Priced Out Of Brooklyn, Local Artists Are Flocking To Berlin

The German capital has taken extreme measures to curb gentrification and keep Berlin bohemian-friendly.

By Jeff Vasishta January 19, 2017

David Bowie was onto something when he relocated to Berlin in the 1970’s and made some of his best music. Decades later, Brooklynites, stressed out with exorbitant rents, are heading to the German capital and pursuing their passion. Unlike many European capitals, Berlin is not only culturally diverse—but also affordable, allowing artists to focus on creating rather than surviving.

According to Expatistan, a one-bedroom apartment of around 500 square feet in a decent neighborhood will cost around $610 (€574). Compare that to Brooklyn, where a one-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights will set you back $1,800 a month.

In an attempt to discover what all the fuss was about, Nylon asked NYC expats in Berlin via Facebook why they moved.

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“It’s fairly common knowledge that Berlin is a cheap city,” Alyssa Buffenstein, a Berlin-based writer and designer, who made the move after finishing school in NYC stated. “My room in Friedrichshain is twice the size of my room in Bushwick, and less than half the price—and that’s on the expensive side of what I could be paying. It’s possible to not really think about budgeting and live here on, like, 10 euro a day.”

As New York knows only too well, when artists arrive in a part of town, it instantly becomes cool. Cool means an increase in rents which then causes developers move in—and gentrification ensues. Berlin has been ripe for gentrification for a while now, but prices have remained affordable. How? Because of a law that would have most property developers choking on their cigars. Germany has an obscure legal tool known as a “pre-preemptive right to purchase”. It allows city councils to jump in and stop buildings being sold to private investors, displacing residents. Unlike in London, tenants have power in Berlin, where they make up 85 percent of the population. They have already utilized the law to keep prices affordable and plan to do so again if need be.

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“We have to do something to save public housing stock and ensure that the social structure of these neighborhoods isn’t completely destroyed,” Hans Panhoff, a Berlin Councillor, who stopped an apartment building in the trendy neighborhood of Kreuzberg falling into the hands of developers, told the Financial Times.

“We want Berlin to remain a place where average earners can afford to live,” said Matthias Kollatz-Ahnen, the city’s finance chief. “And rumor has it that that’s no longer the case in London.”

Berlin has a lot going for it. Firstly, it’s a cultural hub and secondly, it’s not as wealthy as other German cities such as Munich or Frankfurt. It has a more diverse population who aren’t wealthy. Public sector jobs and immigrants have kept prices low, which coupled with its reputation as a tech start-up and entertainment nucleus has caused it population to swell with 40,000 people moving there each year. To counter this, the Berlin government plans to increase the number of affordable flats it owns by about 80,000 to 400,000 by 2026, reports the Financial Times.

The city’s six state-owned housing companies will buy 26,600 apartments on the open market and build 53,400 new ones. And 30 percent of those will be reserved for low-income families. In addition, the city is designating some 33 neighborhoods as “urban conservation areas,” where expensive redevelopments are banned. Owners of houses in these areas are also not allowed to convert them from rental properties into condominiums. It’s enough to make any Brooklyn developer run for the hills. It’s also irked Berlin developers. It means that those who may have once harbored dreams of renovating and upgrading are stuck with the buildings and tenants they have. Even homeowners have been banned from letting out whole properties on Airbnb, the thinking being that if they don’t live there, they must be investors.

“If we didn’t have gentrification, we’d all still be living in wooden houses,” says Jörg Schwagenscheidt, head of PMM Partners, a real estate advisory firm, who clearly isn’t too happy about the city’s housing policies. “The problem is most people don’t know what the rules really mean, and where the next one is going to be,” he says. “The only hope they have is that the protected status of the neighborhood will one day lapse so they can modernize their buildings. “They will just wait.”

And in a sign that the days of expats flocking to Berlin in the hope of a cheaper, creative lifestyle may soon be over, a law limiting the amount a landlord can increase the rent to an existing tenant by 10 percent is being usurped.

“In some cases we’re seeing increases of up to 60 per cent,” says Martin Pallgen, spokesman for the department for urban development. “But you’re always going to find people who’ll pay.”

The German government is determined that the city remain affordable. They want to force landlords to publish the rent they charged the previous tenant, so the new one can see whether — and by how much — it has increased. They also want to introduce stiff fines for property owners who raise rents by more than is permitted. It the kind of thinking that would make most America landlords take to the streets in protest and others draw firearms but it’s what has made Berlin so loved by bohemians and creatives.

For how much longer remains to be seen.



Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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