Cranes build new buildings in Berlin, Germany.
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

The German capital has vowed to build 200,000 new homes, with half reserved for affordable rents. But where can they go?

Right now, Berlin is in the midst of a predicament that many cities will recognize: It desperately needs new homes in order to manage demand and maintain some level of affordability. Unlike many other cities, however, Berlin is trying very hard to get them.

Last week, the city’s government pledged to construct just under 200,000 new homes between now and 2030, with 50 percent of that reserved for affordable rents. It’s a necessary and impressive push, but it’s quickly running up against a fundamental question: Where does it all go?

The answers fall broadly into two categories. The city has a significant number of brownfield sites and other space available for in-fill development. It also has a ring of green space around its edges, if it’s willing to expand its footprint and encroach into lands reserved for nature.

Ultimately it’s unlikely that only one of these options will win out—the need is just too great. But deciding which space to prioritize for development has turned the city’s greenfield and brownfield sites into battlegrounds on which the future shape of the city will be thrashed out, and the city’s government is finding itself on both sides of the argument.

Berlin’s need for new homes is undeniable. Last year, 41,000 people moved to the city, pushing its population up beyond 3.7 million residents. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 4 million. Powered in part by property speculation, average rents in the city rose last year by 6 percent, still lagging behind the purchase cost of land, which rose by 13.6 percent. To manage this growth without pushing rents up far beyond inflation, this city will need 114,000 new homes by 2030. It will also need a further 77,000 (bringing the total to 194,000 new homes) to make up for a backlog in housing completions in recent years.

Finding room for these homes is not easy, although Berlin does have some space in built-up areas. Thanks to the city’s history, where periods of frenzied but uneven development in the early 20th century were followed by massive aerial bombardment and political division, Berlin’s layout is checkered and polycentric, with seams and blotches of underdeveloped land cropping up in quite a few places. The city fringe, meanwhile, has a jagged edge, interspersing housing and industrial areas with occasional remaining plots of cornfield or scrubby meadow, still within its official limits.

These spaces are now being filled in. A new quarter constructed on former railway land will house 6,000 residents, for example, just behind the city’s main station, barely 10 to 15 minutes walk from the Brandenburg Gate. A further 2,000 are going up on the site of a goods-yard long disused in the city’s northeast. Some of these brownfield sites have great potential—notably, a suburban island in the northwest, formerly the site of a cable factory, has a potentially beautiful canal-side setting. Planners are also experimenting with such ruses as adding extra floors to existing housing projects, and have even given the green light to building new homes on a churchyard in the inner borough of Neukölln.

Getting construction approved on sites like these is often a fiercely contested process. Right now, several densification projects are being fought by local residents who fear their homes will be shaded by towers or lose shared green space.

Given the urgent need for housing, this can be frustrating, but the resistance is understandable. Berlin’s older tenements used to have a bad reputation for unhealthily narrow, dingy courtyards. While gentrification has restored these buildings’ reputation, many with roots in the city fear shading as a return to a literal dark age.

Even plans to develop open land can have their flaws. When the city planned to build new housing at the former airport and current park at Tempelhof, a citywide referendum rejected the plan—arguably the right decision, given that too little affordable housing was being offered to compensate for the parkland’s loss.

Even fighting myriad battles to redevelop such sites wouldn’t be enough to find space for 200,000 new homes. Berlin is now looking to the remaining fields within its borders to make up the shortfall. Some of these greenfield projects, such as a plan to build 900 new homes on fields in the southern suburb of Buckow have been waived through. Others, however, are stuck in the works.

A key battleground is a 70-hectare (173-acre) patch of farmland called the Elisabeth-Aue in the city’s northeast. Berlin’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the main faction in the city’s coalition government, hoped to build an entire new neighborhood on the site. Berlin’s Green Party, a minor partner in the coalition, has nonetheless insisted that it should remain as farmland. Given that the site abuts a city-fringe national park created in 1998, they would ideally like to see it crisscrossed with paths for Berliners seeking fresh air as well.

Currently, the Greens are prevailing. They have an agreement not to develop the site written into the coalition agreement with the SPD. This only lasts until 2021, and in the meantime, the Greens are facing scathing criticism from more right-leaning sections of the media, who have wondered aloud exactly what the Greens have been smoking.

Given the resistance to both brownfield and greenfield development, it can seem remarkable that Berlin is able to get any building done at all. There is nonetheless widespread public support for the building plans. Even anti-development campaigns tend to adopt a NIMBY-ish stance not against development, as such, but against the use of a specific ill-chosen site. The city has managed to gain this level of support largely due to a cornerstone of its policies: a vow to keep 50 percent of the new housing affordable.

In Berlin, this type of housing (called as Sozialwohnungen or “social apartments”) refers to housing built by construction companies who get their investment money from the state. They return only 25 percent of their loan after completion, in return for promising to offer low rents. Eighty percent of these homes will be allotted to people on lower incomes at a cost of €6.50 per square meter. To increase the city’s limited stock of middle-income housing, a further 20 percent will be rented out at €8 per square meter, receiving a lower construction subsidy from the state in return for being allowed to charge more rent.

That cheaper rate would mean a hypothetical small 30-square-meter studio costs around €195 a month before bills (that is, 323 square feet for $223 a month), and a 45-square-meter one-bedroom costs between €293 and €400 (484 square feet for $335 a month). That’s far lower than what is available on the private market, in a city where the average rent per square meter is €9, but where new contracts are typically much higher.

Even the creation of these affordable flats can create tensions, as some areas worry that a newly dense concentration of low-income residents may bring social problems in their wake. The emphasis on community-oriented development nonetheless does much to ease tensions in the city and pave the way for construction.

Some residents may feel their area has been poorly chosen for new housing, while others might resist a view of fields turning into a view of houses. What has been retained in Berlin’s new push for housing, nonetheless, is a sense that the city is being expanded to make it more livable, not simply to squeeze profit from every spare square foot.

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