Thousands of government-owned flats in Germany ‘are unoccupied’

Despite the urgent need for housing in Germany, one in six properties owned by the federal government currently has no tenant - and the number appears to be rising.

Berlin Friedrichshain
A new residential complex in Berlin Friedrichshain. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

The number of state-owned flats and houses that are vacant has reached a new high: as of March 31st, 6,455 of around 38,000 units in the federal government’s ownership lay empty.

This equates to more than one million square-meters of living space. 

The figures emerged in response to a parliamentary question by Left Party MP Caren Lay, which was made available to the NDR political programme Panorama 3.

They said that, in spite of the current housing crisis, one in six government properties that could be used as accommodation is currently unoccupied.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, the vacancy rate is particularly glaring, with 2,204 units currently without a tenant. 

Growing number of empty flats

Rents are rising at a rapid rate in many German cities, with tenants in places like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich reporting that they are struggling to find housing in a fiercely competitive field.

Nevertheless, the number of vacant properties owned by the federal government has almost doubled in the past year and a half.

On October 31at, 2020, just 3,260 of the 35,800 flats owned by the Federal Agency for Real Estate Tasks (BImA) was empty, representing around nine percent of the federal government’s housing stock.

Since then, the percentage of empty flats has almost doubled to 17 percent, or one in six, of the government’s properties.

“The sharp increase in vacancies in federally owned properties is unacceptable in view of the housing shortage and the exploding rents in recent years,” Lay told Tagesschau. 

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The most – and least – popular landlords in Germany

Flats ‘cannot be rented’

In response to follow-up questions from Panorama 3, the BlmA confirmed that the number of empty flats was correct but said that the vast majority of these were not in a fit state to be lived in.

There are a number of flats that BlmA would like to rent out as soon as possible, but “cannot do so at the moment for various important reasons”.

“These flats either have considerable defects, are in need of major renovation or are not yet usable because, for example, the necessary planning permissions are missing,” a spokesperson for the BlmA explained. 

That whittles the number of vacant flats that could be lived in down to 2.9 percent of the total housing stock. 

Prenzlauer Berg

Luxury flats in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

In the coalition pact of the Social Democrats (SPD), Green Party and Free Democrats (FDP) announced last November, the parties pledged to build 400,000 new homes per year, with a quarter of these reserved for social housing.

But with the BlmA seemingly struggling to cope with a much smaller backlog of renovations, some are doubtful that this target is realistic.

According to research carried out by Panorama 3, there are federally owned properties in Hamburg that have been unused for more than four years and are still waiting to be redeveloped.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: How Germany’s new government wants to tackle the housing crisis

Converting unused space

“More and more people can’t find a place to live,” said Lay. “In addition, there are now refugees from Ukraine. Empty flats must be given away immediately.”

The Left Party’s housing policy expert is also demanding that unused business and office space be urgently converted into residential accommodation for families in need of a home.

Factoring in empty offices and storage facilities, the BImA recorded a total building vacancy rate of more than five million square metres.

The BImA said it had let more than 58,000 accommodation spaces to federal states, districts and municipalities free of rent in order to provide asylum seekers and refugees with a roof over their head. Of these, more than 29,000 places are currently occupied.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why tenants in Germany could see bigger rent increases this year

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EXPLAINED: How to sublet your apartment in Germany

If you’re going away for a period of time or want to cut your living costs, subletting your flat can seem like an appealing option. But there are a lot of things you need to consider first. We break them down.

EXPLAINED: How to sublet your apartment in Germany

What is subletting?

A subletting arrangement is when a subtenant is allowed to use the main tenant’s apartment, or part of it, in return for payment.

Having visitors in your home, even for a period of up to six weeks, does not count as subletting and you do not have to inform your landlord. But be careful: If the visitor starts paying rent, this becomes a sub-letting arrangement and if the visitor stays more than six weeks in a row, you have a duty to inform your landlord.

READ ALSO: The most expensive (and cheapest) cities in Germany to rent a room

If close family members such as parents, children, partners or spouses move in with you, this is also not a subletting arrangement and is considered part of the normal use of the rented property. 

However, you should inform your landlord of such a change in circumstance, not least because at some point the new person living in your apartment will at some point need to register with the local authorities.

Do I have to tell my landlord?

Yes. Regardless of whether you are just subletting a room or your whole apartment, you have to inform your landlord and, in most cases, you are required by law to obtain the landlord’s permission to sub-rent. This applies for whatever time period you want to sublet for: whether it’s for a weekend or for six months. 

