Renting an apartment in Berlin has become outrageously expensive and doesn’t fit the anti-capitalist flair that many residents are here for. In fact, rents in Berlin have almost doubled in the last 5 years. The more often I talk to friends about the situation, the more I get used to it. And that’s even scarier. The other day, a friend who recently moved to Berlin told me that, she pays a staggering 920€ for 35m2 in Sonnenallee. That’s over 25€ per sqm! Allegedly luxuriously renovated and provided with a plush fitted kitchen.
We think that’s the new normal – but it’s still illegal. Indeed, even a rent of 10€ per sqm is often already illegal. To prevent rents from rising any further, the government passed a rent control law – the so-called Mietpreisbremse. That law has been in place for more than three years. So why has hardly anyone used it so far? Why do rents continue to rise? We did some research on this and want to show you three different options for how you can actually and effectively lower your rent. We will start with the online service of wenigermiete.de than compare it with going it through lawyer or a tenants rights association.
Why rents are rising even though there’s a law against it
Skyrocketing rents are an emotional and frustrating topic for many of us. Quite rightly we ask ourselves: Why are rents still rising in Berlin and when will this end? On the one hand, the high demand is to blame. The city is growing: More than 40,000 people move to Berlin every year, which makes living space scarcer and therefore more expensive.
On the other hand, it is due to investors who buy residential space, refurbish it at great expense and rent it out or sell it at twice or three times the original price.
Politicians for their part have blatantly failed to create sufficient social housing: 80,000 social housing units are sold or converted every year, and only 15,000 are newly built. Instead, they have tried to put a stop to the rent hike by introducing a rent control law: The so-called “Mietpreisbremse” says that all tenancy agreements signed after summer 2015 must not ask for a significantly higher rent than in the surrounding neighborhood.
photo: Dmitri Popov
Obviously, nearly nobody knows how to enforce a law like this with the landlord as a recent study found that 58% of all new rental contracts show illegally high rent and breach the “Mietpreisbremse”. This means if you have moved in recent years, more than one in two of you could reduce their rent.
How Caleb reduced his rent from 552€ to 437€
To give you a specific example, I would like to share with you the story of Caleb, who successfully reduced his rent by over 20%. Caleb came to Berlin from Hawaii to do voluntary work for refugees. He moved into a 2-room apartment in Friedrichshain and soon realized that many of his neighbors were paying less than half the rent he did – for exactly the same space.
He was one of many clueless expats who move to Berlin without knowing local prices and local tenants rights. “After talking to my neighbors I googled and found the website wenigermiete.de,” explains Caleb, “at first I thought it was a rip-off. After I called them a few times, the founder himself was on the phone.”
Caleb & his girlfriend
The founder, himself a lawyer, explained to him why tenants cannot simply be thrown out of their home if they make use of the Mietpreisbremse. “Many landlords know that it’s them breaching the law, not the tenants. So when you file the claim with the proficient legal standards, they suddenly react quite differently,” Caleb says today.
Of course, I want to know what the service costs, as wenigermiete.de is not a charity but a commercial startup. Caleb explains that the service only costs something if the rent is actually reduced. In that sense, wenigermiete.de operates like flight right portals (e.g. Airhelp or Flightright.) “To be exact, they take four times the monthly amount they have reduced the rent by. So for me, it was like 4×115€,” add Caleb.
However, wenigermiete.de does not charge the tenant directly but the money usually is paid by the landlord. With the reduced monthly rent, also comes a reduced deposit (as the deposit is normally three times the rent). This means, the tenant account with the landlord suddenly has credit (Guthaben), which is then used to pay the invoice from wenigermiete.de. Because the tenant usually doesn’t need to pay anything directly, the website also doesn’t ask for bank details or payment information throughout the sign-up and the booking process.
What are the alternatives?
If you doubt the legitimacy of your own rent, you have some options other than wenigermiete.de of course – most notably you can contact a lawyer or a tenants union. Obviously, the lawyer has the disadvantage that every consulting hour costs several hundred Euros – without knowing whether you will gain anything at the end of the process. However, for those of you who have an assurance for legal protection specifically covering “rent law” this might be another legitimate option.
The tenant’s rights union may also be an option, albeit only if you are already a member there. The tenants union main purpose is to support you in enforcing the rent control law by yourself. For this, you will have several appointments on-site and you will need to get into the legal (the tenants union explains the process here). If you don’t succeed, the tenants union may also refer you to a lawyer. For that, you will usually be charged a deductible (150€), regardless of whether they can lower the rent for you or not. With lawyers and tenants unions being the two main options so far, it is hardly surprising that the Mietpreisbremse has barely been used so far.
photo: Jonas Denil
Why we need to take action now
So when it comes to written law, Berlin is still quite anti-capitalistic: The rent market is highly regulated and legislation like the Mietpreisbremse is hard to be found anywhere else abroad. Just as astonishing is how unscrupulously landlords violate the law: On the one site, germans stop at red traffic lights (at least in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg). On the other hand, landlords in Germany have no shame to systematically rip off tenants. And tenants in Germany make no effort to translate written into practice law and to demand their rights.
It is time for us to change this. And there is one reason why should do it now rather than postponing it to later: If a landlord can prove that the previous tenant has already paid the illegally high rent for at least one year, the rent control law does not apply. Fortunately, this is very rarely the case at the moment. It prompts us, however, make use of the law as soon as possible, otherwise, our subsequent tenants will no longer be able to take action against excessive rents.
photo: Yeo Khee
Header photo: Jelle van Leest