel vor drei (quarter to three) many Germans – particularly in the east of the country – refer to the approaching hour instead of the hour that has already begun.

So 14:15 would be viertel drei (quarter three) and 14:45 would be drei viertel drei (three quarters three).

If you can’t quite get your head around that, just be sure to double-check the time meant when making appointments.

3. Don’t cross the road at a red light

In many European countries, it’s acceptable to cross the road when the pedestrian light is red if the road is clear.

But in Germany, people wait until the pedestrian light has turned green – even if it means waiting on the side of the road without any cars going past.

This is partly because there are jaywalking is illegal in Germany and also because people just generally follow the rules.

If you do decide to cross the road on a red light and there are children around, you may well find yourself being reprimanded by other pedestrians for setting a bad example.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

4. “Prost” properly

Numerous people celebrate at the Spring Festival in a beer tent in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

“Prost” is the German version of “cheers”. 

If you have a drink with a group of friends or colleagues you should expect to toast with “prost”, to clink your glass with everyone else’s and make eye contact with each person.

Not only is it considered polite, but failure to lock eyes could result in bad luck. At least according to some locals.

READ ALSO: 10 weird taboos you should never break in Germany

5. Be ready at the check-out

Being at the check-out in a German supermarket can sometimes feel like an Olympic sport. Most shop assistants won’t assist you with your bags and are more likely to check through your items at lighting speed and expect you to keep up.

So, be ready for the challenge. While you’re waiting in the queue, put your groceries in a strategic order, i.e. heavy items like bottles and potatoes first and lighter items such as eggs near the end.

Also, have your bags out, open and ready to load.

6. Get a filing system

The digital revolution hasn’t quite conquered all areas of German life yet, and government authorities and health insurance companies still love to send out paperwork.

While many of the documents you get through the post in Germany can go straight in the bin, there are certain documents that you are obliged to keep hold of for a certain number of years.  

If you’re self-employed, for example, you are obliged to keep your tax documents for ten years.

The best way to keep track of your paperwork is to get yourself a filing system. This can be as simple as a couple of ring binders but can make your life in Germany a lot easier.

READ ALSO: 13 things foreigners do that make Germans really uncomfortable

7. Join or start a Verein

Germans love to organise themselves, which is probably why there are around 600,000 Vereine (associations) in the country, covering all manner of hobbies and interests, including artistic associations, garden allotments, citizens’ initiatives, self-help groups, remembrance committees, carnival clubs – you name it, there’s probably a Verein for it. 

Members of the Meerdeerns e.V. (Sea Girls) club swim in the water in mermaid outfits in Neumünster. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

An official Verein can be recognised by the two letters added to its name: e.V. which stands for eingetragener Verein (registered association).

Starting your own Verein can be very beneficial, as it enables access to public tax funds, is less bureaucracy than other legal entities and there is no personal liability of members.

8. Get letter notifications

A well-kept secret that can help your life in Germany is to get a free post notification service.

If you sign up for a GMX or web.de email account or get the Post and DHL App, you can get a free notification telling you which post has been sent to you, including a photo of the envelope. 

The service, called Briefankündigung (letter notification), notifies users in advance of incoming letters, postcards and magazines by e-mail.

9. Get insurance

While not compulsory, private liability insurance is widely seen as essential protection against the risk of harming another person or their material things.

A man spills tea over his mobile phone. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Zacharie Scheurer

Under German Law, there is no ceiling on the level of damages an individual could have awarded against them for an act they committed, even innocently, or for the misdeeds of their pets.

Almost nine in ten Germans have Haftpflichtversicherung (personal liability insurance) and if you want to fit in, its probably best to get it too. 

10. Always carry cash

Germans love cash and in many bars and restaurants throughout the country,  you won’t be able to pay with a card.

Even though card payments and digital banking are gaining in popularity in Germany, there are many places that will still only accept cash. Or the staff will grudgingly dust off the card reader so someone can pay by card.

So, to avoid feeling like a tourist that is inconveniencing someone, always carry cash.

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