The worldwide housing crisis: Unite, organize and check your pensions

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Image: K.H. Reichert/Flickr

"I'm a gentrifier," admits Yonatan Miller from his apartment in Friedrichshain, Berlin. Miller is typical of what locals see as an invader of their neighbourhood: a skilled, high-tech worker from abroad coming to live a fun life of culture in Germany's capital.

But Miller, who hails from New York and moved to Berlin four years ago, represents a new wave of "gentrifiers" -- concerned tech workers who want to deal with socio-political issues such as housing, worker's rights as well as sexism and racism in their environments.

"Everyone thinks of tech workers as a group of white, wealthy men earning $200,000, and they do exist," but in San Francisco, said Miller, an organizer with the Berlin Tech Workers Coalition. "But these tech workers are also immigrants from places like India, the Middle East and coming to Germany to work in UX design or quality assurance. We also represent warehouse and call centre workers, all kinds of people."

Miller said when his organization held its first meetup last June, they did an overview of salaries and discovered the 20 workers in attendance earned between 38,000 to 78,000 euros (C$58,000 to $120,000) per year. In a city where groceries and recreational activities are low-priced, it's still a great salary that affords a comfortable life, but far from the stereotype of extreme wealth.

"These are not the people speculating on real estate," noted Miller. As Miller goes on to describe how large real-estate concerns are buying up apartments, he mentions that local venture capital firm Rocket Internet just invested $100 million in real estate, as speculators are expecting the city to become Europe's Silicon Alley (Silicon Allee in German).

"It's one of the safest investments around," said Miller. "I think I speak for many workers in tech: I am concerned about the housing crisis; it's a difficult market. I understand why the locals here are upset. I want them to know we also have the same concerns."

Recent data from Immowelt (a German rental and real estate company) found that rents in Berlin had doubled between 2009 and 2019. Rents are also exploding in Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt. Rent offers in 80 major German cities were scanned, and in 77 the rent increases exceeded inflation. Rental prices are a huge matter in Germany, a nation where half the residents are renters.

At the heart of the fight in Miller's neighbourhood is the construction of a massive tower (EDGE East Side Berlin, in the works since 2004) -- where Amazon will be the main tenant. The company has several offices in Berlin, most of which will be consolidated in the new building. Miller points out the tower will also be used for Amazon's cloud services, not a giant warehouse for goods to be shipped out. Those warehouses are in Poland and outside of Berlin. The tower will be 140-metres high, one of the tallest buildings in the city. Many residents have already started protesting against Amazon and the building, which will house up to 3,400 workers.

Miller says Amazon’s other business is in cloud computing, a service it provides to governments as well as police services. Miller described this as a "massive concern for those of us working in tech."

"It's about surveillance. Amazon provides cloud computing for the U.S. government, the military [and] the CIA," Miller said.

It's one of the major issues, besides the incursion of Amazon into Friedrichshain, that weighs on Miller's group.

"We want to build solidarity through our differences … we're not about improving the brand image of tech workers; we want to join up with local people on the issues we all care about."

Evicted by greed

Miller is one of several notable speakers at an upcoming Berlin conference on the world housing crisis. The conference, titled "Evicted by Greed" and hosted by the Disruption Network Lab, was to take place around the European Day of Action on Housing on March 28. However, due to the COVID-19 crisis, it's postponed to the end of May. The conference, which will be streamed, will also screen the 2019 documentary PUSH (directed by Fredrik Gertten) and feature a conversation with the main protagonist of the film, Canadian Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing.

"I think the film is helping to break down isolation around housing," wrote Farha in an email to rabble.ca. "A lot of people feel like their housing situation, as precarious as it is, is a result of personal failings, and the film has helped people understand that this is actually, a structural issue or a structural issue coinciding with personal circumstances."

In fact, both Gertten and Farha have been active on social media of late due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the issue of evictions and the ending of contracts by real estate conglomerates during a time of economic hardship for many. 

Farha says she's seeing more being done politically to tackle the problem: "In Canada, we now have the National Housing Strategy, which means that for the first time in this country, the housing policy recognizes that housing is a fundamental human right. And it appoints a federal housing advocate who will be responsible for identifying and addressing systemic barriers for housing in Canada, bringing these to the attention of the Minister."

Indeed, the rising cost of housing is affecting everyone everywhere. Toronto is perched high on the list of the 10 most expensive cities in the world, with the average one-bedroom apartment costing $2,300 per month. Toronto city council recently approved a 10-year housing plan calling for the construction of 40,000 new affordable rental homes. The city has committed $8.5-billion to the plan and is waiting for $14.9-billion from the province and Ottawa to carry it out. 

Yet, Farha points out, it's still not enough on the affordable housing front.

"There's lots of units being built. It's just clear that those are luxury units," she emphasized. "So, there's this still these bleak contrasts in many cities, not just Toronto -- around the world. Building continues to be for those who are affluent and not for those who are homeless, who are living with low incomes or in poverty."

Meanwhile, Berlin's left-leaning government has begun a program of buying back public housing that it sold at a pittance to developers more than 20 years ago. The city is also freezing the rents of 1.5 million apartments built before 2014 for the next five years. If tenants think their rent is over-priced, they are urged to ask their landlords for a reduction in rent. In Miller's neighbourhood, average rent for a 100-square-metre property is 1,663 euros (C$2,525) per month.

"We are against the tower," stated Miller. "This area is already built up along the Spree [river] with the likes of Zalando establishing itself there and RAW being bought up." RAW is a rag-tag set of buildings re-purposed as a site for all kinds of Berlin-style activities: clubs, a climbing gym, cafes, a cinema, markets and general nightlife.

"These companies on their sites always say 'Come work with us in Berlin, enjoy the perks of the social life here,' but in the end, these companies don't actually contribute to local culture in a meaningful way."

While Miller and his colleagues have banded together to fight this issue and others, Farha also recommends people start thinking about their own role in the financial world that has sparked the crisis.

"Financial actors are getting their money in large part from pension funds, so people could start questioning their pension funds and ask whether they're investing in residential real estate that is resulting in increased evictions and escalating rents," she explained.

"And people could be demanding human rights legislation that requires pension funds to take into consideration human rights concerns before investing. On an individual level, I think people could think twice before renting with Airbnb in a city that doesn't regulate short-term rentals -- which is most cities."

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image: K.H. Reichert/Flickr

Editor's note, March 30, 2020: This story has been updated to include the official name of "EDGE East Side Berlin," in addition to noting that Amazon will be the main tenant in that building, and that construction of the building has been planned since 2004.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that all of Amazon's Berlin offices will be consolidated in the EDGE building. A representative from Amazon confirmed that some of the company's Berlin offices will not be consolidated in the building. The story has been corrected to indicate that most, not all of Amazon's Berlin offices will be consolidated in the building.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 3,400 employees would be housed in the EDGE building. In fact, reports indicate the building will house up to 3,400 employees. The story has been corrected.

Editor's note, March 26, 2020: A previous version of this article misspelled the names of Leilani Farha and Fredrik Gertten​. She is Leilani Farha, not Farhi. He is Fredrik Gertten, not Gerttan. 

This piece has also been updated to clarify Yonatan​ Miller's view that "white, wealthy men earning $200,000," working in tech exist specifically in San Francisco.

A previous version of this article included a quote from Miller incorrectly suggesting that 50 per cent of Amazon's business is cloud computing. That quote has been removed.

The piece has also been updated to note that the "Evicted by Greed" conference will be streamed. 

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