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5 Uncomfortable Truths About Living in Berlin

by Conor O'Rourke Oct 25, 2015

TO HEAR PEOPLE talk about it, living in Berlin can seem like a dream: cheap, easy, fun. The city is affordable compared to London or New York, jobs in its much-hyped startup scene are regularly offered to foreigners hailing from places as disparate as Chile and Australia, and the club scene can’t be beat. But this never-never land of perpetual adolescence is only accessible to a relatively small, privileged cohort of the world’s upper and middle classes (to which this journalist unambiguously belongs), and the prosperity they flaunt obscures real problems faced by less fortunate Berliners every day.

1. One in eight Berliners live below the poverty line, many of them children.

There’s no question that Germany is flying high these days. Merkel’s Germany has emerged as the EU’s undisputed post-recession leader, slashed unemployment, and posted respectable growth in a very challenging economic climate. But lurking below this veneer of impressive statistics and figures are some troubling numbers.

A recent study revealed that one out of every eight Berliners survives on less than €546 per month. Perhaps more disturbingly, this figure includes almost 25% of the city’s children. As in many cities, the figures just get worse the farther from the center you get: in some far-flung problem areas, child poverty rates can reach above 70%, and the neighborhoods often become incubators for gangs and criminal activity.

2. Native Berliners are being priced out of their own city.

In the past fifteen years, Berlin’s housing market has become stretched to the breaking point. Even before the economic crisis in 2008, Berlin was becoming a destination for young people looking for a good time. The combination of cheap rent and booming, thumping nightlife was too tempting to ignore. When Germany emerged from the crisis with one of the only functioning job markets in Europe, the resultant increase in immigration only made situation more strained.

Now, rents have risen more than 35% in the last 8 years, and with 86% of Berliners living in rented properties, this is truly a city-wide issue. Landlords have exploited a loophole in the system to pass on costs of planned renovations to their tenants, prompting many fixed-income tenants to move out rather than face the costs. Once these long term, protected renters are gone, the proposed renovations are often canceled and the flats rented out to new tenants at or above market rates. More and more native Berliners are forced to cede their longtime homes to out-of-towners more able to pay the rent.

3. 10% of Berlin’s youth drop out of high school.

Despite its reputation as a haven for the underemployed, overeducated youth of the world, the scene for native Berliners couldn’t be more different. In some districts, as many as one in six students left high school without graduating. These numbers are heavily racially skewed, with children of immigrants in some neighborhoods four times as likely to drop out of school as a German neighbor.

The pitiful state of public schools in some Berlin neighborhoods has made national news in the past. Neukölln’s infamous Rütli school made headlines in 2006 when its teachers petitioned the city government to shut down the school, calling it dysfunctional. Thanks to an influx of money following the media storm, the situation in the Rütli school itself has improved, but dropout rates in the neighborhood still far exceed national averages, with one in eight students dropping out before graduation.

4. Berlin has as much debt per person as Detroit.

One might think that with the amount of guilt and pressure Germany puts on Greece to solve its debt problem, Merkel would have her own house in order. Not so. The German capital can shamefully boast as much debt per person as the famously insolvent Motor City: Detroit, Michigan.

However, unlike in the US, German cities cannot declare bankruptcy. Berlin might be languishing under €63 billion in debt, but thanks to guarantees by the German federal government, it’s still able to secure low-interest loans as well as financial assistance to the tune of €80 million per year. This cheap money has insulated Berliners from the worst effects of their city’s financial mismanagement, though as item five on this list shows, it still has ways of affecting the average person.

5. Berlin Brandenburg Airport is billions over budget and still not operational.

When Berlin Brandenburg Airport was announced, it was to be Europe’s largest infrastructure project, valued at some €2 billion. Construction was planned to last six years, but from the beginning, the project was marred by bad luck and worse planning. Today, BER is almost four years past its projected opening date, and the airport-that-wasn’t has seen bankruptcies, attempted privatization, failed inspections, and corruption scandals. Famously, the airport was sued by Air Berlin CEO Hartmut Mehdorn over income losses due to the delayed opening, but by the time the case reached court, he had left his job at Air Berlin… to lead the consortium in charge of BER’s construction. The case was decided out of court.

The project is estimated to be €3-5 billion over budget and continues to lack an estimated opening date. A recent survey of the airport surreally identified “more than 66,500 problems” that needed to be solved before the airport could be safely opened. What’s worse, it seems that the airport is already too small: tourism in Berlin has exploded in recent years, and by the time it opens, the airport’s planned capacity of 26 million passengers won’t be enough to serve the booming tourist town’s needs. 

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