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How Berlin’s housing crisis leaves women vulnerable to sexual predators

Berlin, like other major German cities, is in the midst of a housing crisis, with people struggling to find accommodation. Sexual predators are taking advantage of this situation, reports Sarah Wilson.

How Berlin’s housing crisis leaves women vulnerable to sexual predators
A woman cooks in a WG in Cologne. Image: DPA

When expat Laura Rosell, 34, turned up for a flat viewing in Berlin in late 2016, everything seemed normal at first.

The flat was being rented out by a middle-aged man, and, although it was very small, “it was cheap, he seemed pleasant enough, and I was desperate – as is everyone – so I was considering it,” she tells The Local.

It didn’t take long, however, for Rosell to realize that something wasn’t right. While chatting about the washing machine, “he explained that he'd prefer if we put our clothes together into some sort of mixed laundry load,” Rosell says.

It's a request she found a little strange but not a red flag, until he added '..and I prefer to do that alone'.

SEE ALSO: Germany's housing crisis: Is development without displacement possible?

At this point, says Rosell, a dread came over her as she realized “this guy had some kind of women's clothing fetish”.

“I should also mention that the apartment layout was so narrow that I realized I'd feel unsafe about having no 'escape' space around him if he stood in the middle of any of those places,” she adds.

After hastily turning down his offer for the flat, “the man invited me [online] to spend more time with him,” she says. “I'm pretty sure I didn't reply, and I certainly didn't say yes.”

Unfortunately, her experience is no anomaly among women in Berlin today.

For several years now, Berlin – alongside other major German cities – has been facing a growing housing crisis.

An explosion in population (growing by about 50,000 a year over the past five years) has led to major housing shortages, decreased availability of social housing and rental prices up across the capital by 46% since 2009.

Mention flat-hunting to anyone who’s tried it in Berlin and in return you’ll hear countless tales of viewings with hundreds of hopefuls lining the stairs, elaborate scams and endless WG “castings” that rarely end in success.

SEE ALSO: High costs, long queues and discrimination: What it's like to rent in Germany

Affordable accomodation is becoming more difficult to find in several German cities. Image: DPA

It’s a situation that leaves many frustrated. But for women in particular, the consequences can be even more sinister – and sometimes downright dangerous.

'Sexual harassment'

However progressive some may deem Germany to be, the country still has undeniable problems with sexual harassment and assault.

Half of the women in Germany have experienced sexual harassment. Today, in the capital's tough rental market, predators have found new ways to exploit women  taking advantage of the fact that many are new to the city and desperate for a place to live.

It’s a situation that Rosell, a freelancer originally from the US, knows all too well.

Not long after her unsettling experience in 2016, she received another offer from a man who claimed that “he wanted a roommate who would also be his (intimate) partner and become a disciple of his spiritual wellness system as well as help him with administrative things in his business”.

Across Germany, the custom of living in WGs (shared accomodation) ordinarily leaves the selection of new tenants up to the existing or main tenant(s), an arrangement that can create a power imbalance.

SEE ALSO: Know your rights – the advice you need about renting in Germany

Indeed, Karen*, an expat also from the US said that during her search for an apartment, she saw a lot of ads online from middle-aged men looking for young female roommates.

“Several of them contacted me through WG-Gesucht, but I never met them,” she says.

“A part of me felt guilty for not giving them a chance, but something about the situation always felt wrong. Why would a man 20 years older than me want to be my roommate?”

In bigger German cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt, finding student accommodation can be difficult. Image: DPA

Official and unofficial channels

Currently, “official” flat-finding channels like WG-Gesucht and Immobilienscout have options available for reporting scam ads, but little information on what to do in cases of inappropriate behaviour.

Representatives from WG Gesucht told The Local that they are quick to “delete accounts with offensive ads and messages, admonish the users and block the accounts”.

“In case of a continued inappropriate use of our service, we also reserve the right to take legal action against those users,” the company added.

They also claim that ads of an inappropriate nature are “very rare”.

By and large, however, the ad sites like WG Gesucht pertain to legal sublets, where the local authorities will be aware who is living in the flat. Higher authorities like the Hausverwaltung (house administration) or the landlord/lady can be approached with any problems.

The issue for many foreigners, however, is that renting through these official channels often requires a mountain of paperwork that most don’t have – or even know about – immediately upon arrival.

Consequently, many are forced to look through “unofficial” channels like Facebook and Craigslist, where advertised sublets are frequently illegal – lending more power to the sublessor and leaving the lessee more open to exploitation.

SEE ALSO: Renting in Germany – What you need to know

Who is responsible for removing dubious offers?

