The junk property crisis

Lack of available housing has a particularly severe impact on Bulgarian and Romanian Roma: with few formal work prospects, they are forced into substandard accommodation and homelessness. Institutional and social discrimination compounds the problem, shifting the blame from unscrupulous tenants and employers onto vulnerable citizens.

Berlin, like many other international metropolises, has experienced an increase in immigration for some time. Outwardly, the city presents itself as open and multicultural. City marketing slogans such as ‘poor but sexy’ and ‘be Berlin’ refer to the city’s vibrant cultural life and international population. At the same time, certain migrant groups are thought to be posing significant challenges for the city’s administration.

Since summer 2011, the media has drawn attention to the rise in Bulgarian and Romanian Roma migrants to Germany. According to Der Spiegel, the new arrivals aim for large cities and metropolitan areas such as Berlin, Dortmund and Munich.1 A statement published on 22 January 2013 by the Deutsche Städtetag reported higher migration from Romania and Bulgaria since the countries entered the European Union in 2007 and excessive demands placed on municipal authorities as a result.2The Working Group ‘Roma’ of Berlin’s District Mitte3  issued a statement in July with the heartfelt title ‘No, things are not alright! Looking away does not help! Waiting is no solution!’ about a new degree of so-called ‘imported poverty’ and the challenges that cannot be overcome by municipal authorities alone.4

Against this background of increasing refugee numbers and debates about urban housing, different groups of migrants are widely treated by media coverage as well as political strategies as a single entity, without consideration of the different resources needed to address different migrant populations. At the same time, a seemingly common sense argument is presented that only Roma are responsible for ‘importing poverty’, along with associated urban social problems, from southeastern Europe. From our perspective, such a view is problematic. We see an urgent need for closer attention to be paid to the discrimination experienced by individual groups, their needs and the resources these groups bring.

The Housing Scheme of Maligawatta 19×24 inch watercolor 1979 by Segar. Photo via Wikimedia Commons raja segar / CC BY-SA

Roma in Berlin and migration from southeastern Europe

Certain anti-Roma concepts have recently been amalgamated in public discourse. In the first instance, immigration from Bulgaria and Romania is a matter of EU citizens seeking employment in another EU country. In other words, these are people exercising the fundamental right of EU citizenship to freedom of movement between European states. However, this basic right is subject to repeated re-interpretation by public authorities in Germany, which tend to restrict the free movement of Roma holding the EU citizenship.

An unclear framework for how to exercise this fundamental right and attempts to restrict its definition jointly create the impression that many EU citizens are living illegally in Germany, which stigmatizes these new citizens. Questions such as ‘how long can we stay in this country?’ are not uncommon. Clerks at social welfare offices are often not sufficiently informed about the rights conferred by EU citizenship and demand irrelevant or non-existent documents when processing applications. As a consequence, integration into the labour market and access to social rights and housing are considerably more difficult for applicants.

Within Romanian and Bulgarian migrant communities, collective responsibility for this general discrimination is pushed onto Roma communities; existing anti-Gypsy rhetoric based on stereotypical ethnic characteristics is reinforced, deepening racist resentment. Ostracizing those who are already victims of racism can also be observed in Romanian politics: several parliamentary bills have called for the term ‘Roma’ to be officially boycotted as a means to avoid Romania’s association with Roma due to phonetic similarities.

Many recent Bulgarian and Romanian newcomers to Berlin come from rural areas or other EU countries where they have lived and worked for a long time. Inhabitants from agricultural regions have especially suffered from lost formal and informal work opportunities in the wake of the transformation processes after 1990 and the financial crisis 2008/2009. Their precarious situation attracts them to Germany in search of a better life and opportunities for themselves and their families.5 Many come from Greece, Spain and Italy, where Romanian and Bulgarian workers were the first to lose their jobs due to the financial crisis, forcing them to relinquish the lives they had fought hard to establish.

