“Putting Social Harmony in Harm’s Way”

Some time ago, the papers carried reports and images that seemed to bear out the stereotype of the greedy “slumlord”: One landlord in Berlin simply walled up the window of a tenant that gave him trouble. Another story that made recent headlines involved a family in Prenzlauer Berg that was asked to pay a rent three times as high after their flat had been modernised. Predictably, such accounts make tenants nervous.

Then again, you keep reading about “freeloaders,” with images of trashed flats shown to illustrate the point, or about landlords now frantic because they based their pension schemes entirely on the revenues from a let condominium. Images likes these will make those anxious who are pondering the purchase of a let condominium as private investment.

But let’s be honest: neither the cliché of the slumlord walling up his tenants’ windows nor that of freeloaders leaving wrecked flats in their wake are in any way representative of the relationship between tenants and landlords in Berlin. It is common knowledge that media prefer to write about the mailman biting the dog than about the dog biting the mailman. And they are more likely to cover planes crashes than safe landings. You can hardly blame the media for the fact, for after all, who would even bother to read the paper if the safe touch-downs of airliners at Berlin Airport regularly made the front page?

The truth being, though, that relations between lessors and lessees in Germany tend to be quite good. They are more aptly captured in the term ‘social harmony’ than by the term ‘perennial strife.’ Most lessors have a vested interest in being on good terms with their lessees, and vice versa.

This social harmony is now being put in jeopardy by the law to enact the so-called rent freeze. It is a complicated law, and its wording is hazy. Legal experts have decried the fact that it is bristling with ambiguous legal terminology. It took the experts in the Federal Ministry of Justice no less than 40 pages to elaborate the new law, which is expected to become effective next year. One tell-tale sentence in the Ministry’s comment is the following: “Disputes between the contracting parties concerning the permissible rent level at the start of the term of lease in areas affected by the new rules are likely to encumber lessors, lessees and the justice system which additional costs of an unforeseeable scale.”

Take a moment to let the import of this line sink in: The legal experts in the Federal Ministry of Justice are well aware that the law will invite litigation and set off an avalanche of law suits. So lawmakers willingly accept that the social harmony between tenants and landlords will be put in harm’s way.