Comparisons with Germany: protection for tenants and rent control are keys to ending homelessness

Despite having some of the strongest tenant protections in the world and a reputation for low cost housing, Germany is struggling with some of the housing problems we face in Australia. Increasing housing costs, not enough dwellings, systems that are difficult to navigate and an increasing population are issues that Germany is also dealing with, according to Professor Susanne Gerull from the Alice Salomon University in Berlin. Like Australia, the single biggest cause of homelessness is family violence.

In Germany, legislation limits the amount that rent can increase in a given period, and the process to evict someone can take months, with the onus on the landlord to prove that the tenancy can’t be saved, even if rent is in arrears. Tenants usually hold leases for decades, and are allowed to make improvements to the property because it is seen to be their ‘home’; a significant cultural difference to Australia. Further, everyone has a right to housing – by law, if someone sleeping rough goes to a service, they must be provided with housing for the night even if the only room available in Berlin is in an expensive hotel. Yet in practice many people experiencing homelessness or renting without a contract don’t know they have these rights; and consequently become or continue to be homeless.

Gerull says the problem of homelessness has been getting worse over the last decade. Like in most countries the precise number of people who are homeless is unknown, but it is estimated to be around 0.3 per cent of the population (284,000 people), compared with Australia’s 0.5 per cent (105,000 people).

According to Gerull there are some key factors contributing to the rise in homelessness. One of them is the flow of people from central European countries like Romania and Bulgaria. Because they are part of the EU they can freely move to Germany; however, they do not qualify for homelessness or unemployment assistance once they arrive. This has created a significant moral issue because many of the people coming are accompanied by children.  

Another related factor is that housing is not being built fast enough to cope with the growing population. Like in Australia, this puts pressure on the rental system, although in Germany this is controlled more than it is here. As it stands now in some cities like Berlin the demand for housing is so high that anyone with a debt or a black mark on their credit history will not find an apartment. Landlords can afford to be picky with who they choose, and often are, because taking on a tenant in Germany is a long-term prospect.

Although Germany has some similar problems with housing to Australia, their homelessness rate is still 20 per cent lower than ours. Clearly, strong tenancy protections, controlled rents and a culture where housing is viewed as a human right have contributed to their lower rates of homelessness. However, as the cost of living rises everywhere, governments need to take a lead to ensure that affordable housing supply keeps up with population, and that people have knowledge of the rights they are entitled to.

*Susanne Gerull wrote an article in 2014 comparing evictions due to rent arrears in 14 European countries. Germany had the best protection of all countries.