Apartment buildings in Frankfurt, Germany. Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock.com

As the country follows France with hardline protections for lower-income renters, new laws prohibit some property upgrades. And for many Germans, that's just fine.  

While Paris’ radical new housing laws have been attracting attention, France’s capital isn’t the only city in Europe that’s been taking legal action to stop social displacement and gentrification. Across Germany, cities are increasingly bringing in rules that aim to ensure that rising rents in desirable neighborhoods don’t push working class residents out of their homes. Called milieuschutz—loosely translatable as “community defense”—these laws are drawing the battle lines in what might seem the most improbable place for an urban-development standoff: the bathroom.

Essentially, milieuschutz is a law to prevent a neighborhood’s real estate from getting too fancy. In the areas earmarked for protection, owners are either restricted or banned outright from adding new balconies, installing under-floor heating, or carving out guest bathrooms. They’re also not allowed to knock two smaller apartments together to form one big one. Decided on a street-by-street basis at local rather than national level, these laws aren’t actually that new: Hamburg first experimented with them in 1972, Munich in 1987. What is novel, however, is their rapid spread across Germany at a time when inner-urban real-estate prices are going through the roof. Berlin now has 18 zones protected by the laws, and has just doubled one in size. Last month, Munich introduced one more district, while Frankfurt pushed the boat out with a total of six new protection zones spreading across the city’s denser districts. The social-engineering intention is clear. As Frankfurt’s mayor Olaf Cunitz baldly puts it, “Using this urbanist tool, we want to put a brake on upgrading and displacement and thus secure existing living space.”

Looking from across the Atlantic, these laws might seem eccentric, perhaps even a little insane. Who, you might wonder, has the right to prevent owners from doing what they want with their property? The simple answer is that Germans do not necessarily identify with property owners, because relatively few of them are.  Only 45 percent of German housing is owner-occupied, while in Berlin the figure is as low as 15 percent. The laws are thus seen not as an infringement on personal freedoms but as a form of trade regulation that ensures protection and choice for the public. The laws don’t stop all renovation, either: Landlords are also still obliged to carry out repairs and keep property in decent condition, even though Germany’s more proactive tenant culture means that renters often take on some renovations themselves.

To understand why luxury renovations in particular are a target, you need to look at Germany’s rental laws. Across the country, rent rises are capped; landlords can only raise them by a certain fixed percentage a year. If the property has demonstrably improved its fittings, however, it’s possible to push the rent a little higher, or attract a wealthier type of buyer. This means that adding second bathrooms or adding balconies is a typical strategy employed by landlords to maximize their return. Long-term, this can be as effective a tool of displacement as straightforward eviction. This Frankfurt couple, for example, say they will be forced to leave their home of 17 years because a compulsory “renovation” (really a total gutting of the building) will push the rent beyond their reach. Meanwhile, in East Berlin, the desirable Pankow neighborhood has lost 4,800 apartments over the past 20 years to knock-through renovations.

A good social mix is also what German city-dwellers are used to, arguably more so than in London or New York. Most German cities' older housing stock was built with such mixing in mind, with all classes contained within a single development. Classic pre-World-War-I German tenements are built around a courtyard, and as this old photo shows, a building’s communal street door often gave way to a succession of two or three yards, and sometimes many more. Light-filled apartments for the well-to-do—with more rooms and higher ceilings—were built behind the elaborate facades facing the street on the second to fourth floors. The dwellings under the roof and in the plainer hinterhof, or back the courtyard, were smaller and cheaper, while the last courtyard was often reserved for workshops (now typically offices or converted lofts). Things have changed in the past century, of course. Those hinterhof flats are now sought after (and traffic noise has made some front apartments less desirable), while tenements' roof spaces in popular areas are often converted into relatively luxurious penthouses. But the principle of different-sized apartments for different income brackets within a single building remains—as does a sense that this mix is worth protecting.

But do the laws work?  On their own, probably not. Indeed, this local Berlin paper makes the argument that they can actually cause a faster exodus. Owner-occupiers realize they can’t adapt their apartments the way they want—but that they can still make a killing by selling up. And that’s exactly what they do, it says, moving on to the ‘burbs, freeing up space for wealthier incomers, and exacerbating the situation that the laws were supposed to curb. This seems plausible, but overplays the experiences of a niche group (most apartments in the city aren’t lived in by their owners anyway).

More serious is that these micro-laws are being implemented against the backdrop of a wider housing shortage. Berlin, for example, will probably need 15,000 new homes a year to keep up with demand, but last year built only 12,518. This is still a far better effort than by most European cities, but without greater supply, rents will keep rising—even if it is in smaller increments than if there were no renovation restrictions.

The laws are nonetheless proving popular with the large chunk of the population that sees their future rental security at risk. Their appeal isn’t hard to fathom. In so many cities, the presence of lower-income residents is seen by the authorities as a problem to be solved. Less-wealthy Germans may be battling against a rising tide, but at least they can see that their cities actually value their presence.

Top image: Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock.com

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