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HOUSING

Berlin to offer loans and grants to hard-up tenants after rent cap defeat

The Berlin government says it will set aside millions of euros in aid and loans to help tenants struggling after the Mietendeckel was overturned.

Berlin to offer loans and grants to hard-up tenants after rent cap defeat
People demonstrating against the Mietendeckel defeat in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Tens of thousands of Berliners affected have been hit with hikes to their rent after the rental cap was ruled void by the federal constitutional court last week.

Many people are also facing back payments from landlords and private housing companies.

On Tuesday the Berlin Senate announced they would help tenants who had not saved the money to pay landlords back, or were struggling with their new rent increase.

According to the government, 365,000 residents in Berlin were temporarily entitled to a rent reduction until the court ruling last week.

Of these, the Senate estimates that 40,000 households may struggle to pay back the differences in the months they paid the temporary lower rent.

In extreme cases, people could be threatened with eviction, the local government said – and the hardship fund will apply to these households who need it most.

Some Berliners’ rents were lowered when the second stage of the rent cap came into force on November 23rd 2020, while others are tenants who have signed so-called ‘shadow tenancy agreements’ which included two rents in the contract. 

READ MORE:

So what help can people get?

The amount of money that people can get depends on their income.

The local government in a press release said the loans “must be repaid and are granted interest-free. If tenants are unable to repay all or part of the money through no fault of their own, the loan can be converted into a grant and its repayment (partially) waived.”

Tenants who are not on housing benefits and who have not set aside the “saved” rent payments will therefore have the opportunity to receive bridging assistance.

All households whose income is up to 280 percent of the federal income limit are eligible. The annual federal income limit for a one-person household is currently €12,000 per year.

It means that under Berlin’s rent protection fund, single-person households with an income of up to €33,600 per year are eligible.

People who are on benefits should contact their district office to check whether the landlord’s additional demands can be met with housing benefit.

The Berlin Senate plans to commission the Investitionsbank Berlin (IBB) to pay out the loans.

Tenants will be required to submit information to prove their situation, including their lease and proof of rent payment for the last three months.

Funds could be in accounts as early as May 1st.

However, it is a matter of “bridging liquidity, which is only converted into grants in cases of hardship”, said housing senator Sebastian Scheel emphasising that the government prefers to offer loans rather than grants.

The rent cover fund will include €10 million to help tenants.

Some private landlords have announced they will waive repayments for tenants. Berlin state-owned housing companies are also not demanding the money back.

Others, such as Deutsche Wohnen, Berlin’s biggest private housing firm, said they will demand repayments.

Scheel said: “Some landlords have already announced that they will waive repayments or offer deferments. I appeal to all landlords to follow this path. It is self-evident that the state-owned housing societies do not charge back.”

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ENERGY

Is it legal for German landlords to turn down heat this winter?

Fears of winter gas shortages have prompted some German landlords to restrict temperatures and access to hot water in their properties. Is there anything tenants can do about it?

Is it legal for German landlords to turn down heat this winter?

What’s happening?

On Monday, July 11th, the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline that runs between Russia and Germany was turned off for routine maintenance. For the first time since its been in operation, escalating tensions between the two nations have led to fears that it may not be turned on again.

For weeks, Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) has been calling on households to reduce their energy usage: taking shorter showers, turning off lights and electrical equipment, and minimising the use of hot water. 

So far this has largely been left up to individual choice. However, there are some cases of landlords and housing co-ops making the decision on tenants’ behalf.

Most recently, Germany’s largest landlord Vonovia announced that its tenants would only be able to heat their flats up to 17C in the nighttime – a move that it says will save around eight percent in energy costs. 

A housing co-op in Saxony has taken more drastic steps by turning off the heating entirely until September and putting time slots in place when tenants are able to take hot showers.

In exceptional times, tenants may feel like they aren’t able to complain about these restrictions. But according to German tenancy law, there are things they can do.

READ ALSO: German housing co-op slammed for restricting access to tenants’ hot water

Are rent reductions possible?

Long before the energy crisis, renters and landlords have argued over issues like access to hot water and heating in properties. This means there’s a solid legal precedent to refer to, which clearly stipulates that hot water can’t simply be turned off at certain times.

Monika Schmid-Balzert, a lawyer at the Bavarian regional association of the German Tenants’ Association, recommends that tenants first contact their landlord or letting agent if they notice any issues with the heating or hot water.

According to the German Tenants’ Association, rent reductions are possible for any “defects” that exist in a rented property. These can start automatically from the date of the defect, without the tenant needing to provide notice or set a deadline for the landlord to fix the issue.

For example, if hot water isn’t turned on at night, tenants should be eligible for an eight percent reduction in their rent for as long as the hot water supply is restricted.

If the landlord still doesn’t take action, tenants can consider taking legal action to force them to turn on the hot water or the heating once again. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get a rent reduction for problems in your German flat

What does the law say about temperatures in rental flats?

This is where things get a little bit trickier, as different courts have decided different things over the years.

However, the general consensus is that temperatures should be set at a minimum of 20-22C during the day and 16-18C at night. 

This makes things slightly unclear in the case of Vonovia, who want to set the maximum temperature to 17C between 11pm and 6am from autumn onwards. 

Speaking to Tagesschau, tenancy law expert Schmid-Balzert claimed that properties should be heated at a minimum of 18C in the nighttime. “Anything lower than that is currently too little at night,” she said. 

Thermostat

A man turns down the heat in his apartment. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

But Ulrike Kirchhoff, chairwoman of the homeowners’ association Haus und Grund Bayern, disagreed that 18C was the minimum. 

She said that it was the landlords’ duty to ensure that there was enough hot water and that properties were heated “within the limits set by the legislator and the courts”. Nevertheless, Vonovia’s decision to lower the heat to 17C in the evenings was “justifiable”, she said.

Haus and Grund also point out that no firm decision on minimum temperatures has been reached by the Federal Court of Justice.

READ ALSO: German energy crisis: Call for reduction in minimum temperatures for tenants

What if tenants give their consent on energy savings?

If landlords and tenants are able to come to an agreement on energy-saving measures, landlords should be able to implement these decisions without any fear of reprisals or potential rent reduction claims. But this isn’t always an easy thing to achieve.

Firstly, every affected tenant should agree to the new measures, and they should also do so explicitly (i.e. in writing). The more tenants there are who could be impacted, the harder this becomes. 

Tenancy law experts, meanwhile, recommend that landlords trust their tenants to implement their own energy saving measures for the time being. That could include rearranging furniture to improve heat circulation or getting a water-saving shower head. 

If the situation continues to worsen, it’s possible that the government will implement its own restrictions on energy usage such as lower minimum temperatures in flats or limits on hot water usage. In this case, landlords would have to implement the law.

For now, however, they can only act as far as the current law allows them to. 

For example, the Association of Bavarian Housing Companies recommend that its members “align the buildings as closely as possible to the legally required minimum temperature”. This is at least 20C in living rooms, bathrooms and toilets between 6am and 11pm.

In cases like this, tenants may notice a slight difference in the temperature of the flat, but the law will ultimately be on the side of the landlord. 

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