In Berlin, a model for creative and affordable housing

Cities with vibrant arts, music, and social scenes are being hit hard by gentrification. But Berlin’s “co-housing culture” shows that a city’s future doesn’t have to go that way.

Image credit: Sarah van Gelder

San Francisco used to be famous for its tolerant and creative culture. These days, it’s more famous for its astronomical cost of living; the average rent as of February for a one-bedroom apartment was $3,368. Cities with vibrant arts, music, and social scenes are being hit hard by gentrification. The pattern repeats itself in cities everywhere – artists, nonprofit leaders, young people, DIY culture, urban farmers, and small-scale entrepreneurs begin revitalizing a city. Then real estate speculators arrive, and before long the people who created the scene and many long-time residents find themselves priced out, leaving only the super wealthy – and the homeless.

But this isn’t the only future a hip city can have, and Berlin is a case in point. Anarchists for years have been squatting in abandoned buildings and on open land. Cooperatives and a variety of other shared living arrangements offer affordable options. Social movements have emerged to protect these approaches and to counter displacement of poor and middle-class residents.

While on a speaking tour of Germany, I visited Spreefeld, a housing cooperative built in downtown Berlin. The car-free community is located on the Spree River, but instead of reserving waterfront access for residents only, the creators included ways to welcome the public to walk through the grounds. Residents work closely with the neighboring squat called Teepee Land to facilitate public access to the river and to both communities. The co-op spent years convincing the city to allow a food forest along the nearby river walk. Co-op members hope the concept, if it works, can spread along other stretches of the walk.

The Spreefeld model comes from what author and urban planner Michael LaFond calls a “co-housing culture.” LaFond, founder of the Institute for Creative Sustainability, is an American living in Berlin who helped found Spreefeld and now lives there.

Cooperatives have a history reaching back to the mid-19th century in Berlin, LaFond told me. He estimates that as many as 250 or 300 squats have existed at some point since the 1970s in both East and West Berlin. Young people, especially anarchists, occupied vacant buildings as a way to live for little or nothing, and to save the old, beautiful buildings of Berlin from demolition in the name of urban renewal. The movement became powerful enough that city government was unable to evict people easily from the squats. Instead, city officials worked with the squatters to purchase the properties from absentee owners and offered funding to those willing to refurbish the buildings.

Many of these former squats are now cooperatives.

The founders of Spreefeld were influenced by this self-help culture and by the Scandinavian co-housing model that helped launch the co-housing movement in the United States. But the Spreefeld residents also brought their own ideas.

LaFond invited me to lunch in the common kitchen that serves the 21 units in his building.

“When you come home in the evening, there’s food on the table and on the stove,” he told me. “Often you’ll find people sitting here at the big table, and you can sit and talk and relax at the end of the day.”

The two lower floors in these buildings are devoted to community and public uses. There are office spaces for co-working, workshops, and galleries. A day care center attracts families from the neighborhood. Spaces for music, yoga, and dance are available to both community members and the public, as well as a kitchen, a large gathering space, and a woodworking shop.

Some parts of the building are designed to evolve as needs change. When the recent refugee crisis hit, residents converted two spaces into apartments to house two newly arrived families.

The residents here include teachers, health care workers, artists, and small-business and nonprofit managers, many of whom would struggle to find affordable housing if they didn’t live at Spreefeld. Some keep costs down by choosing tiny private spaces and making use of shared kitchens and bathrooms, while those with higher incomes look for ways to help cover expenses that might be a burden for their neighbors.

Berlin’s creative culture is under tremendous pressure as real estate speculators from around the globe buy up apartment buildings. But a culture of resistance and grassroots revitalization is putting a brake on gentrification, helping to protect the residents’ right to their city.

More photos from Berlin and Spreefeld co-housing.


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