By Femke Colborne and Kathrin Ohlmann
When Frank and Heike Schröder found out they were expecting a baby, they knew it was time for them to move. They’d been renting an ancient apartment in the then-shabby Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. Even though they loved its rugged charm, it was no place to start a family.
“It was nice but very uncomfortable,” says Heike. “We had an ancient coal-fired oven and we had to go to the cellar every day to get coal. That would have been fine, but we lived on the fourth floor and there was no lift.”
Frank and Heike — a self-employed teacher and a set designer, respectively — had no chance of being approved by rigid German mortgage lenders. But renting didn’t offer the security they wanted, so they decided to investigate other options. After answering an ad in a newspaper, they joined a group of people who had decided to get together and build their own apartment block.
Now in their early 50s, the Schröders live with their two daughters in their own modern three-bedroom apartment in Berlin’s trendy Mitte district. The building has not only spacious, light apartments and a state-of-the-art air-powered heating system, but also several shared spaces. There is a communal hall and kitchen on the ground floor, where members of the group hold children’s parties and other events, plus a ground-floor garden and a stylish roof terrace, complete with views of Berlin’s famous TV tower.
From the beginning, the Schröders liked the idea of communal living. “There were a few older people in the group, and I thought it would be nice to have older people around because our parents don’t live locally,” Heike says. “I liked the idea of being with other people, talking to other people.”
The children in the group play together and share clothes and toys, and, if someone runs out of milk or butter, they can just knock on the next door. “My eldest goes upstairs and reads to the old lady upstairs,” Heike says. “I enjoy that very much.”
Communal housing schemes like this are booming in the German capital. According to the latest estimates, there are around 450 cohousing projects in the city, making up around 10 percent of total housing. Cohousing comes in a variety of forms. Some people form cooperatives, where the apartments in a block are co-owned by all the members. Others, like Frank and Heike, form groups known as Baugruppen to construct their own buildings, but when the project is finished each member owns their own apartment. Some people simply group together to rent a building or group of apartments, paying extra for shared communal spaces. But what all these people have in common is a desire to share resources and live as part of a community.
Michael Lafond, co-founder of CoHousing Berlin, an association for co-housing projects in the city, says, “Generally people are motivated by a sense of community, an interest in sharing spaces and activities, avoiding loneliness and a search for identity. Housing is one of the most important things in our lives and says a lot about who we are. For some people it’s a political project, a way of avoiding being part of the speculative market.”
Lafond lives in a cooperative housing project known as Spreefeld on the banks of the River Spree. Built by a group of 16 people, Spreefeld contains around 60 apartments (those not occupied by members are privately rented) as well as communal gardens, laundry rooms, fitness rooms, guest rooms, rooftop terraces and a music and youth room. The ground floor in the main building is rented out as office space, with many of the people who live there also working downstairs. People living in the complex share everything from cars and bicycles to food grown in the gardens.
Maximilian Vollmer, a project manager for Stattbau Berlin, a membership body for cohousing projects, says the communal housing movement first started to gather pace in the city after the fall of the Berlin Wall: “After reunification, there were a lot of empty plots in the city. They were small lots, so no big companies would build on them. A movement started and people came together to build. They would meet as a group and decide if they wanted to live together, and do everything in a group – find an architect, builders, and so on.”
Vollmer said cohousing projects appeal not only to young people and families but also to older people, who see them as a way of avoiding isolation.
“Many are highly educated and looking for an alternative way of living,” he says. “They are living alone, retired and in good health but knowing that could change and not wanting to live alone anymore. It is an alternative model of living that offers mutual help when they need it.”
Bärbel Ristow, 77, lives in a cohousing project in Neukölln, an up-and-coming district on the border of Kreuzberg, Berlin’s ultra-hip Turkish quarter. Like the Schröders, Ristow and her husband learned about the project after seeing an ad in a newspaper. They had been living on the rural outskirts of the city, near Schönefeld Airport, in a house inherited from family. They wanted to be nearer the city center and liked the idea of a ready-made community of friends.
“We wanted to move to the city for the culture and to have a social network when we got older,” says Ristow, a retired doctor and psychotherapist. She and her husband initially met with 15 other people. The group later split, with half the members moving to upmarket Potsdam. The remaining half opted for more down-at-heel Neukölln, where they rent a block of apartments including a communal kitchen and living space.
