It has been said many many times, it sucks to be a tenant in Berlin:
- Rent prices have sharply risen in the past decade. (x2 in some areas)
- Investors worldwide see estate as profit-driven business more than ever, flocking to Berlin.
- Large management companies tend to concentrate and leverage their influence on public authorities & tenants alike.
- A relatively small amount of privately owned flats in the market, leading to less human-like access to housing.
Those statements could be made in many other parts of the world, but the speed at which the landscape changed for Berliners makes it all the more striking. Until the early 2000s, landlords practically begged tenants to move in as Berlin was simply not considered attractive. (Yes it has to be said, many flats back then were not up-to-par on modern standards; no one wants to go back to coal heating and showers in the kitchen.).
Since then, the power balance has shifted. Competition to get a flat in Berlin is fierce. Berlin landlords have a lot more the upper hand in our day-to-day lives.
In the past, I have already talked about some ways you could use to reduce your rent. In this post, I am going to talk about my experience using a tenants’ association to enforce my rights as a tenant.
Disclaimer: this post does not aim at blaming landlords for all Evil in the housing market. There are plenty of decent landlords who are taking care of their tenants, maintaining flats, etc. There are however also plenty that are using their dominant position to get away with a lot of things, taking advantage of the lack of information & confidence on the tenants’ part. Deal with your Hausverwaltung with respect & care. Stay calm & demand your rights.
Tenants’ association: what is it & when to use one
I’ve painted a pretty grim picture in this intro but thankfully, tenants have 2 things on their side to fight back:
- Germany at large has a very tenant-friendly legal framework. It has been highlighted & studied at length.
- Berlin in particular has historically been a city of tenants, with about 85% of local residents renting their homes (2017 study)
This means that we have laws & a certain local culture in our tool belt to make use of, when we run into issues with our beloved landlords.
However, it’s one thing to know you have rights, it’s another to enforce them. In this matter, it’s perfectly possible to do everything your own but this require intense legal knowledge, and a pretty good German level. This is where a tenants association comes in (Mieterverein).
A Mieterverein represent the interests of tenants and provide information on all questions relating to tenancy law. To that extent, they perform consumer protection tasks. A yearly membership fee which grants you free consulting & free representation in court (to an extent). Local entities are represented at a national level, where they perform lobby work to influence political agendas.
You would usually call your counselor when despite arise with your landlord. In Germany, most disputes are related to the following things:
- Rent increase: this can be legal or not, and might depend on several factors.
- Wrong Nebenkostenabrechnung: Every year, you receive a summary of how much you’ve paid in Nebenkosten (part of your rent), and how much more you might owe. The calculation is often wrong or some costs are not be paid by the tenant.
- Damages or faults to be fixed: some damages in the flat/property need to be taken care of, and your landlord doesn’t agree with it, or simply does not reply. A typical case would be excessive moisture in the bathroom, leading to mold, or a faulty hotwater device.
- Deposit not returned: A deposit can be unlawfully held back by the landlord in order to pressure you into complying.
How I used my membership to resolve conflicts with my landlord
I signed up with the local Berlin tenants’ association (Berliner Mieterverein from 4,50€/month) because there were the most well-known choice and because they had a English landing page. Their counselling takes place in German only, most counselor are helpful and nice. They also understand that I am not German, often patiently dictating or repeating. It’s been a good experience but they work the old fashion way, not very flexible or digital.
This is how they helped me since then:
Rent reduction negotiation
Relatively shortly after moving into our new flat in Neukölln, I became aware of 2 things:
- Mietspiegel in my area: A ruling from 2015 that limits rent increase to 10% of the average local prices, as defined by the Mietspiegel.
- Milieuschutz rule: A local ruling that wants to protect the social fabric of certain neighborhoods. It prevents the construction of high-class housing & protects from sharp rent increases.
With those 2 things in mind, I was not sure how to proceed and reached out to my Mieterverein. With them, I crafted the right approach & letters and forced my landlord to react. They were helpful to put pressure onto the Hausverwaltung: a lawyer had to get involved.
