Berlin goes to the polls: What's at stake in this Sunday's state elections?

Rotes Rathaus, the seat of Berlin's executive. Image: Eben Marks.

Since reunification, Berlin has been a huge success. The undisputed capital of European cool. The new Mecca for tech startups. Some of cheapest housing of any big, booming city. Home to western Europe’s most important government – and surely poised to overtake post-Brexit London.

Or – is Berlin a failure? The cheap housing eaten up tourist lets and hipsters who never learn the language. Its infrastructure an embarrassment compared to the rest of Germany, a fact summed up by the new airport which is six years behind schedule and counting. Huge debts, dreadful schools and a backwards economy.

Confused by these contradictions? Spare a thought for Berlin’s voters, who go to the polls on 18 September to elect a new administration. They have to figure out which story they believe, and who they trust to look after the city, over the next five years.

As one of Germany’s sixteen states, Berlin’s government has powers Britain’s mayors and council leaders can only dream of. This includes significant control over education, policing, urban development and taxes. The newly elected parliament will choose the governing mayor and other cabinet members.

The Social Democrats (SPD) look set to remain as the city’s largest party, but on a reduced share of the vote. The Christian Democrats (CDU), the Left party, and Greens are all vying to become their coalition partners, and a three-way pact looks likely.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) will also enter the Berlin parliament for the first time. Polling suggests they will probably land in 4th or 5th place – but that will be enough to make a significant dent in the shares of the other parties.

Build more bloody houses

In the last few years the city’s SPD-CDU coalition government has made a number of moves which have attracted international attention. Two of them – the rent brake and the AirBnB ban – were attempts to preserve affordability as housing demand has grown.

The rent break was supposed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 10 per cent of a neighbourhood average when signing a new contract with tenants. With the onus on tenants to take landlords to court for breaches of the rule, it is often flouted, and has had little effect beyond the first month after introduction. The SPD, who introduced the law, now suggest changing it so the burden of proof lies on the landlord.

The AirBnB ban stops people from letting out whole flats to tourists without a permit – but the task of enforcing that, too, falls to a very small team of inspectors.

Housing has featured strongly in this election, too – and, looking at the manifestos, there are some broad similarities between the different parties. Most of them speak of the need to build more flats, and especially affordable accommodation.

As Thomas Heilmann, a CDU member of the city government and the party’s campaign director, told me, in words which would sound alien coming from a British conservative: “The growth of the city attracts real estate developers. Part of our policy is really to restrict their trading – we do not want to have real estate that changes hands often and fast.

“The only thing we want is people to build new houses.”


The vision thing

Start asking politicians about their visions for the city, however, and clear differences start to appear.

The SPD and CDU are both keen to sustain or accelerate the city’s growth as an international hub for business and tourism. The much delayed airport is supposed to be a part of this, as are the new hotels and shopping centres springing up in popular neighbourhoods.

Thomas Heilmann sees the growth of the technology sector as the “most important economic development for the city in the next few years”. This will be partly through launches of new businesses. But it’ll also involve Germany’s industrial giants – mostly based far from Berlin – moving parts of their workforce to the city in order to develop their digital skills. VW has already done this, recently opening of a research centre for electric and self-driving vehicles.

On the other side, the Green and Left parties are pitching for residents feeling left behind by the changes in Berlin’s economy. Rents might be cheap compared to London, but they have risen quickly for people living here. And some Berliners feel that their neighbourhoods are suffering under the influx of party-seeking tourists.

A Green spokesperson told me that “instead of relying on ever new attendance records we want to work out a neighbourhood compatible tourism concept for Berlin”. This would preserve the variety of the city’s urban fabric, something they point out is one of the big draws for tourists in the first place. As Katalin Gennburg, a Left party candidate, said, “You can’t imagine a city as only a brand” without having a plan to manage different needs equitably.

One of the most important constituencies in the city consists of people who can’t vote – the tens of thousands of refugees living in the city. The pressure of new arrivals has dropped since 2015 but the city still needs to improve its processes for helping them. In the longer term, permanent homes and a place in society is needed for refugees who stay in Berlin.

The next five years will see significant challenges for Berlin – but many of these challenges come from being a city on the up. The new government will need to use its tools creatively and in a way that brings Berliners together. Otherwise divisions will become entrenched, and Berlin’s successes will start to pale in face of its failures.

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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.