Today a squat is being cleared in my neighborhood, Liebigstrasse 14. It’s a house project that’s existed for 20 years and were the occupants, through negotiations with the Berlin senate, got legal tenancy agreements in the early 90s. But then, in the late 90s, big money came in and wanted to buy the house from the WBF (Wohnungsbaugenossenschaft Friedrichshain ≈ Friedrichshain Housing Association), who was the current owner. And as we all know, money talks and the house was sold. The only problem was that the people who were actually living there wasn’t he target group the new owner was looking for. He was looking to make a profit, and with his current tenants that was not very likely to happen. So their leases were cancelled. They however, had no intention of moving anywhere. As far as they were concerned it was still their house. A house they had lived in for 20 years and renovated themselves. After going through the usual rounds in the legal system the eviction was confirmed and the current tenants where to be kicked out. By force if necessary. And of course force was necessary.
One can debate the various legal aspect of this, for instance whether the court have actually done a fair ruling in this case. And one can also debate the various aspects of the German legislation surrounding this. It’s all indeed very debatable. One could also debate squatting as a phenomenon and if the people fighting the eviction are right or wrong. Yes, one could debate all these things, but to me the even more interesting aspect is the sale itself. And to me that’s a question about ethics and responsibility.
In order to grasp the issue at hand a small historical overview is needed. A Wohnungsbaugenossenschaft is essentially an association with the objective of providing its members with affordable and long-term housing. These housing associations were made possible by legislation passed in the late 1880s. Back then the housing situation was desperate; expensive, overcrowded and sublet apartments were creating a mass of unsanitary and unsustainable living situations for people and in order to get grips on the situation the legislators made it possible to found these associations so that people could get affordable and long-term housing. During DDR times the WBG concept was continued under the name Arbeiterwohnungsbaugenossenschaft, WGA, and when the wall came down these were then converted back to WGBs. After the wall came down and DDR collapsed there were a lot of empty houses in Berlin. Houses where it wasn’t really entirely clear who the rightful owner was, even to this day there are properties that are under investigation. But these houses soon found new inhabitants, squatters. Houses were empty so people moved in. In order to come to terms with this situation from a legal perspective, the Berlin senate began negotiations to transform this into legal inhabitation and in most of the squats the inhabitants became tenants and started paying rent.
In the case of Liebig 14 this was also the case. The house was empty and people moved in. From a legal standpoint the house was in the hands of WBF, just like several other buildings in the same neighborhood, and hence the leases were negotiated with the WBF with lead from the Berlin senate. There was a house with people living in it, legally, and that house was owned by a WBG, i.e. an association with the goal of providing long-term and affordable houses. So in the light of all of this, doesn’t it seem a tad strange and rather questionable that a WBG should start selling off houses, because Liebig 14 is by no means the only example, to private investors? And seeing as the negotiations regarding the leases were done with oversight from the Berlin senate, isn’t it also a bit peculiar that the Berlin senate did nothing to prevent the sale of these properties? First they giveth and then they taketh away? Well, that’s capitalism for you. Or? Should a WBG, an association with the expressed goal of providing affordable and long-term housing, and a city, a democratically elected congregation of politicians, who are supposed to represent the citizens btw, really be engaged in real-estate speculations? Is that really part of the job description of either?
But ok, let’s assume that the sale was done as a means to secure more income to the WBG, or to lessen their financial burden or something along these lines. I.e. as pure financial transaction. Granted a very questionable modus operandi of a WBG, but ok. What however makes the whole thing even more questionable is that we are actually dealing with a former squat here. An occupied house. It doesn’t really take a genius to figure out that there will be resistance if you try to take away what you’ve already agreed they could have. In in light of that it seems a little bit peculiar that the senate would not have an opinion about this, seeing as they are the ones that will have to deal with the resistance, and seeing as they actually went through the trouble of negotiating these leases in the first place. Sure, you could argue that everyone should be treated equal and that you can’t take threats into consideration when you make these decisions, but is that really in line with the whole capitalist act of selling the house in the first place? Because resistance means eviction by force and that means police. Thousands of them. With vehicles and gadgets and helicopters. That’s pretty expensive. In fact, that’s a lot more expensive than the house itself is even worth. The cost of this forced eviction is several times the current value of the house itself. Not very smart financially. Or pretty retarded if we want to be honest. From a purely capitalist perspective, and looking at what’s been going down prior to this that’s the only logical conclusion to draw, that it’s all about money, it would actually make more sense for the senate to just buy the house and give it to the squatters. In fact, I am fairly sure that if you would give the Berlin taxpayers a complete cost overview of what the bill for this whole operation is going to be they would say “leave it, let them have their house”. Too bad no one bothered to ask, huh?
