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‘Stressed and depressed’: How Berlin’s rent cap fiasco has affected foreign tenants

Tens of thousands of people in Berlin were hit with huge rent hikes and thousands of euros in arrears when the city’s rent cap fell through. Many of those affected were foreigners. Here are some of the experiences of those affected. 

‘Stressed and depressed’: How Berlin’s rent cap fiasco has affected foreign tenants
A view of Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

One of the most stressful things about moving to Berlin or within the city is flat-hunting. Not only is there a lack of homes, but new rental contracts are often ridiculously high – or tenants are forced to pay too much through a sub-let because they can’t get their own place.

So when the Berlin government introduced a rent cap that came into force in February 2020, residents – many of them foreigners trying to make a new life in the city – felt like they finally had access to affordable housing.

But after more than a year of reduced rent costs, Germany’s highest court announced in April that the Mietendeckel was unlawful, resulting in tens of thousands of people being plunged into debt and facing rent increases in the middle of Germany’s third wave of the pandemic.

READ ALSO: ‘Bitter setback’: What’s the reaction to Berlin’s rental cap law being scrapped?

It’s a shocking story that was covered by media around the world. But behind the headlines, real people have been suffering stress, anxiety and anger over this debacle.

We put together an online survey and 50 people – most of them non-German – shared their experiences with us.

Just under 90 percent told us their rent was rising due to the decision. A total of eight percent said their rent was going up, and two percent weren’t sure.

‘Forcing people to pay rent back payments should be illegal’

Almost everyone who got in touch with us said no-one should have to pay the rent “arrears”.

The Berlin government that brought in the rent cap pleaded with landlords to cancel the back payments. But as landlords are now legally entitled to claim back revenues, many have chosen to do this.

READ MORE: ‘Extraordinary situation’: What can you do if your Berlin landlord demands rent cap arrears?

Nick, 34, said his rent was going up by €475 per month. He isn’t sure if he has back payments yet, but if so it will cost him about €2,850.

“Forcing people to pay for previous months rent should be illegal,” said Nick. “Or at least renters should be able to spread it over a year.”

Nick said the decision is having a major impact on his life plans. “My apartment is way overpriced – now I’m thinking of moving,” he said.

Roshnan, 31, in Charlottenburg, is seeing a €200 rent increase and has to pay back €2,000. 

“The (Berlin) government should subsidise all ‘shadow rent’ and previous payments,” said Roshnan. “Sadly it (the support from the Berlin Senate) is only for people with low income. A normal earning person has to take over the burden to himself or herself.

“If I have to pay more rent as well as the shadow rent, I have no savings. Salaries in Berlin are already below average.”

READ ALSO: Berlin to offer loans and grants to tenants after rent cap defeat

Hannah, 29, in Adlershof, has to pay €800 in arrears.

“I think that for the people who are struggling most to be punished financially for a decision they didn’t make is absurd, especially in a pandemic.”

In Charlottenburg, Ankita, 27, is facing a rent hike of €230 per month and a bill of about €2,200.

“At least a strict rule of no backdated (rent) should be ordered,” she said.

Ankita said the ruling is having a big impact on her life.

“It will definitely affect us, my boyfriend is already finding it hard to search for a full time job,” she said. “With this increase and backdated (rents) we will be left with no savings and might struggle for basic livelihood at least a year.”

“It should not have happened like this,” said a 28-year-old in Schöneberg who is seeing a €400 per month rent increase.

“Everyone in Berlin is experiencing some sort of financial instability because of this in these odd times.”

Nils, 31, in Neukölln, faces a €150 per-month rent increase and €1,500 of arrears.

“I believe they should completely cancel the debt and also offer a grace period for those affected to find another place to rent,” said Nils.

“I am very disappointed. The quality of life is quite low in Berlin, with salaries being low and rents high. My friends have to pay back large amounts and they are considering moving out of Berlin, especially those who have families and need a bigger living space.”

‘Berlin has been playing games with residents’

Lots of people questioned why Berlin put a law in place that was evidently shaky in the first place. The Mietendeckel was a flagship policy of the coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the far-left Linke (Left) parties.

It was challenged by MPs from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democrats, who are both in opposition in Berlin.

The federal constitutional court agreed with their argument that rent policy falls under federal law not the jurisdiction of Germany’s 16 states.

Jon in Schöneberg said his rent was increasing by €380 per month. He is unsure if he has to pay back the difference but if so he will have to fork out around €2,000.

“I am furious,” he said. “Whilst I am lucky that I have the necessary funds, my partner has not worked since the start of the pandemic so this additional rent would have supported him.

“Whilst Berlin isn’t made of money it’s the Senate’s mess and they should compensate all tenants for their inadvisable experiment. Surely legal advice in advance of the rent cap would have indicated the conflict with Basic Law?”

A Berlin resident with a sign that says ‘housing is a basic right.’ Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Reinhardt 

Linda, 30, in Friedrichshain has to pay €210 extra per month and faces a bill of back payments worth €1,150.

“I am still confused on why they enforced a law before it was approved or not,” she said. “By doing so, they have basically forced people into debt! I have never had a single debt in my life and now I owe a full salary to my landlord.”

A 44-year-old in Charlottenburg said: “The Berlin government coalition have been playing games with tenants. It has been clear to them that the rent freeze was unconstitutional but they went ahead anyway.”