Result: 120€ less per month.
Forcing the landlord to take action against mice
During our second winter in our flat, we started to spot mice crawling around our kitchen & bedroom. It got to the point where they would crawl up into our bins and even of the wash stand! Not a nice feeling, especially with 2 young kids at home.
The Hausverwaltung reacted by sending a handy man to set poison at strategic locations. That didn’t help very much as they kept coming back. Holes in the walls needed to be properly filled. I wish we had involved the Mieterverein earlier: it is your right as a tenant to live in a clean & infestation-free flat.
After several months of unresponsiveness, we simply had to threaten to get our Mieterverein involved. It was enough for the behavior to change. A few weeks after, the problem was finally solved.
Correction of Nebenkostenabrechnung
This one was by far the most time intensive and bureaucratic business of all. Our Nebenkostenabrechnung included fees for pest control (related to the story above) among some other things. I found it suspicious and handed it in to our Mieterverein.
The tenants association agreed that some of the costs should not be paid by the tenants. However in order to prove it, we had to request to see the bills for each of those. The Hausverwaltung was always slow, reluctant. It tried to bill us the shipping of documents. I had to call 3 separate calls to explain my situation. In the end, it went directly between them. Intense stuff.
And the result was honestly a bit disappointing: around 55€ saved on a 3000€ bill (for the year)
Temporary rent reduction negotiation
This case is actually still ongoing as I write those lines. Our elevator has constantly been out of order and there has been construction next to our building. Both reasons to ask for a rent reduction.
I am using my tenants’ association in Berlin to get this right. It gave me valuable tips. For example, to keep a report of all noises & nuisances I have experienced because of construction, with date/time.
What I learned using a tenants’ association in Berlin:
It’s a fight with bureaucracy
That was to be expected: Germans don’t want to negotiate. They want to work by the book. To enforce your rights, you need to level with your landlord. You need to respect certain processes, terms & expectations.
It comes with requesting documentation for your counselor to look at, making copies of letters, sending everything via post, keeping records of everything that you do, waiting for deadlines, etc. At some point, I was juggling with 30+ A4 documents on my desk.
It’s ugly. It’s annoying. It’s necessary.
German is still a must
Even if your counselor speaks English with you and your landlord is willing to deal in English with you, you will need German along the way. This could be because you need to understand a piece of law, check for correspondence or understand a bill sent to you.
In most cases, you will need to write a letter to your Hausverwaltung in very formal German and speaks with your counselor in German too. Sure DeepL goes a long way but there is usually no way around it.
It takes a lot of time & headspace
I’m not going to lie: I understand why most people simply don’t bother with those things.
- It takes a lot of time to go back and forth between your Hausverwaltung & your counselor.
- You need to keep track of all documents sent, and when, in paper form.
- You need to deal with complex German legal concepts.
- You have to endure the “pressure” of the conflict with your landlord, who might make your life miserable elsewhere.
We all have lives and we have to wonder: “Is all of this worth it? I have enough stress at work as it is. I want to spend my free time on my hobbies, not on stubborn bureaucracy.” It just takes a lot out of you, even with a tenants association by your side.
In my case, what kept me going was much more my pride than about money at the end of the day. I needed to be respected & heard because it was my right to be. It also gave me great joy to “stick it to the man”, a small David against Goliath.
Should you join a tenants’ association? Is it worth it?
Look, I know this post was not exactly painting a walk in the park. You maybe expected that joining a tenants association would be a lot more hands-off. Instead, I depicted the harsh reality of a conflictual situation with my landlord and the pain that comes with it. I will say this:
A tenants’ association gives you the cautious confidence and the legal knowledge to safely enforce your rights. Can you imagine how much harder it would have been on my own?
Even if you are at peace with your landlord, being a member of a tenants association can also do a lot. It gives you that piece of mind in case there is trouble, somebody will have your back.
Believe me: landlords always think twice when they hear from their tenants: “We will see what the Mietverein will have to say about this matter.”
I hope this telling of my experience with a tenants’ association in Berlin was useful to you. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.