The Berliner Mieterverein – the Berlin Tenant’s Association – suggested to The Local that in the case of dubious offers “the platform operator should be notified immediately so that the sender of the ad is blocked”.

When 26-year-old Rita Macedo tried to report inappropriate behaviour to WG Gesucht, however, she noted that there was no function for doing so.

A man she spoke to on the platform escalated their conversation to “him saying that if I were to live with him, he would like to take semi or total naked pictures of me in 'our' house”.

She adds: “He proceeded to send me pictures of half naked girls he supposedly photographed and even though I said I was not interested in that he just kept on pushing”.

Yet without a report function on the website, Macedo was horrified to see that “months after I noticed that the guy was still posting offers, same name, same address, same pictures.”

Though the Berliner Mieterverein admits that the Berlin housing market is “very tense” and finding a place to live can become a “real problem”, they suggest that “women should not engage in dubious deals” and should “stay away from [unreliable] housing offers” from the outset.

In some cases, however, the approach comes from landlords or lessors themselves.

WGs are common in many German cities. Image: DPA

Photo-enabled harassment

Rosell believes that the custom of exchanging photographs and/or social media profiles with lessors, a practice also common on German resumes,  allows predatory men to target women specifically on house-hunting platforms.

“The whole personal appearance-based component to house-hunting here makes it a little unsettling right off the bat, in a way that it shouldn't need to be”, she tells The Local.

As an illustration of how this access can be exploited, Rosell explains how she received a “semi-notorious” email during her flat-hunt from a man who “offers to be your slave in a very detailed email”.

It struck her after talking with other women, that she isn't the only woman who has received it and that he must have been picking and choosing who he was sending it to. 

Harassment from a roommate

It’s not just during the search that women find themselves in danger either.

About a month after moving into a WG, Karen’s flatmate started to behave inappropriately towards her, “stand[ing] too close to me in the kitchen”, touching her as he passed by and staring at her body.

At one point, says Karen, he told her 'I won't have any contact with a woman unless sex is an option' before looking her up and down and adding 'that includes you. You're a very beautiful woman'.

His behaviour made Karen feel extremely frightened and uncomfortable, but she felt trapped in the flat:

“I lived like this for a few more months because I was terrified of going back to the apartment search,” she says.

Eventually, Karen managed to move out, though not without difficulty. “I lied and told him I was moving in with my boyfriend, and he seemed to take this as rejection,” she says.

In the end, she was forced to get legal counsel to disentangle herself from him, and was still forced to pay an extra month of rent.

Later, she went to the police, fearing another woman might go through what she had. After 10 months, she was forwarded an apology letter from the perpetrator. She said the police told her the only reason her case went that far is because the man had touched her. “If he hadn’t…nothing would have been done,” she says.

SEE ALSO: The ultimate guide to living in Munich on a budget

Meanwhile, Rosell believes that these problems of harassment and exploitation won’t be resolved until the housing market itself is fixed: “The housing market wouldn't be so rife with predators if that market itself didn't lend itself so easily to economic exploitation,” she says.

'If the police can't protect you, who can?'

In spite of strict subletting laws in Berlin, enforcement is rare and illegal sublets still rife.

The police and the law, too, are lagging behind rapid changes to the housing market and the problems it’s engendering, leaving women unsure of who to turn to when they find themselves in these situations, or indeed whether it’s worth reporting at all.

“This city's police might need to consider updating the way they handle cases [of predatory/inappropriate tenants],” Rosell says. 

“We're powerless; 'your Hausverwaltung holds the power' sounds a bit ridiculous,” she adds.

“I mean, if the police can't protect you or de-escalate a situation like that, who can? And how?”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities

Member comments

  1. That poor woman in Cologne has to live with a douchebag with a shaving brush stuck to his head.

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‘Housing is a human right’: Rent activists step up pressure ahead of German elections

Housing campaigners from across Germany have banded together ahead of the September elections to demand an immediate rent freeze and affordable housing for all.

'Housing is a human right': Rent activists step up pressure ahead of German elections
People protesting for Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen at a demo in Berlin on August 21st. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soede

In a demonstration taking place in the German capital on September 11th, 2021, numerous campaign groups will take to the streets, among them the Berlin-based Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. campaign, the national Rent Freeze campaign and the Mannheim-based Action Alliance Against Desperation and Rent Madness. 

They are demanding a national rent freeze for the next six years to halt rising rents, along with a focus on building more affordable homes and the transfer of property from private landlords into state hands.

“With this rents demonstration, we’re protesting against the massive, persistent pressure that renters are facing in the whole of Germany,” campaigners said in a statement announcing the upcoming protest.

“Whether it’s Frankfurt, Dresden, Munich, Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne, rents are incessantly rising or have already reached unreasonable levels – und not just in the big cities.

