A. Varnhorn/Deutscher Städtetag
Chancellor Angela Merkel
Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel
Nearly 1,000 delegates representing local government in cities and towns across Germany gathered in Frankfurt’s Congress Centre last week to discuss the most pressing issues facing their communities. Chancellor Angela Merkel also attended the German Association of Cities (Deutscher Städtetag) annual event, anxious to “experience a taste of real life”, as she put it, by rubbing shoulders with the mayors and city councillors, or “politicians who can’t run away”, as she good-humouredly put it to a receptive audience.
The national municipal conference is attended by delegates representing 208 cities as direct members - including the three big German city-states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen - as well as 3,200 members grouped around local associations across the whole country.
Although Chancellor Merkel only briefly touched on housing issues in her speech, remaining suitably vague about future government plans to promote affordable housing, the subject was one of the key themes running through most discussions and presentations - not least because the association’s current president, the City of Darmstadt’s mayor Jochen Partsch of the Green Party, has been waging his own (so far unsuccessful) battle with federal property interests over the provision of ex-military housing for his city at an acceptable price.
The City of Frankfurt, hosting the event, has plenty of its own experience in converting previous US military installations into city-subsidised housing, and has had to be very creative in trying to keep up with the housing needs of a city that has seen its population grow from 640,000 to over 700,000 in the last eight years. US military personnel, numbering in the tens of thousands twenty years ago, have now all but completely withdrawn from the city.
Outgoing president the Munich Mayor Christian Ude spoke on behalf of the whole association in demanding a more flexible approach from the federal government and its federal property division in handing over more military barracks from the Cold War era to help counter the rising cost of housing in the country. Ude urged a more pro-active approach to freeing up left-over property from German and NATO forces, which he said offered “huge potential for more affordable housing”.
As it stands, Germany’s Institute for Federal Real Estate arranges about 3,000 sales annually of formerly public and military-related properties across Germany, but under current legislation the government is bound to seek out top market prices for such land and premises. This, say the municipalities, is hindering the releasing of such assets for more socially-inclusive uses.
“The situation in a whole string of cities is dramatic”, said Ude, adding that in many cities, including those with universities and flourishing industrial hubs, a “growing number of people are finding it increasingly difficult to find housing.” The situation applied in cities in high-price regions, but also more and more to households with limited incomes, he said.
The association’s designated future president, Nüremberg’s Mayor Ulrich Maly, said residing in large German cities must not become a luxury just for the country’s rich. Germany, he said, needed a “completely new form” of subsidized housing for disadvantaged residents. The current availability of low interest rates used by real estate investors was not solving the housing problem, including rising rents, he warned.
Many of Germany’s local authorities have struggled for years with mounting debts, some running into the billions of euros, partly, they say, because of obligations set by federal legislation to pay welfare allowances to poorer residents out of municipal budgets.
A recent study published by the German government showed that half of Germany's 82-million population owns a mere 1% of all assets, while the richest 10% own 54% of all assets in Europe’s largest economy. Between 14% and 16% percent of people in Germany are classified as living in poverty, or facing the risk of impoverishment.