Like I said, one can argue back and forth about whether squatting is right or not, and whether the legal system and the legislation is actually working as it should, but it’s rather obvious that this situation hasn’t really been handled in an ethical nor in a rational manner. Sure, there are laws and the constitutional state has to uphold and enforce these, but what is happening right now outside my windows seems more like a travesty of that. Thousands of police are protecting the interests of one single person, a private investor, and we all have to pay for this?! And what exactly is it that our tax money is being used for? What will happen to that house once the occupants are gone? What will happen to the neighborhood?
Berlin is one of the few big cities in Europe where the city centre is still largely populated by regular people, i.e. not taken over by office space or luxury lofts, but slowly this is changing. Most notably in Mitte, but it’s happening all over the city. Buildings are undergoing luxury renovations and the original tenants can no longer afford to stay. Slowly but surely low-income people are being pushed out and replaced by people from a higher income specter. A phenomena called gentrification. At a first glance that may not seem so bad, but to a vibrant and colorful neighborhood gentrification equals death. What functioned as the magnet, all the hip things that gave the neighborhood its flare, the clubs, the bars, the cafes, the galleries, the restaurants, also get pushed away. The rents go up, the new tenants complain about noise, about dirt, about all the people hanging around late at night and one by one they all have to close up shop and leave. And it gets quite. It gets clean. It becomes empty. And interestingly enough, from a personal safety perspective, it also becomes a lot more dangerous. In a neighborhood where there’s always people around at all times of day and night there’s very little chance of doing things unnoticed, there’s always someone there to see you and if something happens there’s always someone who sees or hears it. If you’re scared there’s always a late shop or a bar you can escape to. You’re never really alone. But as gentrification takes its grip on a neighborhood the street slowly become deserted, especially at night. Suddenly there’s no where to go and no one to hear you scream. And even if it’s all just in your head, it does generate fear. This along side with the fact that more money means more interest from various criminal elements, it’s more interesting to steal a brand new Mercedes than a run down WV bus, leads to increased demands on safety precautions from the inhabitants. More security, more locks, more surveillance. And the more security you get, the more the neighborhood dies. Soon there’s nothing but gates and locks and anyone who ventures in to the area will be looked at with great suspicion and mistrust. And what used to be a vibrant and lively neighborhood filled with “hip spots” to hang out and where people from all walks of life coexisted more or less friction free and moved freely at all hours becomes a gated community. Is that what we want?
Berlin has a reputation for being liberal and open-minded. A safe haven for all kinds of creative people, freaks from all walks of life. A reputation that goes back centuries. The roaring 20s, the resistance during WWII, the gay movement, just to mention a few examples. And that reputation is still what draws people here, that’s the main reason Berlin is attractive, the main sales argument if you will. In Berlin its still possible to lead what’s commonly referred to as “an alternative lifestyle”, there’s room for everyone. But if the gentrification continues that will soon be history. There will be room only for the rich. And we have already seen that happen in London and other big cities in Europe. So essentially, what we as taxpayers are actually paying for right now is our own slow demise. Did we agree to this?
This issue is of course bigger than Liebig 14, what’s happening right now is a potent symbol of what’s currently happening to Berlin as a whole and that’s why it’s causing riots all over the city, all over the country actually. It’s not even about squatting or the “extreme left”, it’s about city planning and if letting money rule the world is a good idea. Do we really want the city center to die? Do we really want gated communities? When discussing this the main argument is usually “that’s just the way it works, market values determine these things”, but “the Market” is actually not a deity, an all mighty being that guides us like puppets on a string, the market is something we created and it’s not almighty nor is it omnipotent and a lot of the times it’s just used to justify questionable political decisions. Because a government is NOT a company and even if we do live in a capitalist society in the sense that pretty much everything has to do with financial considerations, economics actually isn’t the main point of a society. There are other things a government should attend to such as basic civil rights and the welfare of the people. And when more than 2000 cops are sent out to protect the financial assets of one person at the cost of the taxpayers there’s just something that isn’t right. Especially since we know that this is just one more step on the road to complete segregation, just one more nail in the coffin. Is this what we want our society to look like? Even more segregation and only room for those with money? Is that what we want our tax money to be used for? It’s not even about squatting, it’s about whether we want to live in a city where you don’t have to be rich to have a roof over your head. A city with room for everyone. It’s about if we want to keep Berlin or not.
Note: For those of you that are in Berlin, there’s a demonstration at Boxhagenerplatz, Friedrichshain, tonight at 19:00.