Political organizing requires a space to gather, discuss, and strategize. In this article, Niloufar Tajeri tells us about the architecture created by the public-housing residents of Berlin-Kreuzberg in order to serve their struggle against the rampant privatization of housing in the German capital.
One of the decisive problems of urban development in large, growing German cities like Berlin is the housing shortage for people with low and middle incomes, along with intensified conditions affecting the development of the housing market such as rising rents, forced evictions, and displacement mechanisms. While the Federal government as well as municipal agencies believe that constructing new housing projects is the solution and therefore shape policies accordingly, social activists as well as academic researchers agree: that the construction of new buildings does not solve but perpetuate the housing question. The rent of a new apartment is always considerably higher than the rent of an existing apartment; the value of newly constructed property is always higher than that of existing property, and, due to the tenancy law in Germany, rents and values of existing housing stock gradually increase as a consequence. This dynamic particularly aggravates the precarious situation of low income tenants. At the same time, processes of urban segregation and living conditions for social housing tenants also worsen because of legal mechanisms that contribute to the shrinking of social housing stock by means of privatization, commodification, and financialization. Such a structural, large-scale problem that continues to be ignored by most political parties leaves those dependent on social housing unheard and unseen.
The Gecekondu is the protest hut of the social housing initiative Kotti & Co at Kottbusser Tor in Berlin-Kreuzberg that renders their concerns visible and heard and makes the struggle of many accessible and concrete. Kotti & Co understood that change has to be systematic, large-scale and needs to intervene in the legal structures of tenancy and social housing laws. But most importantly, that this change should address the needs of the many, of the Other, of the marginalized. But before we can understand the particular intersection between spatial and political action that Kotti & Co has practiced since 2011, we have to briefly retrace the post-war conception of social housing in the German context.
The West German social housing construction program was implemented by public and private housing companies, cooperatives, and private individuals who received financial
incentives through state subsidies and tax relief for the construction of social housing. But because these buildings are legally designated as social housing for a limited period of time, their government-subsidized, fixed rents will sooner or later be lifted. This problem is rooted in West Germany’s ordoliberal, post-war housing policy. Its main objective was to promote private housing construction, and with it, private capital. The state issued loans to property developers, thereby subsidizing social housing, which, however, upon repayment of the loans, would become the developers’ full property and subject to market conditions. This approach, enables private or privatized developers, but also state-owned and local authorities, to make profit-driven use of publicly funded buildings. In the last 30 years, more than 1.5 million social housing units were eliminated in this way. This process may be less radical than demolition programs in countries like France and the U.K., but it also makes the problem invisible, gradual, and isolated — in a perfidious way making it a “private” matter for those affected.
In Berlin, the number of social housing units shrank from 370,000 in the early 1990s to 100,000 in 2019. At the same time, rent increase in social housing is a driver of gentrification in disadvantaged but attractive inner city neighborhoods like Berlin-Kreuzberg. In 2011, it was the moment of yet another rent increase discussed in the elevator between residents of a social housing complex at the Southern end of Kottbusser Tor that triggered the organization of a political movement taking on the rights and concerns of social housing residents: when the political initiative Kotti & Co started, they were not aware how little knowledge and agency existed within political administration regarding the laws and mechanisms of social housing, and the gradual shrinking of social housing stock. This is why the activists themselves had to do the research, and start organizing not only protests but also conferences in the municipality to discuss and communicate the complex topic with civil society and politicians. After almost a year of political work, to which politicians responded with sympathy but little action, they decided to provoke real action with their next step: the occupation of the public square in front of the housing estate in May 2012 and the incremental construction of a protest hut that exists to this day. With this next step they succeeded to generally shift media attention but also academic research to the structural problem of social housing and the housing question, and even more importantly put it back onto the political agenda Berlin-wide, eventually placing the demand to (re-)communalize social housing in disadvantaged neighborhoods into the coalition contract of the Berlin Senate in 2016. In short, they made visible the previously invisible; they made collective and public what had been assumed as isolated and private.
