A severe housing shortage, legal hurdles as well as informal broker practices have put refugees in Berlin in precarious situations. Finding even a small room to live in has turned into a frustrating odyssey for many. Holly Young reports for InfoMigrants.
Awad scrolls through pages and pages of emails on his phone: all rejections to housing adverts.
It is not enough to say it feels impossible to find a home in Berlin. He wants to show the numbers: the average 6 hours per day he spends hunting online, the weekly visits to housing companies in different corners of the city, the numerous documents he waited months to get. “I’ve registered for around 1000 flats now and been invited to visit 10,” says Awad. “And there were always 20-30 people visiting at the same time.”
While we speak, Awad, a 44-year-old who arrived in Germany after leaving Syria in 2015, picks up a call from a housing company: yet another ‘sorry, but there is nothing available’. “But please, is there anything you can do to help?,” he asks, frustration muted by the familiarity of this conversation.
Looking for a flat is practically a full-time job for Awad, who is also waiting for progress in his request for family reunification so he can see his wife and three children again. He is constantly pushing against an invisible wall: the Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the dead-end apologies, the apartments that vanish as fast as they appear.
Awad is one of thousands of refugees seeking a new home in the midst of a housing shortage. Across Germany, there is an estimated shortage of 1 million houses and in Berlin, where house prices are rising fast and social housing is severely lacking, the situation is particularly acute. It is thought that in addition to recently arrived refugees the city receives 50,000 new residents per year. Estimates suggest there is demand for almost 275,000 new homes for average incomes alone.
Not all are on an equal footing in the renting market, says Awad. In his experience,
While requirements differ from state to state, most people applying for asylum are required to spend their first months in Germany in an official shelter, after which they can move into their own accommodation.
In Berlin, however, the twin pressures of the housing situation and the high number of refugees that arrived in the city since 2015 has left many remaining for long periods in temporary accommodation. For some, this has meant stays of over a year, in some cases two, in precarious emergency shelters in places such as former conference centres, gym halls, department stores and airports.
Sascha Langenbach, spokesperson for LAF (Landesamt für Flüchtlingsangelenheiten), the Berlin authority that also oversees refugee accommodation, insists progress is being made. “So far in 2017, the Berlin state office for refugee affairs admitted more than 3.500 people to rent an apartment and is now paying the rent, heating, electricity and as well the deposit,” says Langenbach. They have also seen 10,000 people this year move out of emergency shelters and into temporary accommodation with better facilities, adds Langenbach.
Yet many others still struggle to find a place of their own, a predicament not fully explained by the housing crisis alone. Poor access to adequate information, legal hurdles, and discrimination from landlords were all highlighted by as additional hurdles in a recent report from the Berlin Institute for Empirical Research on Integration and Migration (BIM) focusing on Berlin and Dresden.
LAF supports refugees finding a house while they are going through the asylum system, after which the responsibility falls to the job center. In the case of Berlin, the apartment offer must first be approved by the job center before the individual can move in. The BIM report highlights bureaucratic difficulties including cases where this approval takes weeks, during which the landlord has often found another tenant.
This criticism rings true with Awad. "Housing companies usually say the authorities are too slow and unreliable with payments,” says Awad. “And if you don’t speak English or German, the formal process is near impossible. But of course ... if you pay a broker, everything will change."
In the shadow of a sluggish formal route to housing, an informal market of brokers has blossomed. These growing networks offer quick access to flats and are now easy to find on the streets of Berlin.
Inevitably, it comes at a price. Since arriving in the city last year, 31-year-old Eli Waël Khleifawi from Syria has seen this industry boom. First, they were asking for a 100 euros upfront fee. Now he has heard the standard is 1000 euros but can be as high as 4000 or 5000 euros. Waël says:
“Most refugees that find a house do so now either by going to these brokers, or relying on informal networks of support,” says Waël. “Sometimes that is friends or family they can stay with for a while or connections with German people or volunteers that can help them with the process.”
Falling through the cracks
For those without cash or connections, it is all too easy to fall through the cracks in the formal system. “I’d first arrived to a place outside the city and then came to Berlin but the authorities said they didn’t have any places in the emergency shelters,” says Waël. "I spent three months homeless.”
These months were an exhausting blur. “Sometimes I found money to sleep in hostels for a few nights, or slept at the houses of people I met,” remembers Waël. Sometimes I found bars that were open all night. But more often than not I slept on the street - in parks mostly. It was summer so it was warm but you had to be careful, it could be dangerous. Especially in Tiergarten: there you kept out of the dark.”
Finally, Waël found a room in a shared house, but he is still worries about the stability of his situation: “I’m still recovering physically and mentally from being on the streets last year."
Awad too had a near brush with the streets, after being thrown out of his shelter for cooking in his room. Luckily, he had relatives in the city, but it was a very tight squeeze: Awad, his two sisters and nephew moved in with a family of seven already living in three rooms.
He’s now living back in sheltered accommodation: sharing a room with his sister and her 8 year old son. It’s taking a toll. “The lights go out when my nephew needs to sleep,” says Awad.
At one level, discrimination against refugees is structural, argues Waël, explaining how it manifests in grindingly slow and dysfunctional bureaucracy: “The (housing) system in Berlin was not designed to accommodate people coming from war zones.”
But it is also feels personal. “If you are trying to get a house through private companies you are up against Americans and Europeans, and it is just “hi” and “bye”,” he explains. “If you want a room in a shared apartment - forget about it. People think refugees are going to mess up the house.”
says Dr Jutta Aumüller, researcher at the Institute for Democratic Development and Social Integration. “It is absolutely clear that discrimination plays a big role. We know from studies that in general people with a foreign background, and particularly those from Muslim countries, have more difficulty being accepted as tenants.”
The attitudes of landlords surveyed in Berlin and Dresden for the BIM report are revealing. Many had reservations about renting to refugees; some citing concerns over language or administrative barriers, others trivial concerns over different “living cultures” relating to rubbish management and noise levels. Some said openly they wouldn’t rent to refugees.
The situation could be eased, argues Waël, by raising the limit the job centre will pay for housing by 100 euros to keep pace with the rising renting prices. This, he argues, would widen housing options and also avoid the state paying higher sums for refugees to live in temporary accommodation.
Measures to ease the situation
The BIM report offers suggestions for easing the situation. On the part of the government, they suggest increasing funding for social workers to help support refugees through the process and ensuring better information is available to those living in shelters. Landlords and housing companies should ensure leases are available in more languages, provide intercultural training for staff and increase understanding of the necessary documents and bureaucracy relating to tenants in the asylum system. It is also suggested that local complaints offices should be set up to support refugees challenging discrimination.
“Until the situation changes,” says Waël. “People will continue to profit from the refugees at every turn: the private companies running shelters, the people running hostels, and the brokers on the street. Everyone is making money out of this and the only people not making anything is the refugees: and they are so stressed out.”