Social Housing’s role in the German Refugee Crisis

Last Saturday, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 refugees arrived in Munich in one single day. The large number puts a punctuation point on what is quickly becoming a race against time to find, build and provide enough housing for the new arrivals especially before winter comes.   The German government decided last week to commit 6 million euros to help deal with the waves of refugees pouring into Germany. Three million euro will be earmarked for the different German states. The government is quickly trying to increase the number of weather proof refugee reception centers to accommodate at least 150,000 more people. These temporary accommodations are only meant to hold people for around 6 months. After that, there will be a demand for longer term solutions that are affordable in nature. If you read my blog at all, you will see that many cities and regions across Germany were experiencing a lack of affordable housing units before the recent immigrations crisis. What will Germany do to ensure long term safe and affordable housing for refugees?

What is Being Done Now?

Currently, the refugee reception centers are housing a large number of refugees. What does that look like? An example in Hannover, Germany is only across the street from me as I type. Somewhere in between 400-700 refugees are being housed in an old Hospital that was closed recently. Cities throughout Germany are using whatever space is available to them to help house the families and persons. Some cities are giving vouchers to hostels because the refugee centers are full. That is not always an answer because there does not seem to be enough hostel space in cities like Berlin to hold the increasing numbers of people showing up. Tent cities are popping up in cities that lack capacity but officials realize this is a short term answer as the German winter will soon begin. The German Army has made barracks available but this is again a short term solution. Berlin’s city administration is considering converting an old airport into Europe’s largest refugee reception facility, with a capacity of around 3,000 to 4,000 places.

Because of my project, I have visited dozens of German cities this year and learned of demographic trends for various regions. In growth areas like Hamburg, Munich, Dusseldorf, Köln and Berlin housing was already an issue. Each of these areas spent countless hours and dollars working on new plans to build and develop affordable housing. This was before the refugee crisis. In other parts of Germany like Magdeburg and Leipzig in the former East Germany there are still many empty apartments and buildings. I hear the chatter on a daily basis from many people that these shrinking cities with high vacancy rates might be the best place to send the large groups of refugees. Although there are opportunities for these areas to take on their fair share, it would be a mistake to think they could or should handle the majority. These areas with high vacancy rates also are having economic issues and high rates of unemployment. Sending large numbers of refugees to these areas could cause more issues and set many up for failure. Although the presence of extreme right wing neo-Nazi groups is often over-stated in East Germany, they do exist. This is another issue leaders must think of when distributing refugees throughout Germany.

Social Housing’s Role:

Germany could count only 1.48 million state-subsidized apartments in 2013, 63,000 fewer than in the year before. Dwindling numbers of social housing has been a problem for Germany for the last several years. Because of expiring contracts, thousands of affordable housing units are going into the private market every year. This trend is further depleting the supply throughout the country. That puts Germany in a tough situation as it needs to worry not only for its current citizens but the new ones arriving. Social housing no doubt must play a role in developing and securing housing for refugees. All trends are leading in this direction with politicians saying social housing in Germany will be boosted. To this end, the government will give German municipalities money for more accommodation, but will also endorse new low-cost housing through tax motivations. The KFW (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau), a government-owned development bank, wants to provide cities with credits of up to €300 million for migrant accommodations.

Social housing companies in Germany are used to being the tool for which the city calls upon when a certain housing need must be built for. Now more than ever the municipal housing companies can be used to build large numbers of new and affordable housing. The extra funds the German government has made available will need to be poured into new building in high growth regions where there is already a lack of affordable housing. Money may need to be spent in the shrinking regions to renovate or make existing housing units suitable for further use. Do not be confused and think that only social housing companies can be called upon for building. Germany created a very fair system that allows private developers to apply for low interest loans with longer pay back periods. This means that Germany can count on not only the public sector but the private sector developers to help combat the housing shortage that is being experienced. Germany has a very highly developed building sector and in theory they should be able to respond to this crisis if the funds are available. One thing that could sink the chances of building quick enough is something Germany could solve very quickly if leadership can buck tradition and German views on how things should be done

Germany Needs to Get Out of Germany’s Way:

One of the number one problems Germany will experience in trying to solve this crisis is the intense layered bureaucracy that is embedded in every part of German life. Everything from moving to a city and registering to getting a bank account, visa, job or even a cell phone contract is heavily legislated, bureaucratic and extremely slow. One example is the German law that does not allow refugees to go directly into private apartments at first. That means the government needs to figure out how to build and provide thousands of short term places for refugees to stay. The government should be more flexible and allow refugees to stay in normal apartments if there is an opportunity to do so. As mentioned, in some cities there are thousands of empty units. Why waste time creating large scale refugee centers when some quick furnishing could make apartments ready for use.

Another major issue in Germany will be the high building quality. Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating for dangerous or low building standards. What I am advocating for is common sense in the building process. Germany has one of if not the highest building standards in the world. This is not the USA where we will strip green building aspects from a project to make sure it gets built. In Germany, if a building is not to a high green building standard, it will not be built. Building to a high environmental level is not really a question and it makes project extremely expensive and time consuming. While I understand the desire to build at the highest energy standard and the long term environmental consequences of not doing so, the country is looking at a situation where thousands could be facing winter weather soon.  In this instance, it seems like the German government is relenting somewhat and is allowing for a lower but still extremely safe building standard to be used in at least the short term accommodations. The politicians will need to look in the mirror and see if they can pass other rules and let go of some of their beloved bureaucracy to ensure progress on the housing front.

Integration:

Although this does not necessary rise to the emergency level of simply housing families, the concept of integration will be important in the upcoming years. The first step in housing refugees in Germany almost guarantees several months of isolation and being separated from normal Germans. That means it is harder to learn the language, culture and began the process of fitting into German society. Take it from someone who has moved to Germany and had an easy go of it. The longer you wait to integrate, learn language and culture the harder and more embarrassed you feel. Germany will need to ensure a long term integration plan and housing will be a key driver.

Germany will need to develop and create enough new housing to accommodate the 800,000 to 1,000,000 million refugees coming to it. On top of that, the way people are housed could go a long way in determining how quickly they can integrate. If new buildings are only filled up with Syrian families, the integration process will be hurt tremendously as the ease of speaking ones mother tongue and sharing culture and values will overtake the necessity to start learning German and the culture of the country. Please do not take me for being ruthless. After what many of these families have gone through, having friends and families around will be important. Germany needs to find a way to ensure mobility so neighborhoods have a solid mix and every city within the country shares in the effort to help and house these families.

Conclusion:

Germany is well positioned to lead the way within the EU in taking in and integrating refugees from Syria and other war ravaged nations. If politicians can see it within themselves to look for new solutions, Germany can achieve not only a new building boom in the affordable housing market but vibrant and healthy neighborhoods that are mixed in a way that will ensure a successful integration process for the new comers.

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