The issue of gentrification isn't unique to Berlin. But what has been new for me is to witness the visceral, and sometimes violent, reaction of those who feel that their rights are being squeezed. In certain neighborhoods signs like "Go Home Hipsters!" or "Fuck You Yuppies" are common. I've walked past a few of these signs before, but the issue really popped for me a couple of weeks ago when a "Low Rent" sign was posted next to my apartment building, and when later that same day I walked past a new apartment building in Kreuzberg that had been vandalized. It was clearly not a random act of vandalism. Each window was smashed on the ground floor, paint was sprayed onto the upper floors, and "Hood Defense" was spray painted next to one of the windows. I've posted a few pictures throughout this post.
When I looked for apartments in Berlin before I moved here last year, I couldn't believe how much space I would have. Rental money goes a lot further here than it does in New York City, so when my girlfriend and I signed the lease and moved in to a spacious apartment in the desirable neighborhood of Kreuzberg, I was quite pleased. The relatively low rents in Berlin are one of the factors that draws people here. This is a legacy both of Berlin's divided history, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Berliners lost their jobs in the 1990s.
But my story - of the outsider finding relatively cheap rents for a city the size of Berlin - is only one side of the story. Berlin's rents have been rising quickly for over a decade, in large part because of outsiders like me. I was able to afford rents that were significantly lower than what I'd been used to in other cities, but even these "low" rents are too high for many native Berliners. The process of gentrification has been driving people away from the city center for years, and has become one of the most potent political issues in Berlin and in Germany as a whole.
On one side of the issue there are residents who resent being forced from their apartments to make way for transplants. On the other there are the transplants (like me) who want to carve out a life for themselves in a new city. Throw in developers who want to make a profit, city officials who want to protect their constituents but also welcome economic development, and you've got a cauldron of conflicting interests and the potential for emotional struggle. According to Bloomberg, rents rose 3 percent per year in 2011 and 2012, which is a slight cooldown from the 4 percent average in 2009 and 2010. This might not sound like a lot, but to compare, according to the Wall Street Journal rents in the United States rose .7% in the 2nd quarter of 2013. New York City, known for its skyrocketing rental prices, rose 2.6%.
German government officials have recognized the problem of quickly rising rents, and have put forward a number of suggested fixes, including caps on rent increases. According to Bloomberg, the caps would be a limit of 15% total rent increase over 3 years. The idea is to allow the market for housing to develop naturally while providing some kind of relief for tenants.
I won't go into an in depth analysis of the issue because I'm not an expert. But I will say that when you smash the windows and throw paint onto a building that people live in, you're probably doing yourself and your 'cause' a disservice. I have sympathy for those people forced to leave their homes, but not for those who react with violence.