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Gentrification in Berlin: are inner-city neighbourhoods becoming enclaves for the rich?

Property prices and rents in Berlin have risen sharply in recent years, forcing significant numbers of people to leave their homes. Social geographer Ilse Helbrecht, who works at Berlin‘s Humboldt-Universität, took the time to talk to us about the causes of gentrification and what we can do to counteract it.

Gentrification is a pressing issue in many cities across the world, though it is by no means a new phenomenon. The term was coined in the 1960s by the British sociologist and urban planning specialist Ruth Glass. She used it to describe developments in the London borough of Islington in the late 19th century, in which increasing numbers of middle-class people were acquiring property, usurping the long-term residents of predominantly working-class areas and fundamentally changing the social fabric of the borough.

Berlin-based social geographer Ilse Helbrecht works as a researcher at Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität, specialising in gentrification. Rents in the German capital have been rising continuously for several years. In 2016, she published a book examining the cases of Berlin residents who had been forced to move out of their district as they could no longer afford to live there. She took the time to talk to us about the causes of gentrification and what we can do to counteract it.

Urban development and property market in Berlin

Berlin is growing rapidly. The German capital is now home to 3.52 million people; more than at any time since the end of the Second World War. The city has now been growing continuously for ten years, attracting especially large numbers of young people under thirty.

According to the 2017 rent index for Berlin, average rents rose from EUR 5.84 to EUR 6.39 per square metre between 2015 and 2017; an increase of 9.4 per cent. The increase between 2013 and 2015 was 5.4 per cent. Buildings built before 1918 have been particularly affected by the price increases.
In 2015, a quarter of all rented apartments in the city cost over 11 euros per square metre. These apartments are generally those located within Berlin’s S-Bahn ring and in upmarket areas such as the district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf. It is now almost impossible to find rental accommodation in the city centre for less than 10 euros per square metre. In 2015, rented apartments costing less than 7 euros per square metre accounted for only 18 per cent of all available rental properties. These were primarily located in the outer suburbs.

Ms Helbrecht, why is gentrification such a burning issue?

Ilse Helbrecht: Because it is about displacement. Poorer population groups are being forced out of our city centres by the wealthier middle and upper classes.

Who are the losers and who are the winners?

Ilse Helbrecht: The winners are the well-off middle and upper classes. Thanks to their higher incomes, they are able to afford the rising rents in inner-city areas. The losers, of course, are people with lower incomes, such as labourers or students. Regardless of the length of time they have lived in their district, these people are priced out of the market and left with no choice but to move on.

Does the process of gentrification follow a typical pattern?

Ilse Helbrecht: Yes and no. On the one hand, there is a generalised pattern of districts being upgraded in various development stages and thus becoming gentrified. On the other hand, each district has its own distinct characteristics, which also play a role.

Gentrification has been a major issue in Berlin for a number of years. How is the process unfolding there?

Ilse Helbrecht: Berlin is currently home to a large number of vulnerable population groups, for example unemployed people. With rents rising more rapidly than in any other city in Germany, these groups are struggling to make ends meet. Gentrification in Berlin is happening on a massive and comprehensive scale and at a rapid rate. The entire area within the S-Bahn ring, in which around one million people live, is affected.

What can be done to stem the tide?

Ilse Helbrecht: Action must be taken to prevent the cost of land in cities from rising so rapidly. Firstly, more plots of land need to come into public ownership, meaning the state must buy land. This is the only way to create more publicly funded, affordable housing. Secondly, we need to promote alternatives to the profit-oriented property market, such as cooperatives or non-profit housing companies.

Author: Wiebke Schönherr

Gentrification – an international problem

Rising rents and displacement of poor people are problems affecting cities across the world. Do you have first-hand experience of gentrification? Do you know of any examples of successful efforts to counteract displacement? If so, share your views and experiences in the comments below.

January 2018

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