At the initiative of Federal Housing Minister Klara Geywitz (SPD), the “Alliance for Affordable Housing” made up of around 50 representatives of federal, state, local authorities and associations will meet for the first time this Wednesday in Berlin. The goal is to build around 400,000 more apartments in Germany, to do something about the housing shortage, high rents and high property prices, especially in metropolitan areas. Markus Lewe, president of the German Association of Cities and Mayor of Münster, explains why municipalities need more room to maneuver.
SZ: Mr. Lewe, what can a city do if there is a suitable vacant lot or even an area in the municipality, but the owner doesn’t want to build on it?
Markus Lewe: As a city, we have many tools to act. However, it has been shown that the possibilities cities have in land policy are not enough. A balance must be re-established between the use of land for the common good and its use on the market. Housing duties for cities have increased significantly. Decent and affordable housing is not only a valuable asset for individuals, but also for social cohesion in society. More immigrants are arriving, as we are discovering again in the course of the war in Ukraine, and it will remain that way. Furthermore, municipalities have to adapt to climate change and its consequences, such as heavy rains. This also has an impact on construction and housing.
The Federal Institute for Building Research, Urban Planning and Spatial Development recently presented a study: It states that there are many suitable plots of land, even in cities. What are the obstacles?
There are enough suitable plots of land. But we also need owners who are building there or are willing to sell the land. With the current housing shortage, one cannot be responsible for the fact that plots of land simply remain unused, that we have junk properties that remain empty, that plots of land are only used for short-term living. The earth must not degenerate into an object of speculation. But we see all of this too often. Everyone has to play now. Cities work with incentives and buy land, but this alone is not enough.
What would help cities?
We need pre-emption rights for properties throughout the city. Federal and state governments should set up land trusts so that cities themselves can appear on the market and acquire land with foresight. This is particularly important for cash-strapped municipalities. In this way, the concepts of diversity and social infrastructure can be well implemented, so that neighborhoods for the rich and the poor are not created, where social challenges are concentrated. In many areas our hands are tied.
How exactly would it work?
Already today it is possible, albeit with great commitment, to designate, for example, an area of urban development. The municipality thus acquires the right to purchase and can determine what happens on the site. In addition, however, there must be more rights in order to acquire land more easily. It is a building obligation on the part of the owners, so that they can use undeveloped plots of land in a timely manner. Cities need to be able to more easily define such apartment building offers, even in areas where commercial development is allowed. Several federal states are overdue and have not yet fully implemented the federal law on building land mobilization in this regard.
Do you have to be able to expropriate individual owners?
The building code has long allowed this as a last resort, but it is very rare. The trick is to develop the area together with the investors, which in my experience in Münster often works very well. But it’s also good if cities still have some precautionary measures up their sleeves.
Cities cannot act alone, housing minister Klara Geywitz is now trying to get several billion in funding. Isn’t the role of federal states totally underexposed? They are actually responsible for building social housing.
We have always had this in mind, our requests are directed to the federal and state governments. States play an important role here, I would like to give them an example from my state, North Rhine-Westphalia. Many cheap apartments are no longer subject to rent control, around 60,000 nationwide each year. However, they should not only be replaced with new buildings, but also the rental commitment should be extended as often as possible. North Rhine-Westphalia has successfully developed an idea on how to achieve this through attractive offers for owners.
Were there also omissions of the cities? Not everyone took care of the areas intended for residential areas in time.
Of course there are also omissions. It depends on the predictions made 10 to 20 years ago. The urbanization we are experiencing now was not predictable at the time: in the early 2000s many cities shrunk or stagnated.
But some cities have simply rehabilitated their balance sheets by selling apartments and land.
This is part of the story, you had to generate revenue. At that time some plots of land were being sold for an apple and an egg, and today some of them have to be repurchased for considerably higher amounts. You have to think very carefully about the commercialization of infrastructure, including land. This has been shown to be unsustainable. Municipalities have learned from this. The federal and state governments, however, much later.