Olivier, 27, in Neukölln is facing a €400 per month rent hike. He said: “I’m mad. How could they not know that they weren’t respecting the constitution? And now we pay the price.”

Meanwhile, Max, 33, in Prenzlauer Berg has to pay €150 extra per month.

“They (the Berlin Senate) need to accept that they made a huge mistake making this decision and applying it before the court ruling, and help those who are affected the most.”

READ MORE:

‘My priority is not to starve’

Some people are in an extremely tough situation – and at the mercy of their landlord. 

One reader, who asked to remain anonymous, said he is facing back payments of around €4,000.

“They (the landlord) emailed me after the cap was overturned asking for the complete amount at the latest by May 1st. It just kind of shows the greediness and immorality of the whole situation. 

He said he was “stressed and depressed”, adding: “My priority right now is to pay this amount and not starve.”

A 40-year-old in Friedrischain said their rent will go up by about €192 per month – and they owe around €1,200. 

The 40-year-old said the Berlin government should help tenants “through legal support with lawsuits to prove that every single rent is too high”.

Karima, 31, in Friedrichsfelde, will see her rent go up by €470 per month.

“I’m a single mom who lost her job,” she said. “This decision will put my financial situation into hell. I won’t be able to afford anything for my little daughter. I started thinking about moving out of Germany…this is so crazy.”

Another anonymous person said they faced rent arrears of €4,000. 

“Both my partner and I lost our jobs in the pandemic,” the reader said. “Now we have to borrow money just to pay back the landlord. On top of it, if the landlord can increase rent again and if we don’t find jobs it means we can’t even afford rent anymore.”

Andrew, 27, in Freidrichshain is also facing a rent hike.

“Many friends who have lost jobs due to the pandemic will likely be unable to repay this rent and as such may have to move out,” Andrew said. “However they may not be able to find a new place to live as they owe money. It is a cruel decision.”

READ ALSO: Berlin rent freeze: 340,000 tenants ‘paying too much’ for housing

Germany has put people ‘deeper into crisis’

Gerasimos, 26, is seeing a rent hike of €468 and a bill of €2,340.

He described himself as “angry”. Lots of people have lost their jobs or been put on Kurzarbeit (reduced working hours) in the pandemic, resulting in pay cuts.

“Germany offers no support to the middle class, it is obvious that everything is in favor of the rich,” he said. “Me and all my friends are losing money and trying to survive with 60 percent of our salaries while everything gets more expensive.”

Flats in Berlin in February 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

He said during the pandemic with tough restrictions and a slow vaccine rollout, Germany had put “its people deeper in crisis”.

Paula, 29, is seeing her rent costs go up by more than €400 and has to pay back around of €5,000.

She urged the Berlin government to cover the back payments of residents because it was their “mistake”.

“I feel disheartened,” she said. “With the rent cap, my monthly rent value finally got into a level which was manageable and would bring me considerable improvements on my quality of life, as well as allowing me to boost my savings.”

Lots of people agreed that the fabric of Berlin was changing forever. 

A 48-year-old woman, whose rent is going up 50 percent said: “My heart sank. This city is being crushed and will never be the same haven for free spirits. I’m sad for my friends in the arts who never have enough money on a good day.”

How should Germany address the housing shortage and rent hikes?

Lots of respondents told us they supported a Germany-wide rent cap put in place at the federal government level. This topic will be a big issue at the elections later this year when Chancellor Merkel will stand down.

Jon in Schöneberg said: “I think a rent cap is essential and has to happen soon. A quick review of ImmobilienScout (real estate site) since the rent cap was ruled illegal shows that landlords have wasted no time in putting properties on the market at ludicrous rents. Average in Schöneberg seems to be getting to €20 per square metre.”

Hannah said she was in favour a rent cap. “In addition I would hope the country would reallocate funds to encourage more building of sustainable affordable living options, and maybe include a law discouraging speculative real estate purchasing,” she said.

Swathish, 32, said the Berlin law “needs to be implemented again”

“Landlords and real estate agents taking huge advantage of the loopholes in the existing rent law is giving power to few people over the society,” Swathish said.

Einar, 34, lives in Munich and is a former Berlin resident. 

“Build more housing to force the rent down, buy the buildings directly so that the government can put down the rent on apartments in different areas of Berlin to force the price down,” said Einar. “Make it easier to create non-profit for owning and renting out apartments.”

But not everyone is on board with the idea of strict rent controls. Giuseppe, 47, said a Germany-wide rent cap is a “crazy idea”.

Thanks to everyone who shared their experience with us. Although we weren’t able to include all the submissions, we read each of them and we are truly sympathetic to the challenges everyone is facing right now. 

If there’s anything you’d like to ask or tell us about our coverage, please feel free to get in touch.

Member comments

  1. A simple comment or question to all those people should have been – the city told everyone to put the reduction aside because it might happen. why didn’t you listen?

    1. Hi AA, I think many people did but still made decisions on housing connected to the rent they were paying under the Mietendeckel as that was the current situation. Another question might be: Why did the Berlin government not hit pause on the initiative as soon as it was challenged in court? Then if it was ruled lawful, it could have brought in and if not (as the case was) it wouldn’t have caused these massive problems.

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BERLIN

EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

Shops
If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

Leisure
2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

Hairdressers
For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

Transport
3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.

 

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