It would be illegal, statistically impossible and serve little purpose to formally establish the ethnicity of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens migrating to Berlin. However, differentiating the resources newcomers bring offers a useful aid for designing and introducing necessary programmes and measures. For example, many migrants from Bulgaria speak fluent Turkish and can use their language skills to quickly gain access to Turkish-speaking networks in Berlin.

Unfortunately, some of the anti-Roma discrimination they encountered within the labour and housing markets of their countries of origin is exacerbated by new forms of discrimination and ethnic segregation as newcomers to Berlin. In most cases, Bulgarian and Romanian Roma, like any other newcomers, are people who make a conscious choice to migrate and are confronted with new difficulties and challenges when they reach their destination. Gaining access to affordable housing is just one of them.

Housing as a means of social mobility

The lack of state-funded social housing paired with the inaccessibility of  state transfer benefits for many EU citizens make them rely on the private property market for secure housing solutions. However, for many newcomers from Bulgaria and Romania, the search for accommodation on Berlin’s private housing market is virtually impossible, due to their lack of financial, linguistic or cultural resources. These issues are compounded by high real estate demand, shortage of supply and lack of state regulatory measures within the market.

Since the 1990s, housing has increasingly been viewed as a commodity in Berlin. Public stocks of social housing have been and continue to be privatized, while there is hardly any investment in building new affordable housing. In order to counteract this, the Berlin Senate for Urban Development and Environment has recently adopted several regulatory measures. They include a rent cap and a new-build initiative to promote public investment in social housing and private investment in ‘affordable housing’. Although such measures are positive in principle, they are only expected to take pressure off the market in the medium to long-term, if at all. And it is far from clear who would be the target audience of any future affordable housing programmes.

Housing, associated with the labour market, education and health, is also an important political, economic and cultural integration issue. Buildings alongside their surrounding living environment and neighbourhood context offer new access to education, work and inter-cultural co-existence. As a result, housing becomes an important factor in supporting social mobility that greatly affects the socio-spatial integration of urban residents.

Access to housing for newcomers

Access to housing for newly arrived immigrants to Berlin should be considered an integral aspect of other issues such as access to the labour market and social rights, linguistic integration, media representation, and political debates and attitudes. The Berlin housing market’s prerequisites are on the whole very strict. A potential tenant has to prove that they are in stable employment and is earning at least three times the amount of the apartment’s rental value including heating costs. Newcomers who are still looking for work and lack personal networks are automatically excluded. In addition, unemployed EU citizens do not enjoy any social welfare protection if they have not been employed within the preceding six months.

Victims of exploitative work and human trafficking find it near impossible to offer such proof, as they face a long and laborious legal process to assert their employment rights. Even if these basic requirements can be met, real estate agents and facility managers often use linguistic barriers as a reason to reject applications. The applicant’s assumed ethnic origin also plays a significant role in rental decisions.

Anti-Gypsy political and media debates related to housing tend to affect Romanian and Bulgarian women most harshly. Roma NGO Amaro Foro’s 6 monitoring of anti-Gypsy incidents in Berlin since 2014 reveals that Romanian and Bulgarian citizens with perceived or actual Roma backgrounds were subjected to multiple forms of discrimination. In some cases, listing Romania or Bulgaria as a country of origin was all it took for the estate agent to decline an application. Despite anti-discrimination legislation, legal action is seldom sought by those affected, as there is no guarantee of either gaining alternative housing or success in court. This situation creates alternative forms of housing solutions that not only bring legal and qualitative disadvantages but also negatively impact the process of integration, effectively displacing Romanian and Bulgarian citizens.

Targeted local or federal authority measures such as legal advice on tenancy law matters can help prevent such housing structures from becoming established and widespread. Newcomers that visit advice centres report a variety of discriminatory experiences related to housing. Their experiences commonly include being offered apartments in slums, employers providing overpriced, improper accommodation including abandoned houses and garden sheds.