Kotti & Co acts through diverse methods and strategies like knowledge exchange, self-organized research and learning, formalization of informal knowledge and “teaching” etc. This process constantly fuels and advances the protest through simple communication of significant facts, proving that German social housing is in fact a long-term investment program granting billions in tax money to private entities, which leaves social housing tenants behind with nothing in their hands. And today after the costs of construction and years of maintenance have long been paid off, social housing rents mean full profit for corporations and stockholders. Their main demand, to re-communalize the housing estate and to fight for more decision making rights and participation for social housing tenants and neighborhood residents (“Re-Kommunalisierung Plus”), resulted in a citywide awareness-raising of the topic through media in the general public, followed by the re-communalization of several housing estates in Berlin.
However, in the work of Kotti & Co, the structural, economic injustice resulting in spatial gentrification intersects with the problem of racism and the spatial history of migration in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Atiye Ekşi, resident and co-founder of Kotti & Co, analyzes the interrelated instances of racism and urban development but also its overcoming:
“When asked, ‘what is racism?,’ I show people my old passport that contains the districts in which we were permitted to live — and in which ones not. I arrived here with my family in 1968, during a time when guest workers were selected to do the dirty work and to live in the unattractive districts, that nobody wanted to live in, like for example Kreuzberg. After we made Kreuzberg what it is now, after we became family with neighbors and friends, we are to leave now, because, once more, we are not good enough. […] If Berlin is a democratic city, why can’t we choose where to live, in an affordable manner?”
She manages on the one hand to show that the workers, who moved to Berlin, from Turkey predominantly, but also from Yugoslavia, Greece and other countries, developed the collective power to shape the districts’ atmosphere and unique character despite struggling with disadvantage and lack of choice — an informal effort of “urban design” that had less to do with targeted/formalized “design” than with living together based on shared experiences (of racism, exclusion, the reasons for migration and its social consequences). Informal spatial organization and social design was a consequence of shared social experience. In a way, Kreuzberg is the spatial and urban manifestation of immigration as an urban catalyst — the feeling of the district, its identity is based on the confidence of (post)migrant communities with strong self-conceptions — a safe space protecting its inhabitants from the otherwise omnipresent, patronizing German discourse that demands the Other to “integrate” mainly by giving up their own/old identity. This is why the fear of gentrification and expulsion is not just an economic one, but a political, cultural and a social one. It touches on collective identity, on participating in and shaping communities, on the feeling of belonging despite larger society with its ever more racist atmospheres and structures. Kreuzberg, and especially the space around Kottbusser Tor, is a space built by immigrant communities. There is the feeling of collective and social ownership, and as such the threat of gentrification is that of expropriation and disfranchisement.
Kotti & Co analyzed the cycles of being segregated in a disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood — making it ‘attractive’ and then being threatened by displacement as a consequence — and incorporated it into a form of interdisciplinary knowledge production through the exchange of experiences. The knowledge of having overcome the first cycle of suppression (segregation) in a self-organized manner empowers the community to believe that also the second phase of suppression (gentrification) will be overcome. It is maybe in this spirit and context of empowerment, that Atiye Ekşi from the core group came up with the idea to occupy the outdoor space in front of their building. Inspired by two important political movements in 2011, the Egyptian Revolution and the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the one hand, and on the other, Occupy Wall Street in New York and the Occupy Movement in general. This speaks to a lucid awareness of being part of a global precarious class of the disenfranchised, who continue to fight blatant economic inequality and lack of democracy by resorting to occupying open spaces in order to call attention to large-scale structural injustices. At the same time it concerned the immediate space outside their homes, which they understood, lived and practiced as their local space. The feeling of the occupation as described by Sandy Kaltenborn, co-founder of Kotti & Co, isn’t as much like appropriating someone else’s property or even public property, but rather stepping out of their homes onto their outdoor space.
