Squatting in German Cities: Then and Now

By Renard Teipelke

Last Thursday, November 17, 2011, gentrification and urban politics experts Andrej Holm and Wolf Wetzel gave a lecture at Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main. The lecture was titled “Squatting is worthwhile – staying, too” and combined the two authors’ research on German cities’ squatting history* and the current development in Berlin as well as Frankfurt. Here is what I got out of their lecture:

Squatting in Germany has occurred and will occur given three preconditions: you need committed people who want to become actively involved; you need empty buildings (actually an often ignored aspect); and you need a political vacuum which is perceived as leaving a solution of the housing problem to the people.

Thinking about squatting also necessitates to not seeing it as a solely far left-wing political instrument against ‘capitalism’ – squatting is a political action as well as a social process. Squatters have not only sought to find a place to sleep, but a place to live their lives – often characterized by different (critics might say ‘deviant’) lifestyles with respect to politics, economics, work, sexuality, community and society in general.

Keeping these aspects in mind and comparing the situation in the Western and Eastern part of the former Germanys, it becomes clear that squatting happened in both systems – capitalism as well as socialism were – for different reasons – unable to provide sufficient housing to their people. As a passing comment, the authors explained that squatting in the German Democratic Republic (called “Schwarzwohnen”) was a rather common phenomenon…even practiced by Angela Merkel…

From these historical discussions a lot can be learned for the current situation: public administrations have increased their awareness for the alarming housing problem in most of Germany’s larger cities. However, the same administrations do not have adequate, realistic instruments to react to this housing emergency. When people who are worse off have to pay up to half of their income for housing, the situation has reached a tipping point.

Not only are there affected and committed people as well as empty buildings, but the third precondition is also given: a political vacuum. Tenant associations address politicians with their problems continuously, but there are two reasons why this will not bring any significant change: Housing problems are always a welcomed topic for parties in the parliamentary opposition, which means that they will quickly forget about their promises as soon as they become part of the ruling majority. Furthermore, today’s city budgets are bound to various fixed expenditures (welfare, infrastructure maintenance, education etc.), thus leaving only 1% to 12% of the budget for any other policies/programs (in the 1970s, this margin was between 20% and 30%).

Therefore, activists have to address the developers of new projects: housing enterprises, banks, and investors. Being able to decrease the value of their properties is a credible threat made by activists through various actions – squatting being a highly effective one. It has a high potential to harm the economic feasibility of development projects and has been a focal point for different citizens groups to act in concert.

The authors find most worrying that the sheer amount of completely new, large-scale development projects in the past years has limited the space where an alternative city can be imagined and lived. Thus, we are currently standing at a watershed: a few more inner-city ‘big-investment’ projects and concomitant privatizations of public space, and we might realize that we (the people concerned) have missed to make use of the political vacuum when it still was possible.

* >Besetzen lohnt sich – bleiben auch< – Häuser- und Stadtkämpfe von 1985 – morgen (Band 22), Laika Verlag, Hamburg 2011/12

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