Tenant Rights and Landlord Power in Germany

Frankfurt         Spending some time walking around Rodelheim, a working-class neighborhood in Frankfurt, with tenant activists was an on the ground master’s course in tenant rights and landlord power in Germany.  The area is not gentrified exactly, but it is easy to see new developments coming in that could tip the scales dramatically.

Having just looked at renovictions and demovictions in British Columbia, I was full of questions as we walked passed numbers renovation projects in 4 and 5 story apartment buildings.  75% of Germans are tenants, so in areas like Rodelheim a single-family house is an unknown quantity and even the smallest houses are two and four family operations.  Demovictions, where properties are demolished and tenants evicted are rare here, I was told.  When we saw something coming up from the ground as new construction, it was after an old building had essentially collapsed and become inhabitable.

Renovictions were more commons, but there was a very different, very German twist.  The rehabs were ostensibly being done on older post-war buildings to make them greener and more environmentally sound, essentially creating an air zone to insulate the buildings better along with other upgrades.

 

Tenants were not exactly evicted.  In fact, tenants have permanent security of tenure in Germany.  There are no leases.  Once a tenant is in the flat, they can stay forever except for certain conditions like repeated nonpayment or engaging in criminal activity on the property.  The tenant almost gains an entitlement to the apartment.  Landlords, through their real estate owners’ association, have managed to take advantage of these tenants’ right in a costly way.  The modernization law allows them the option, which most gleefully exercise, of passing on the cost of the renovations with an increase in the rent to pay for the work over a period of years.  Every three years, landlords already have the right to exercise an option to raise the rent by up to 15%.  They can add on this modernization charte as well.  Because of this law within ten years most tenants will have collectively paid for the renovations.  Within twenty years, as these excess payments accumulate, the landlord will do even better since they can simply bank those increased rents.

The building where I’m staying in a spare room is a good example.  There are renovations ongoing on the outside cladding as well as on the elevators and so forth.  Some 40%, if I heard right, of the tenants have already left in anticipation of being assessed the increased cost of the renovations.  They were not evicted, but they read the writing, literally, on their walls.

The tenants have not been able to stop the rent increases that are coming, even though this big tower block is owned by a scientific foundation.  They have won noise abatement breaks in the construction of a half hour early in the day and in the afternoon and an hour around midday.  That is an unusual, but significant victory that may prevent the noise from chasing some tenants away, although the renovation pass-through to the tenants may be more effective in gentrifying the building.

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Welcoming Belgians and Germans to Community Organizing

small groups discussion ACORN Organizing Model in Brussels

Brussels     There were more than twenty people in the room, mostly from Brussels area community-based development and service organizations, along with three last minute additions from Germany and one 11th hour insert from an NGO that Adrien Roux of the Alliance/ACORN in France and I had met several days ago.  They were there for an “introduction” to community organizing as it was advertised.  In reality, rather than an introduction, it was a full-scale head first dive into the ACORN model, doorknocking, and how we build organizations.

Adrien had some interesting tricks up his sleeve.  One I had seen before, as I was reminded later, but it was even more challenging than usual.  Rather than just have people give their names and where they worked, each individual would walk up, give their name and occupation, but also repeat the names of everyone who came before them.   To say the least my ear is not attuned to French, so I jumped up in fourth or fifth place so I could at least limit my embarrassment, though some showboats at the very end were still able to repeat all twenty names, amazingly enough.  A good tool to introduce people and embed the names more deeply.

small groups

My part of the agenda then was to layout the mechanics of building an organization using the ACORN Model, which proceeded on schedule for about ninety minutes.  There were the usual questions and clarifications particularly about asking for dues and joining even before the organization had a first large meeting or taken action.  Many wanted to understand more clearly the organizer’s role compared to the leaders and presumably their own experiences.  Pretty standard stuff although one difference seemed to be that in Belgium most of the organizations were state funded pretty much whole hog.

Adrien then did a couple of clever things.  Pretty straightforwardly, he asked people to team up with another random person in the group and discuss what they thought was most difficult to resolve in what they had just heard about the organizing process.  After letting them roll for about 15 or 20 minutes he stepped in and went from group to group without saying a word but holding up his hands in a triangle, although it could have been any physical motion, and having described the tool in the earlier session ground rules, without a word people became quiet.  This is an old anarchist and Occupy tool, but well suited here.  He then had each group of two combine with another group of two, so that each group could try to resolve the problem that the other group had identified was troubling them.  Amazingly, after another 20 minutes when he asked each group how they had managed of the five only one had been unable to sort the situation out.  Some nice work there!

Adrien Roux of Alliance/ACORN making a point in community organizing training

There were great meetings in and around the training in trying to understand the potential opportunities and challenges of organizing in Germany on one hand and in another meeting trying to understand youth organizing around Belgium.

Learning something every day is a great thing!  For all of us!

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