Rent policy in social housing: maximum dissatisfaction

The Senate wants to reduce rents by linking them to income. However, a first draft on this has met with fierce criticism.

Kotti & Co activists at a demonstration in 2012 Photo: dpa

There was a remarkable amount of praise for the coalition agreement from urban policy initiatives, and even during the Holm affair there was an unusual unity between extra-parliamentary actors and the urban development department under Senator Katrin Lompscher (Left Party).

But in the meantime, there is a lot of friction. First the conflict over rent increases at the state-owned housing companies, now the tenants’ initiative Kotti & Co is sounding the alarm: "Abysmally antisocial" is the draft now presented by the Senate Department for the reorganization of rents in social housing, according to the group founded in 2012.

The draft forms a core element of the announced paradigm shift in rent policy: The red-red-green coalition has agreed to reduce rents in social housing. To this end, rents are to be linked to tenants’ incomes in the future.

The key points paper for the "comprehensive reform of social housing" that has now been published marks the start of the process: the current cost-based rent law will be replaced, and a new law on income-oriented guideline rents is to come into force on January 1, 2018. Provisional regulations are to be determined by then with a preliminary law.

Prices for five income levels

On the table is a proposal to differentiate the maximum permissible rent into five levels. In the future, people earning less than 75 percent of the maximum amount set for obtaining a housing entitlement certificate (WBS) are to pay a maximum of 5.25 euros in cold rent per square meter (level 1), or up to 50 cents less if the building is in poor energy condition. For people with incomes between percent of the maximum level, the rent is to be 5.75 euros per square meter (level 3).

"If this draft is implemented, rents for many tenants in social housing will rise, not fall," criticizes Sandy Kaltenborn of Kotti & Co. The draft provides for a redistribution between "quite poor and quite poor" tenants.

For those who have an income that is more than 140 percent of the WBS limit (level 5) are to pay seven euros per square meter in the future – more than is currently charged in social housing. For single-person households, this applies from a gross income of around 23,000 euros a year, and for two-person households the limit would be a good 35,000 euros – these are anything but good earners, even in Berlin.

An example calculation

According to an example calculation by Kotti & Co., a carpenter with a net income of 1,600 euros would fall into the highest bracket. For a 65 square meter social housing with a current price of 6.50 euros per square meter seven euros would be due in the future, the rent would thus rise by 32 euros.

For people below this income threshold, rents are to fall – but only on individual application. However, this is precisely what has been done badly: only a very small number of eligible tenants have made use of the option that has existed since 2016 for social tenants to have their rent subsidized if it consumes more than 30 percent of their household income. This is also due to the complicated application procedure, criticize tenant initiatives.

Number: Only about 135,000 of the 1.9 million apartments in Berlin are still social housing. According to calculations by the Senate Department for Urban Development, their number would fall to just under 80,000 apartments within the next ten years without the new subsidies adopted in 2015, which are intended to create several thousand new social housing units.

Rents: The red-red-green government has announced improvements for social tenants: "Starting in 2018, the coalition will secure fair social rents and occupancy bonds through a comprehensive reform. The coalition agreement states that "rents are to be reduced and graded according to the income of the tenants. (taz)

Kaltenborn also criticizes other points of the draft: for example, the data basis for calculating the operating costs is outdated and incomplete, but above all, the paper does not contain any proposals for the apartments that will be released from the social obligation prematurely by a complete repayment of the loans – an option that the housing companies are currently making use of on a large scale due to the low interest rates.

The Berlin Tenants’ Association also criticizes the draft. According to Wibke Werner, the association’s deputy managing director, it has long supported the model of an income-dependent guideline rent. But it rejects rent increases: "That’s where you have to screw with the rent levels."

A tactical maneuver

So is the promise of a more tenant-friendly policy that the new urban development senator Katrin Lompscher stands for just hot air? Kotti & Co don’t want to go that far – at least not yet. But they are clearly critical of Lompscher’s administration, which is said to be very close to the Berlin SPD.

Thus the present draft is an attempt of this administration to push the project of a guideline rent, which was fixed in the coalition agreement, into a "most unsocial direction", says Kaltenborn. He sees a tactical maneuver in the administration’s approach: "If I present a draft that has so little to do with a social change of direction in rent policy, even a compromise will not initiate this change of direction in the end."

In response to an inquiry from the taz, the Senate administration said: "The currently applicable rules for social housing allow rents to rise to such an extent that they are no longer socially acceptable. We have to stop that and with that we have the same goal as Kotti & Co." The points of criticism are taken seriously, they will be "part of the substantive discussion for a new regulation of social housing."

"The administration wants to push the project of a guideline rent in the most anti-social direction possible".

In order to actually implement the announced change in housing policy, the senator must assert herself against this administration, demands Kotti & Co. Otherwise, the relationship between the Senate and extra-parliamentary urban initiatives would be strained as a whole: "Precisely because we have been invited to the relevant expert circles for years, our frustration is naturally extremely high when such a draft comes out in the end," says Kaltenborn.

Among the urban policy initiatives, Kotti & Co belongs to the wing that is known for its willingness to talk to the Senate – at least in the left-wing part of the new government, their criticism will not go unheard.