Members of the group have breakfast together, play board games, go to the cinema, run reading and writing groups and organize a monthly walk in the countryside. The communal space is also used for a weekly meeting, plus birthday and Christmas parties.
The group’s members are now between 67 and 78 years old. “We are all a similar age, retired and have grandchildren,” Ristow says. “That makes it easier for us to connect with each other. And we all have similar political opinions; we are all quite left-wing and many of us are involved with charity work with refugees. We are interested in society and our neighbors.”
When Ristow’s husband died two years ago, her cohousing friends were there for her.
“I had a lot of support,” she said. “I have family too, but it’s nice to have a friend one step away in the next flat.”
Tiny home, big benefits
Frank has left the walls of his wooden mini-house bare to remind himself to focus on finding a proper flat soon: “I don’t want to get too cozy here with pictures and photos on the wall, because it’s only a temporary solution.”
He was sleeping rough before he moved into the hut underneath a bridge on the right side of the River Rhine in Cologne in January. He can now get a good night’s sleep, because “when you sleep rough, you wake up about five or six times every night.”
Frank’s tiny home has been built by Cologne-based photographer Sven Lüdecke and his team who have built 24 houses since last year, nine of which are now in Berlin.
The huts are built from sturdy plywood and have just enough room to fit a single mattress, some shelves and hooks. The newer versions have a camping toilet, a sink, a small worktop and mini-stove.
Through his work as a photographer, Lüdecke had started talking to Ivanka, a Polish woman who was sleeping rough at Cologne central station. When she was kicked out of the station, he decided to help her.
Inspired by artist Gregory Kloehn, who builds similar mini-houses for the homeless in California from materials he collects from rubbish dumps, hobby carpenter Lüdecke bought all the material at the DIY store and built the first house himself to give it to Ivanka.
“She was speechless when I delivered it to her,” he says. “She then disappeared for a couple of hours without even accepting the key, only to come back freshly showered and with all her clothes washed, because she wanted to move in with everything clean.”
Following this press coverage, donations have started pouring in to cover the costs of material and transport. The cost of one of the homes is around 650 euros ($767) and they are usually built by groups of homeless people and volunteers.
“It’s a lot of work and effort to build one of them,” says Lüdecke, who now has little time for his day job. The team has established sub-groups in all major German cities, and plans to branch out into other European cities.
The houses may stand only on private land but once they are given to those that need them, the project, known as Little Home, has no responsibility for where they are placed. They’re built with rollers under the boxes so they are mobile, meaning they don’t need building permits.
Frank, who is in his mid-30s, now volunteers with the project. “I want to counter stereotypes about homeless people and start conversations with people who don’t usually have anything to do with us.”
He used to live in England and worked at a restaurant in Hatfield before he became homeless, and slept rough in London for two years. “I then started to work my way out of homelessness by working as a street worker with homeless people, but when I returned to Cologne I started gambling and landed in huge debt.” He spent some time at a clinic because of depression. “Then I decided to start from scratch again.”
The mini-house helps him to take the necessary steps to move forward. “I keep looking better and healthier the longer I’m staying in the house. Last week I went to the job center for the first time in a long while and all my friends were really surprised about me going twice in a week and getting all my papers sorted.”
The other two mini-houses next to Frank’s are occupied by two of his friends. One of them is 21-year-old Nicole, who moved in a few months ago when her friend found his own flat and passed on the house to her.
Nicole started living on the streets as a 14-year-old when she ran away from a home, with only shorts, a T-shirt and sandals to wear in the snow. She was protected by other rough sleepers. “They gave me a sleeping bag, clothes and food and slept next to me to make sure I was all right,” she says. She now earns money by collecting bottles.
“It’s great that I can leave my stuff here and don’t have to worry about finding a spot to sleep at night anymore. I wake up with more energy because I feel well-rested.”
She has submitted her application for social housing and wants to finish school. “I’ll see what happens after that.”
Frank says: “One of the things you never have on the street is privacy. If you’re in a hostel or in a day center or on the street, you’re never by yourself. With this house, you can just shut the door and enjoy some peace and quiet.”
Courtesy Big Issue North, our sister street paper in Northern England.
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full September 27 issue.