Everyone warns you about the housing ‘crisis’ in Berlin. But only when you’re standing on a street early on a Monday morning to view an apartment, surrounded by thirty other hopefuls, does the true horror of the situation become clear. It wasn’t even one of the more desirable areas of town, but this is Berlin 2018 and all bets are off when it comes to finding an apartment. People attend viewings expectantly, in the hope that Berlin’s capricious housing gods will look favourably upon them.
It’s a scene witnessed countless times across Berlin each and every day, and one that’s become all too familiar to us. Each apartment viewing follows a similar routine: you view the apartment, then hand over bundles of paperwork to an estate agent, including employment contracts, pay slips, references, credit ratings, and a family member as a hostage against non-payment of rent. Okay, not this last thing, but the process feels pretty exploitative.
Back on the street you enter a housing twilight zone. If you’re lucky you hear that you weren’t shortlisted, but mostly Berlin’s landlords and estate agents feel no need to communicate with you. These are glorious days to be an estate agent. Writing as I am from our new apartment, I can just about laugh about it now, but it’s a dehumanising process. Of course, the challenges don’t end there. We arrived in our new apartment only to discover that the light sockets – all fourteen of them – had been removed.
We moved here at a good time, summer in Berlin is legendary. People hit the streets, parks and lakes in their droves, and life is lived outside in those few precious summer months before the onset of the grey and cold winter, for which the city is also famed. Berlin felt welcoming and we’ve embraced it despite all the petty irritants that come with moving to a new place. Pride of place is the stark contrast between the modern, liberal international city and the German love of rule-based living and bureaucracy.
The experience of registering our residency has convinced me to abandon plans to open a German bank account. Gone is the one digital identity I needed to access every service known to humanity in the Netherlands, to be replaced with … paper. Berlin is only just embracing online, which seems strange in a city that is the epicentre of digital start ups. That, though, is less irritating than the 19th century attitude to marriage or, rather, towards unmarried couples.
In the Netherlands, unmarried couples can share a health plan. Want your partner to have the same rights in Germany and you’ll have to get married. It’s as if the German state is pimping unmarried couples up the aisle into the arms of the Church. Not that they make getting married easy. Many Germans go to Denmark to tie the knot and get the tax breaks that come with wedded bliss. The result is an additional €2,000 per year in healthcare fees. That just seems immoral.
One of the more striking things about our new home is the number of people who are living rough. I’ve lived in London, where the problems are significant, but after living in the Netherlands where you rarely see homeless people, the number of homeless in Berlin is a real shocker. Given the lack of available housing in almost every price range, it’s hardly surprising, but that doesn’t make it easier to accept. Although, it does mean there’s a thriving recycling industry – beer bottles carry a refund in Berlin.
That might not mean very much unless you know about Berlin’s beer drinking culture. At almost any time of day or night you can spot people on the streets drinking from a bottle of beer. Drinking in public is not just legal, it’s perfectly normal, and to underline this the cost of beer is very low, often cheaper than bottled water. No wonder drinking beer seems to be the number one pastime. For homeless people, a near endless supply of refundable beer bottles appears to be a financial lifeline.
Besides a couple of forays into some of Berlin’s more interesting neighbourhoods and a few visits to museums, we’ve not seen a great deal of the city. Too much time has been devoted to finding an apartment. Now we have a place to call home we can finally start to explore. Winter may be on the way, but I can’t wait.