One exception to this rule is if you rent a room in a WG (shared accommodation) and all of the tenants are equal parties to the contract. In that case, it’s possible to sublet individual rooms without having to get permission from the landlord, but you should still inform them.

If you try to rent out your place or a room without your landlord’s permission and get found out, you could face legal action, or be kicked out of your apartment before the agreed notice period. 

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The most – and least – popular landlords in Germany

Can the landlord refuse to let me sublet?

If the main tenant has a so-called “justified interest” in subletting part of the apartment, they can demand that the landlord agrees to the sublet and even take legal action or acquire a special right of termination of the rental contract if they refuse.

However, this right only applies to a sublet of part of the apartment and not the entire space within the four walls – in this case the landlord is within their rights to say no to the sublet. 

When subletting part of an apartment, a justified interest must be for an important reason such as a needing to move abroad temporarily for a job or personal reasons, or a partner moving out and the tenant no longer being able to cover the rental costs alone.

In general, landlords shouldn’t refuse your request to sublet unless there are good reasons – for example if the apartment is too small. 

The landlord can’t reject your subletting application without good reason and if they do, you can gain a special right to terminate your rental contract, and can even sue for your right to sublet. 

What information will I need to give my landlord? 

Whether you are subletting a room or the whole apartment – you’ll need to give your landlord the following information:

  • Who is moving in
  • How long you will be subletting for
  • For what reason you plan to sublet

If you want to set up a WG (Wohngemeinschaft or shared flat) as the main tenant, you should discuss this with the landlord beforehand, as it may be worth changing the apartment status to a shared apartment in the main rental agreement. That way, you won’t have to send a new application every time a new roommate moves in.

Do I need a special rental contract?

If you are going to subrent your apartment, it is definitely worth having a contract. 

A contract between the main tenant and the subtenant is completely separate from the contract between the main tenant and the landlord, so all responsibilities arising from the sub-rental contract will fall on you and not the landlord. 

A man fills in the details of a rental contract by hand. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

At the same time, as the main tenant, you will still be liable to your landlord for any damage caused by the subtenant, so it is best to put a clause in the sub-rental agreement that outlines how this will be covered, and also to make sure that your subtenant has personal liability insurance. 

There are plenty of websites that offer templates of sub-rental contracts for you to use, and you should make sure your contract includes the following information:

  • The personal details of the subtenant
  • The sub-rental cost and any service charges
  • When these are to be paid
  • Which rooms may be used
  • How many keys have been handed over
  • Details of a possible deposit
  • The condition of the rented apartment
  • House rules, such as no smoking, pets, etc.
  • Liability for possible damages

How much can I charge?

You can usually negotiate the sub-rental price yourself, but you should be careful not to overstep the rental limit per square metre for your area. If you charge over this amount and your subtenant finds out, they have the right to demand the local square metre rental price and you may have to refund them the total amount of overcharged rent.

If you sublet a furnished apartment, you can add a surcharge based on what you will be leaving in your apartment. You should also factor in the energy and water costs.

READ ALSO: Everything you should know about renting a furnished flat in Germany

Do I have to get consent from the local authorities?

In some cases, you will also need to get permission to sub-rent from the local authorities to rent out your place. 

If you sublet in Berlin or Frankfurt, for example, and you want to advertise your flat for holiday rentals, you have to get approval first.

A wooden judge’s hammer lies on the judge’s bench in the jury courtroom in the Karlsruhe Regional Court. Photo: picture alliance / Uli Deck/dpa | Uli Deck

If you go ahead and rent on a site like Air BnB without approval, you can expect to pay a hefty fine. Though the highest possible fine of €500,000 is unlikely, there are numerous reports of people getting fines in Germany of several thousand euros.

Another important thing to remember is that, if you make more than €520 profit in a year from sub-renting, you have to include this in your tax declaration.

Can the landlord demand I pay extra?

If a landlord allows subletting, they can also demand a share of the extra income from the main tenant. The amount of the surcharge cannot exceed 25 percent of the sublease, however.

Useful Vocabulary

to sub-let – Untermieten 

sublease agreement – (der) Untermietvertrag

termination without notice – (die) fristlose Kündigung

ban on misuse – (das) Zweckentfremdungsverbot

special right of termination – (das) Sonderkündigungsrecht

justified interest – (das) berechtigtes Interesse

personal liability insurance – (die) Haftpflichtversicherung

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.