Junk properties

The term ‘junk property’ (Schrottimmobilien) has become part of the German vernacular; it refers to the dilapidated houses unfit for human habitation that are  rented at inflated prices to newcomers. Junk properties often fail to meet basic structural safety standards or provide water and energy. More than the occasional leaky window and door, these flats are often completely unrenovated and pose significant health hazards. Rental contracts commonly include incomplete or incorrect information regarding the apartment’s condition and size to justify high rents. Such buildings are rarely maintained and waste collection is often poorly managed or lacking, leading to unhygienic conditions.

The media and representatives of public bodies often link the filthy condition of these buildings with the tenants’ way of life, implicating the Romanian and Bulgarian Roma rather than landlords. A lack of information means that tenants do not know about their right to receive housing handover records when renting a property, which should include a record of defects and meter readings. New tenants often report a high level of debt resulting from the previous tenants’ undocumented energy consumption. Inflated rents often mean that several families share one apartment. This typical situation is considered a temporary necessity for Roma migrants arriving in Berlin.

Overcrowding leads to a negative perception in the surrounding social space. It is a structural driver of neighbourhood conflict, which often involves ethnic discrimination. Locals write letters of complaint, compile press releases and organise protests, and put pressure on the authorities to address the situation. NGOs intervene at an institutional level to offer protection to those living in such conditions. The public sector, however, generally lacks the legal means to directly remedy grievances or carry out improvement measures, since these are free-market rather than municipal apartments.

Residents can extricate themselves by moving to another apartment or filing a lawsuit outlining the false information they received and the rental property’s poor condition. But rental contracts are often written to the disadvantage of tenants who lack knowledge about rental law. Furthermore, the threat of homelessness forces many into a tenancy agreement without an actual contract, which presents a major hurdle for organizing a lawsuit. State-funded tenant advice services are rarely used and conventional avenues of making complaints not taken, as they are lengthy and offer scant hope of success for people in such atypical circumstances.

Tenants who are unsatisfied with their living conditions simply wind up in the next junk property. The provision of alternative forms of housing is the only way to eradicate these properties from the market. But until this is forthcoming, newcomers will be limited to moving from one substandard accommodation to another.

Shelter in cars, abandoned houses or backyards

Private sector housing is often directly available through employers. When jobs are prearranged before the worker departs for Germany, accommodation may form part of the arrangement. Naturally, rental agreements of this sort are made without the tenant visiting the property in advance; indeed, the tenant is unlikely to have any knowledge of the location or information about the local housing market.

Inadequate accommodation organized by employers is an exploitative practice which particularly affects Romanian and Bulgarian workers. In these cases, affected workers are often housed in precarious, overcrowded and cramped housing without rental contracts. The direct connection between employment and accommodation can subject tenants to conflated exploitation.

The lack of separation between work and private life when one’s employer is also one’s landlord makes worker-tenants strongly dependent. People in such circumstances live a life of constant uncertainty due to fixed-term contracts or irregular employment relationships. Losing a job would also make these workers homeless. And any complaint about housing conditions could lead to dismissal. Uncoupling these two contracts is necessary to avoid disadvantaging workers.

For EU citizens threatened or affected by eviction, access to social rights are dependent upon their regular employment. As a result, migrants are generally excluded from social security systems, as they are often either in informal employment or seeking work. In these cases, social welfare offices decline applications for housing allocations under ASOG (Allgemeine Sicherheits- und Ordnungsgesetz, General Law for the Protection of Public Security and Order in Berlin). Such decisions are justified on the basis that applicants have not exhausted their ‘self-help potential’ – a euphemism for the policy of sending migrants back, which has been applied on a large scale in relation to Roma migration in France and Italy. Berlin local authorities offer to cover the transport costs for immigrants to return to their home country, thus externalizing an acute and increasingly problematic homeless issue.

Many job seekers are therefore excluded from the private housing rental market and government support. In these situations, families have no choice but to stay in cars, abandoned houses or sheds, resulting in them being subjected to racially motivated physical and verbal attacks, which include violent outbursts from the far right. The action of local authorities are also frequently antagonistic: Roma, their supporters and representatives of NGOs report damage to property, the removal or threatened separation of young children from their parents and evictions.

