Does country life solve the housing shortage ?: “A ‘living in the middle of nowhere’ allowance would be good”

Building Minister Klara Geywitz suggests that those looking for an apartment move to the country, where properties are empty and cheaper than in the big cities. The Real estate prices in big cities should fall, the pressure to build more and more new apartments should ease and rural regions should be revived at the same time. Wohnwende economist Daniel Fuhrhop has “two hands full of ideas” on how Geywitz’ appeal can be filled with content, as he says in an interview with The focus on new buildings in the coalition agreement was “a mistake from the start” that urgently needs to be corrected. As a housing transition economist, as you call yourself, you are committed to social and sustainable living. Did Minister of Building Geywitz’s suggestion inspire you?

Daniel Fuhrhop: Enthusiasm would be an exaggeration. An appeal alone will not succeed in persuading people to move to the countryside. But maybe fewer move away. That would help. There is indeed a lot of vacancy in the countryside. It is not said whether this will also be used when the federal government subsidizes the state. Unfortunately, there is also very often new construction in shrinking places, even if it is not needed.

Let’s start at the beginning: We’re talking about 1.7 million vacant apartments in Germany. How many of them are really habitable, does that do anything?

The total number of vacant apartments has fluctuated over the decades and it is very difficult to judge which are ready for occupancy and which are not. The definitions of different institutes that value this are not always the same. But using vacancies is undoubtedly a sensible solution to the problems in the housing market. Instead of asking how much that will bring, you can simply start implementing successful models that already exist.

You mean decoy programs. What would that be like?

The “Young buys old” program, for example. Municipalities use this to support people who move into an empty old house. They get paid every month for six years. The program has existed for 15 years and is now in over 100 municipalities in Germany, including Hiddenhausen near Herford. It would be high time to roll out such a funding model throughout Germany.

In the countryside there may not be a lack of living space, but there are many other things: Internet, jobs, because not everyone can work from home, schools, kindergartens, doctors, transport connections. Can 790 million euros to be invested really make life in the country more attractive?

The 790 million euros are initially only funds from the program for urban development. That’s not bad. But in fact a lot more money is needed to activate railway lines, for example, as the Association of Towns and Municipalities is also demanding. What I’m still missing is the expansion of cycle lanes, because there are many smaller places not far from booming places. Around Copenhagen, places in the surrounding area are connected with 30 to 40 km long cycle expressways, four meters wide, crossing-free, illuminated and smooth! That would be a great solution in Berlin. Because the further you get to Brandenburg, the more vacancies there are.

You are a consultant for new living concepts. What does your work actually look like?

I am concerned with making invisible living space, i.e. unused rooms or granny flats, usable, both in the country and in the city. For example, if an elderly person lives alone in a house because the children have moved out or the partner has died. It is important to offer different solutions for people’s different living needs. I work together with the Nonconform office. They specialize in reviving dying places and develop ideas that work best on site and together with the citizenry.

And what does such a consultation cost?

That depends on the size of the places and the projects. Developing further building areas and building new ones in areas where prices have already exploded is always the more expensive alternative.

Why did the federal government announce that it would build 400,000 new apartments without taking old and vacant properties into account?

Daniel Fuhrhop is an economist, author and consultant. He deals with social housing, sustainable urban change and livable cities.

I call it a typo in the coalition agreement. It states that the goal is to “construct 400,000 new homes per year”. So it’s all about new construction. When the Federal Statistical Office presents figures, it is about completions of living space. This essentially includes new construction, but just over a tenth, around 30,000 units per year are completed in the existing stock. That means in old buildings through the classic conversion, the conversion of an attic or the addition of a floor to a house. And, crazy enough, that is not mentioned in the coalition agreement. I miss that people say, let’s create as much living space as possible in the existing building. This is considerably more climate-friendly and also saves space. That was a mistake from the start.

Are there places where I can get advice if I’m open to new living concepts?

Unfortunately not in Berlin. In 30 other cities, however, there is “Housing for Help” to arrange living partnerships between young and old. Younger people help older people with shopping, for example. They don’t pay normal rent for this, but often only contribute to the costs. These agencies work well in Freiburg, Cologne and Munich, but even better in Belgium, France and Great Britain. In Brussels, 350 young people are brought together with older people every year. Applied to Berlin, we would have an estimated 1,000 of these residential partnerships, and 30,000 per year across Germany would be possible.

Do you have any other examples of how the existing structures could be better used and how rural regions could be promoted?

I have two hands full: from 1971 to 1994 there was the Berlin allowance in West Berlin. Employees received eight percent of gross wages on top of that. If we specifically supported shrinking places with a “living in the middle of nowhere” subsidy for eight or ten years, that would be good. Then there are the so-called welcome or return agencies. In the Harz Mountains or in the Uckermark, targeted help is given to those who come from the area, then moved away and are now considering returning. That’s a good idea because it’s extremely difficult to get people to move to a shrinking region. Those who have a personal connection to a place are more likely to come back. Returnees should ideally also receive financial start-up support for start-ups.

Why are such initiatives so to speak in the viewer’s blind spot?

It’s not that politicians don’t see what hasn’t worked so far. We know that building is expensive and not good for the climate. But we have a decades-long tradition of always identifying the next building area when in doubt. Switching over, developing a structure that supports the existing building and revitalizes certain areas and old buildings, requires a rethinking of everyone involved in politics, administration and business. This will need time.

Diana Dittmer spoke to Daniel Fuhrhop

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