“In many places, the availability of affordable living space has sunk dramatically for those entering a new housing contract. Homelessness is rising further and with it, the number of people who live on the streets without any shelter at all.” 

Sharp rise in rents

Of all the cities in Germany, Berlin has by far the fastest rising rents: a recent study by housing portal Immowelt found that asking rents in the capital have soared by more than 40 percent over the past five years alone.

READ ALSO: COMPARE: The cities in Germany with the fastest-rising rents

However, the same study also found that middle-sized German cities like Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern were experiencing significant rent hikes over the same period, while the country’s priciest cities like Munich and Stuttgart continued to see rents go up – though not quite as steeply as in previous years.

Not just Berlin: Medium-sized cities such as Heidelberg have seen steep rises in rents over the past half a decade. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

As Germany prepares to head to the polls on September 26th in both the federal and a number of state elections, the campaign is aiming to step up pressure on the next government to embark on a “radical change of course” in the country’s housing policy. 

READ ALSO: Election 2021: How do Germany’s political parties want to tackle rising rents?

In Berlin, people with German citizenship will also be given a vote in a referendum on whether the state government should buy out thousands of flats owned by for-profit landlords with 3,000 or more properties – including Vonovia and Deutsche Wohnen – in order to better control rents and living standards.

“On September 26th, Berliners have a unique, historical chance to stand up against the selling off of our cities,” Rouzbeh Tehari, spokesman for the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. campaign, told The Local.

“The referendum to nationalise large property firms offers the opportunity to remove hundreds of thousands of apartments from capitalist speculation and manage them as social housing.”

READ ALSO: Berlin to vote on radical bid to combat housing crisis

Even if the referendum passes, however, the campaign expects to face a fierce battle with the newly elected Berlin Senate to see the policy put into law. 

“We won’t stop after the vote,” Tehari explained. “We know we’re facing strong opposition and it will be difficult to get it implemented.” 

A ‘yes’ poster for the referendum being put up in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Either way, the success of the campaign – which managed to collect well over the 170,000 petition signatures needed to call a referendum – will have sent a strong message to the venture capitalists that speculating on Berlin housing is a “high risk” strategy, he said.  

A national rent cap?

The national Rent Freeze campaign, one of the key activist groups involved in Saturday’s demo, is calling for a new six-year rental cap – but says it must be done on a national level.

Earlier this year, attempts to impose a six-year rent freeze in Munich and Berlin were both rejected by Germany’s Constitutional Court on the basis that such as move couldn’t be done on a state or regional level.

In the case of Berlin, the rent cap had been in place since 2018, but was removed after the court found the law to be unconstitutional.

A tweet from the ‘Prevent Forced Evictions’ campaign ahead of the demo on Saturday reads: “According to a new study, a national rent cap is possible. The only thing missing is the political will.” 

At the time, renters were dealt a double blow as the court ruled that landlords also had the right to reclaim back-dated rent for the entire duration of the cap – leading some tenants to be presented with bills amounting to thousands of euros. 


But the national Rent Freeze campaign, which started in Bavaria, has now amassed support from around 140 other organisations and activist groups, and is gaining momentum ahead of the elections.

“Many tenants are desperate,” said Matthias Weinzierl of the Rent Freeze campaign. “They’re legitimately afraid of losing their homes because rents continue to rise and Covid-19 hasn’t changed a thing. 

“That’s why we’re calling for a national six-year rent freeze now, which must be brought in directly after the new government has been elected. Such a rent freeze would be an acute help for tenants – and it’s also urgently needed.” 

‘Existential threat’

The date of the demo is the national Day of the Homeless, and was selected to highlight what campaigners see as the real threat of the housing crisis.

“In many places, high rents are becoming a genuine poverty risk and loss of housing is becoming an existential threat,” said Ulrich Schneider, CEO of the Parity Welfare Association, which is also supporting the demo.

People sleeping rough in Berlin in February 2021. Campaigners believe the housing crisis and homelessness are closely linked. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“It’s completely unreasonable to force single parents, people with disabilities or those in need of care, for example, to give up their homes and lose their entire social environment.” 

The protest on Saturday has also received support from the National Working Group for Help for the Homeless (BAGWH), who have linked unaffordable rents to a rise in the number of employed people losing their homes. 

In one recent study, BAGWH found that 15 percent of people classified as ‘homeless’ are currently employed – suggesting that rents in Germany are now outstripping wages, especially for lower earners.

Commenting on the findings, Werena Rosenke, CEO of BAGWH, said that the figures were “proof of the precarious living conditions in which many people find themselves in this country and the trends that are emerging in our society”. 

Any new government elected after September 26th must face this issue head on, she added.