Although those affected often regard sleeping rough as a temporary arrangement, they can find themselves caught up in this situation for a long time due to a lack of access to housing. The Berlin authorities associate the long-term homelessness of Roma with camping, as such practices are still interpreted in German society as a collective trait, an impression rooted in prejudice and linked to the romantic notion of Roma as a travelling people.

The public sector’s perspective

Berlin’s infrastructure for sheltering people is not equipped to provide comprehensive housing for those at risk of homelessness. There is hardly anything on offer for newcomer families with children; accommodation for those without access to benefits is almost always offered arbitrarily. Specific intervention projects with limited resources, co-financed by the city, offer modest support to families with children and can do little more than keep them temporarily from becoming homeless.

Nostel is a pilot project run by the non-profit association Phinove providing emergency integrated accommodation for homeless Roma families with children from Bulgaria and Romania. Although there are still only a few of them, Nostel apartments offer temporary shelter, which includes intensive social assistance with work and education opportunities in Berlin as well as legal advice.

Although this project is a drop in the ocean and will not immediately change the general situation in Berlin and other cities, it is welcomed as one of the first publicly co-financed projects focused on housing for newcomers.

Poor-quality, overcrowded housing has a serious effect on the educational opportunities of Bulgarian and Romanian children, which receives little attention from the authorities. Furthermore, there are many reports  of school dropouts caused by homelessness. This results in feelings of shame and marginalization, as everyday normalcy such as showers and clean clothes is suddenly undermined.

Temporality and vulnerability

The forms of informal living conditions described here are typical during the arrival period of many Bulgaria and Romania newcomers. Migrants themselves consider these as temporary solutions until they have found a permanent job and apartment with a regular rental contract. Even when regular access to housing is available, Berlin’s overburdened housing market creates significant pressure on tenants living under the threat of contract termination and the city’s housing situation is perceived as insecure and temporary.

All the forms and consequences of exclusion described here are closely linked to the market’s post-1990 deregulation and liberalization and a differentiated institutional approach regarding access to social rights for people from Romania and Bulgaria. There is currently no long-term solution. Programmes aimed at Bulgarian and Romanian Roma cannot solve this issue alone. Due to its complexity, a holistic view is needed with inputs from different perspectives, disciplines and sectors.

In view of the current state of affairs and the expected future course of the housing market, a thorough examination by different actors is indispensable. Such an investigation should form the basis of a programme for supporting newcomers, adapted to their existing resources and needs, structured in a targeted manner and sustainably promoted. Long-term promotion of anti-discrimination structures offering targeted approaches for such difficult-to-classify forms of discrimination, linking specific complaints to concrete remedial measures, is one solution that could immediately lead to a positive change in the way this issue is managed.

‘Die meisten Armutseinwanderer sind Roma’, Spiegel Online, 8 February 2014.

‘Positionspapier des Deutschen Städtetages zu den Fragen der Zuwanderung aus Rumänien und Bulgarien, Deutscher Städtetag, 22 January 2013.

According to its website, the Working Group 'Roma' Mitte  is a coalition of ‘social projects working with Roma, various police departments, a housing construction company, representatives from the district management offices, the office of the regional integration officer and various departments of the local authority’. Such a working group also existed at the district office of Neukölln between 2011 and 2015 but was then dissolved. Berlin’s Roma organisations have themselves protested against this ethnicizing approach several times.

AG Roma des Bezirks Mitte. 2011. “Zweite Fachliche Stellungnahme zur Situation von Roma aus Bulgarien und Rumänien”. downloaded in October 2013.

See: Ann Pusca, ed., Eastern European Roma in the EU: Mobility, Discrimination, Solutions, New York, International Debate Education Association, 2012.

Published 29 July 2020
Original in English
First published by dérive 64 (2016) (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by dérive © Diana Botescu / Anna Kokalanova / dérive / Eurozine



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