Gimme Shelter: Laws, the Economy, and the Strive for Self-Determination

Gimme Shelter:  Laws, the Economy, and the Strive for Self-Determination

Housing supply in Berlin has for a long time been unable to keep up with the growing demand. Rents and the cost of living are on the rise. What some brush aside as the law of the market poses an existential threat to lots of others. While most of these others can do nothing but hope for the government or at least said market to find a solution Berlin also has a strong tradition of squatting. In reaction to the recent housing crisis the occupation of empty houses or land without permission of the owner has had a bit of a comeback in the Netherlands, facilitated by the refugee crisis in 2015. In Germany squatters seem to have lost the momentum they had during the movement‘s peak in the late 80s and never regained it. Still, in times of crisis like this it might be worthwhile to shed light on a scene that propagates solutions outside of the capitalist repertoire and has done so for more than 30 years. Who are those people? What motivates them? Is there truth to their point of view? To do so I‘ve interviewed city-sociologist and gentrification-expert Dr. Andrej Holm and paid a visit to Germany‘s most famous squatter neighborhood.

Houses in the Rigaer Straße are often embellished through other means than renovation.

The facade is covered in Graffiti and anti-authoritarian slogans, on the sidewalk there‘s an aged punk sitting in a chair, rolling a joint, blasting german rap through cheap speakers. None of this is an uncommon sight in the Rigaer Straße. The street located in the district of Friedrichshain is a known hotspot of the autonomous left. There‘s house number 94, aka the Riga 94, which nowadays hold‘s a symbolic value in the scene. Occupied in 1990 it has often been at centre of clashes between squatters and the governing institutions, whether they had been legal battles, full blown street riots, or somewhere inbetween. As I walk down the street there‘s further houses, including two bars, boasting the graffiti and slogan look. The e-mail I sent to the official address of the Riga 94 hasn‘t been answered so I hope to find interviewees in the lose groups scattered on the sidewalk.

The infamous Riga 94.

Before I continue with the story I want to provide some background information and talk about my interview with Dr. Andrej Holmes. Technically speaking the Riga 94 is not an occupied house anymore, as are almost none of the other squats in Berlin for that matter. “Practically speaking there haven‘t been any really occupied houses in Berlin for about 30 years now. In the early 90s the housing conditions were legalized through contract negotiations“, Dr. Holmes says, “A lot of the disputes that still exist, for example about the Rigaer Straße 94, are rooted in these contracts.“ The problem with these contracts, he continues to explain, is that they didn‘t include anything about what would happen if the affected real estated changed ownership. Friedrichshain for example was part of east Berlin before the reunification. The legal owner of the squats was the state. Since they have been privatized the new owners have been questioning the contracts. Especially in areas where high rents could be demanded, they are very motivated to drive out the squatters.

This story of selling [the squatted real estate] in the Rigaer Straße is typical for the area. There were multiple changes of ownership to ever increasing prices over the previous years. You can only assume that the current owner has paid a relatively high price and wants to make up for that by collecting higher rents. It‘s the logic of speculating for profit. The investors will go along with every confrontation, as long as they can force a change of ownership.“

A satiric graffiti about how cleaning facades is not system-relevant

And a serious one calling to defend the Riga 94.

When asked, who he thinks is in the right here, Dr. Holmes says that it is not a black or white situation. „What we have here is different logics colliding. Speaking simply in economics of course the owners want to demand higher rents. In the middle of Friedrichshain you need to pay a lot if you want to stay. On the other side it was politically decided to make those contracts 30 years ago. It is perfectly understandable that the squatters feel they have a right to the compromise [that has been arranged]. So we have owners wanting to make money, lawyers fighting over legal details, and the squatters insisting on promises made 30 years ago. The situation is so difficult because all of the parties are, on different levels, right in a way.“

On the role played by the city‘s administration he doesn‘t have anything positive to add: „After the initial contracts were sealed the city withdrew and didn‘t take any further responsibility. They should have bought the houses via a fond or something similar to keep up the contracts. With the prices nowadays they can‘t make up for that.“

More gentrified buildings nearby

The neighborhood‘s opinion on the squatting scene is a mixed batch. Some complain about disturbance of the peace and acts of vandalism. Jonas, a resident of one of the newer buildings, is annoyed that someone wrote “FUCK THE POLICE“ on it‘s otherwise clean facade. Then again many show solidarity with the squatters. There‘s banners hanging from some of the windows proclaiming „Riga bleibt“ – “Riga [94] stays“. Judith is worried that the whole area will end up gentrified if the squatters are expelled „Like it already is just a few blocks down the street.“

The banner calls for solidarity with the Riga 94

This restaurant’s owner could be among those less in favour of the squats staying

About the loose groups scattered on the sidewalk: They prove to be rather unkeen on being interviewed. I get suspicious looks, as if I might be a government agent, but no answers. The situation begins to look dire but as look has it I meet Paul. My viennese accent reminds the pink and green haired punk of his ex-girlfriend and he is willing to talk. Picking up a few beers on the way he takes me to a nearby playground to meet someone he describes as a squatting veteran.

Of course Paul, who used to be a squatter, has a story of his own. After his father died Germany nationalized his family‘s farm and they ended up on the street. He driftet into crime and after being sentenced in court enlistet in the “Arbeit statt Strafe“ – “Work instead of Punishment“ program, where he got in contact with the scene.

He prefers to let Kai do the talking though, of which‘s historical knowledge he has great respect. The nearly 60-year-old welcomes us at a table outside of a shack that is part of the „Adventure Playground“, a facility that offers swings, slides, climbing frames and the likes of those for kids aged 6 to 14. First of all he asks me to delete his number from my phone, with which Paul called him because he doesn‘t own one. Then, after asking a few questions to make sure about my intentions, we‘re ready to start the interview.

A place for kids to play before they are old enough for politics and poverty?

Kai likes to talk. He has a lot of interesting things to stay, most of which would be more suitable for a documentary type of thing than a journalistic article like this. He was in touch with the scene since the 80s and started squatting in the Kreutziger Straße in Friedrichshain shortly after the reunification. „Many would say [the motivation was] political. Afterwards always a lot is gloryfied. You wanted to live with people. You wanted to live self-determined. In the end we were just looking for a place to live. […] So we moved into the Kreutziger Straße and hung up a banner outside.“ Even though he describes the milieu he was in as strongly influenced by the left and dedicately anti-fascist, he emphasizes that squatting in it‘s core wasn‘t political. Even the banner was actually about procovation.

Of course we had an ideological opinion and also proclaimed it. But first and foremost it was about living self-determined. You don‘t want to eternally stand in line for some shitty flat they‘re offering you. Then some guy drives up with a Porsche, tells them ‘I‘ll give you 10.000 Euros‘ and he gets the flat.“

Now based on this quote some might assume the squatters to be pretty self-centered, not to say egoistical people. From what I‘ve seen I feel otherwise. Just the „Adventure Playground“ for example is a social project initiated by Kai and his associates years ago. Multiple times a week you can get vegan food and drinks in the Riga 94‘s own bar. Also it‘s the little things like Paul buying me a beer and checking whether there are children around before drinking near the playground.

According to Paul the problem is money. Rich people speculate and want to make profits and therefore want to drive the squatters out. To illustrate that this is not a victimless endeavour he tells me of a homeless person who died in the neighborhood just a few days ago. The corpse was found by children on the playground.

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