Why you should care

Because everyone can relate to Ahmed’s wish for a little alone time.

The wallpaper is purple-and-gold fleur-de-lis in this tiny apartment located on the fringe of Berlin’s trendy Friedrichshain neighborhood. A bar with two white faux-leather chairs divides the chrome stove from a cookie-cutter modern sitting area with a glass-topped coffee table. The residents aren’t newlyweds or Airbnb’ers, though. They’re Syrian refugees — three of them, grown men. They’ve shared this 350-square-foot room for nine months on the government’s dime. Move-out date? No one has a clue.

More than 1 million asylum seekers arrived to Germany this past year — 100,000 in Berlin alone, a figure that’s likely to remain the same or rise according to the U.N.’s predictions. Given all that, an initial housing shortage shouldn’t surprise anyone. But even many of those refugees who have been in Berlin a year or more have not been able to secure permanent housing, which will likely worsen as refugees continue to arrive. In response, an underground industry has sprung up to offer “temporary” rooms. For the landlords, it’s lucrative; for the tenants, it’s complicated.

The current situation is the natural conclusion of Berlin’s decade-long disinvestment from social housing, says Josh Crites, a strategic advisor for the Seattle Housing Authority, who recently spent 10 months researching German social housing. In Berlin specifically, this trend has been compounded by gentrification and the city’s lack of preparation for the influx of refugees. “You have a crowded housing market and now you are slamming a million new bodies into it,” he says. Some areas in Germany, like the Ruhr valley, may have more housing available, but fewer jobs or less welcoming attitudes toward foreigners, according to Crites.

If you’re an unscrupulous landlord in Berlin, refugee is spelled “cha-ching.”

Ahmed, one of the Syrians sharing the room, says he applied to 40 apartment listings before ending up elbow-to-elbow with strangers. “After you get German residency, everything becomes better, except for housing,” he says. “As soon as they know the government is going to pay the rent, they don’t agree to give you the room.” He suspects that some people do not want to rent to a refugee, or simply didn’t trust him because he is unemployed and doesn’t yet speak German well enough to find a job. But others are more interested in gaming the system for an outsize profit.

Like his landlord. By cramming the Syrians into one space, their rent, paid by government vouchers, adds up to roughly 4,500 euros a month. By comparison, Airbnb lists rooms in nearby apartments for tourists for between 35 and 75 euros a day, at most 2,350 euros a month, already above market price. If you’re an unscrupulous landlord in Berlin, refugee is spelled “cha-ching.”

Stephan von Dassel, the social and public services administrator in Berlin-Mitte, says his office has observed landlords exceeding reasonable limits, stuffing eight people into one room or converting garages into sleeping areas. The government’s housing voucher program, he says, was a big mistake. “We lost total control over where the people went to and who we paid the rent to for the apartments and the flats,” he says. “Fifty euros for just one bed for one night? Many landlords thought: This is the new price.” His administration has analyzed Internet postings and found at least 23,000 vacation apartments on offer, almost four times as many that pay taxes. “If we could use all these holiday apartments, we could offer every refugee in our town an apartment of his own,” he says.

Hakan Tas, a member of the Berlin House of Representatives for the political party Die Linke, thinks more aggressive solutions are necessary, including legally binding agreements with public housing associations and private homeowners. He recommends the city seize unoccupied apartments in social housing, and even private vacation homes, and offer them to refugees directly. “We could have started refurbishing unoccupied buildings a long time ago,” he says, adding that it takes about six to nine months to make such buildings habitable. “And there are lots of them,” he says. About 700 such buildings are available in Berlin, but just a few have been checked for adequacy so far, according to Tas.

The open question is whether refugee living arrangements will calcify into distinct social worlds.

But this could take time. For one thing, Germany has some of the strictest green-building standards in the world. “It is ungodly expensive to build in Germany,” says Crites. “It’s bureaucratic, there’s regulations and it’s just hard.” But given the crisis, the government is making exceptions, building some refugee housing more quickly and to lower-energy standards.

Looking to the future, the other challenge is to ensure that people from different cultures do not end up segregated into marginalized suburbs, like in France’s banlieues or some Turkish neighborhoods in Germany. Crites thinks the government needs to focus on diversifying buildings and neighborhoods, not only new construction. “We’re not just talking about a mixture of low-income refugees and low-income Germans, but finding buildings in middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods to create diverse neighborhoods and diverse economies that kind of work together,” he says.

Elsewhere, things are worse. Refugees in France or Italy, where there is less asylum infrastructure, could legitimately end up on the street even after they are in the system. But this is unlikely in Germany. The open question is whether refugee living arrangements will calcify into distinct social worlds, with Germany’s newest population experiencing a much lower standard of living than their peers in the long term.

None of the young men living together in Berlin are psyched about the government handout. Ahmed hopes to eventually finish his university degree and find a job. For now, he plans to stay in the apartment, simply because he does not think he can find a better place. But the situation still grates. “Sometimes a person needs to sit by himself for a moment,” he says. “I can’t. I don’t have my freedom.”

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