Why Berlin is building offices and not affordable housing

In Berlin anything seems more profitable than real housing. As always, the problem is capitalism, says Nathaniel Flakin

  • Nathaniel Flakin
  • Lesedauer: 4 Min.
Berlin has over 750,000 square meters of office space standing empty. But they just keep building more – for example the »Amazon Tower« in Friedrichshain.
Berlin has over 750,000 square meters of office space standing empty. But they just keep building more – for example the »Amazon Tower« in Friedrichshain.

In mid-July, activists occupied an apartment at Hermannstraße 48 in Berlin Neukölln. As »nd« reported in German, the loft has stood empty for several years. This could be a WG for up to twelve people. But the building's new owner wants to rent out the space for offices. A year and a half ago, I reported how the 140 residents of H48 were unsuccessfully trying to purchase their building.

What does Berlin desperately need? Affordable housing. I just heard from a student who is paying 700 Euros for nine square meters. That is 3-4 times what I paid for a room when I moved to Berlin two decades ago.

What does Berlin get instead? Offices. Endless new office towers. It doesn't seem to matter that the city currently has over 750,000 square meters of office space standing empty. They just keep building more. Check out the ominous Amazon spire rising above Warschauer Straße: Most Amazon engineers would prefer to work from home, but now they will be trapped inside this monument to Jeff Bezos's unconquerable ego.

Column »Red Flag«

Red Flag is a column on Berlin politics by Nathaniel Flakin. It appeared in Exberliner magazine from 2020 to 2023 and found a new home at the Berlin newspaper »nd« – as their first content in English. If you like a regular dose of very local communist content, please share. Nathaniel is also the author of the anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin.

Hier die deutsche Version dieser Kolumne lesen.

Why not build rental apartments? As one developer told RBB: »Everyone knows you can't build apartments in Germany anymore.« That's not exactly a lie: the costs for urban land and construction materials are increasing rapidly. The people at H48 learned it would take up to 50 years for their rents to pay off the building's sale price. Naturally, no investor is looking for a payoff half a century from now.

What these capitalists trying to say: It is impossible for them to build housing and make a profit. As always, the problem is capitalism.

There is construction all over the city, but it's for empty offices, chain hotels, and condominiums that Russian oligarchs can use to launder money. Near my home, a brand new apartment building will soon offer furnished rooms for a maximum of three months, so that the people living there thus lack basic tenants' rights. Anything, it seems, is more profitable than real housing.

At the same time as the action at H48, Berlin's Senator for Urban Development, Construction, and Housing proudly announced that the city had added 17,310 housing units in 2022. Christian Gaebler of the SPD patted himself on the back for all this »affordable housing.« Except, as a reporter for »nd« analyzed in German, these numbers have been inflated by at least 20 percent.

And even if it were true, the number 17,310 says nothing about the price of these housing units. Every new condo for Jeff Bezos - and he tends to buy half a dozen at a time, just in case he wants to visit a city - makes its way into government statistics on »affordable housing.«

The capitalist market has never been able to provide decent accommodations for the urban masses. The only reason Berlin has apartments now is because the East started the Wohnungsbauprogramm (apartment-building program) in 1973, and the West had to respond with big public developments.

The only way to push rents back down is with public ownership. Back in 2021, 59.1 percent of voters called for Enteignung, i.e. nationalization, socialization, expropriation, of big landlords. The last two governments have done everything they can to prevent this democratic decision from being implemented. They installed an »expert commission« to waste time. Now said commission has reported back that expropriation is indeed legal and affordable – and more than that, no other measure will stop rents from doubling every decade.

The expropriation campaign has an English-speaking group called Right to the City. How are they feeling almost two years after the vote? »I am feeling energized«, the activist Rosa Silvan told me, because »socialization is inevitable.« Besides putting up posters all over the city, the group is also supporting renters in small-scale fights against evictions and rent increases. Since the housing crisis particularly affects people without German passports, R2C says it's growing at every meeting.

Even 150 years ago, Berliners were rioting against high rents and evictions (see a similar article in German). The capitalists will find a way to give us affordable housing, but only if they are terrified that we will expropriate them otherwise.

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