Critics call for a renovation offensive instead of a new building boom

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Status: 11/13/2021 4:03 p.m.

Immigration, exploding rents and displacement – how people will live in cities like Berlin in the future is one of the social issues of the future. Critics call for alternatives to the plan of politics, especially to promote new construction.

Anyone who walks through Berlin will notice that there is construction going on in the capital, and that on a massive scale. Whether in the city center or the outskirts: gaps are being closed, buildings are being increased and it is not uncommon for green spaces to fall victim to excavators and cranes.

In 2020 alone, the building authorities reported more than 16,000 completed apartments, most of them in the most sparsely populated districts in the east of the city. But even such growth may not be enough to meet demand. Social associations such as the real estate industry have long been calling for more speed in new construction. According to estimates, there is currently a shortage of between 60,000 and 100,000 apartments in Berlin.

Housing policy an important topic for the future coalition

So it comes as no surprise that housing policy was an important issue before the House of Representatives election in September. The election winner and likely future governing mayor Franziska Giffey of the SPD announced a new building offensive. The result of the ongoing coalition negotiations with the Greens and the Left. Because both parties are more cautious about large new construction projects. The latter even supports the successful referendum on the expropriation of large real estate groups, although politicians are not bound by its implementation.

Criticism of Giffey’s construction plans has also come from outside – for example from environmental associations. The nature conservation association NABU calls on the future Berlin government not to rely unilaterally on new buildings. One feared “catastrophic consequences for Berlin’s urban nature”. Sufficient open spaces for recreation are as good as affordable living space. The Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) argues similarly. Its Berlin state chairman, Tilmann Heuser, criticizes the fact that politics in the capital misses out on reality.

Possibly a need for larger apartments

The 2017 urban development plan of the incumbent Senate envisaged that almost 194,000 new apartments should be built by 2030 in order to take account of the deficit at the time and the expected influx of new residents. A similar number, namely 200,000, can now also be found in the exploratory paper of the red-green-red coalition talks.

But that, according to Heuser, is symbolic politics and is based on false foundations. Even before the corona pandemic, the population in Berlin stagnated contrary to expectations, and now it is even going back. In addition, the number of people per household is increasing. So what is needed above all is not more apartments, but larger ones. And so the BUND calculates a need for new apartments that, depending on the population development, is well below 200,000.

Resource consumption as a problem

The decisive factor, however, is how the demand is met. Instead of a new building offensive, a renovation offensive is needed. “New construction always means consumption of resources. We should concentrate on the existing building,” argues Heuser. This includes the expansion of attic apartments, the development of supermarkets or the conversion of existing buildings.

The building sector is responsible for almost half of CO2 emissions. Sealing green spaces also increases the effects of climate change, for example through higher temperatures or the risk of flooding.

“Build, build, build” harms the climate

There are ideas that go even further. The economist and author Daniel Fuhrhop calls for a general end to new construction projects in large cities. A seemingly surprising approach in the face of efforts to stop the rental explosion by increasing supply.

But from Fuhrhop’s point of view, this goal can be achieved without building a single house. “The potential of the existing living space is huge, we just don’t use it.” One reason: Often people live alone in apartments that are too big for them, while multi-person households do not find sufficient living space. Moving or exchanging homes would become unattractive due to rising rental prices. Another approach would be subletting, communal housing projects or needs-based renovations. But that is being funded far less than the new building.

The old mantra of “building, building, building” as the supposedly simplest solution is the purest climate killer, according to urban planning expert Fuhrhop. Investing in existing buildings could save millions of tons of CO2 and a lot of money. The rethinking in society has begun, but it still needs a lot of time and, above all, political decisions.

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