Knowing, however, that on private property they would be evicted swiftly, they researched the ownership structures of the open space at Kottbusser Tor to find that most of the ground is owned by private housing associations, except a niche across the street from their building, which was still in public hands. On May 25, 2012, they organized a neighborhood street party after which they constructed what they soon called Gecekondu. The first of three architectural stages of the protest hut was an open platform facing towards the square and street with two rectangular walls on the back side with an L-shaped bench, all of it made of palettes. The structure was designed by architect Stefan Endewardt who lives in and runs a small meeting place for neighbors in another housing estate, the well-known NKZ (Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum) across the street on the Northern side of Kottbusser Tor. The walls were immediately used as a surface for multilingual communication of the residents’ main demands, along with leaflets, protest banners and also subtle references to the job center and other public authorities like the aliens department, where people have to go to apply for working visas or residents permits — communicating the aspect of intersecting forms of injustice ranging from racial and classist discrimination of the social housing residents and more generally of the inhabitants Berlin-Kreuzberg. This form of concrete communication continued in all architectural stages of the Gecekondu — like a permanent protest fixed in space — rendering accessible for everyone: this is what we fight for, these are the problems, these are our demands, these are the topics. The building is not an abstract, artistic sculpture waiting for our interpretation, mysterious to most and only understood by a few insiders. Instead, it tells us what’s at hand while leaving room for our own associations, narrations and questions. During the first summer, the open architectural structure was frequented a lot, attracting many residents who initially had been more distanced but got to know each other over cups of tea. A sophisticated system of self-organization and social relations, a growing network of accomplices ranging from academia, media, social associations, cultural spaces/museums and small neighborhood businesses emerged and worked together on an ongoing basis, caring, nurturing through everyday encounters as well as consultancy and assistance, knowledge exchange, varied forms of protest, communication and research, but also negotiations and exchange with politicians.
The name of the protest hut stems from the Gecekondular, informal buildings and settlements in Turkey built on public land, which are tolerated based on the customary law that completed houses may not be demolished. This is why they are erected overnight: in Turkish language “Gecekondu” means “built overnight”. On the one hand it was an
affirmation of the history and knowledge of the Turkish community, as Sandy Kaltenborn noted, on the other, it was a strong gesture on the level of representation. But also on the structural level there are similarities:while the Gecekondu of Kotti & Co did literally emerge overnight, it has been evolving and transforming for almost seven years now. Also, it is tolerated by the authorities, not legalized, based on convincing relevant actors from the administration. This includes involving the mayor of the district among others, inviting new actors when administration changes, making sure they understand that this community is serious and not acting in self-interest but for the common good — for the right to social housing, the right to the city, to the neighborhood, to everything residents have paid for, made and built. Almost seven years after construction, we can now speak to the resilience of an informal structure based on an approved practice of commons and socialization of space — the Gecekondu helped construct a kind of “custom,” productive yet critical engagement between public authorities and a collective of social housing residents. In contrast to the status quo of public-private partnership that turned housing into a commodity, this public-collective partnership strives for housing as a collective right.
But how did the activists of Kotti & Co eventually become such powerful negotiation partners vis-à-vis the administrative class? Certainly their self-empowerment, strategies, knowledge, communication skills as well as their network and collaborations were crucial. But ultimately exercising power over space by occupying and building, by interfering in the existing spatial power system and maintaining this spatial position — an inherently political act — makes the decisive difference. To the injustices of hegemonic politics of space, they responded with a form of noncompliant politics of space by building the Gecekondu as a symbolic and functional space so that the neighborhood becomes visible and active. However the structure has also become a spatial strategy and political instrument that strives to prove that social housing can be rethought and reorganized through integrating social participation and empowerment. In terms of this latter form of noncompliant politics of space, the Gecekondu already does participate in a game of power and space asserting its rights to a seat at the negotiation table. In our conversation Sandy Kaltenborn says:
“Kotti & Co wouldn’t exist anymore in this form if there wasn’t the experience of theses bodies in this space — by means of the Gecekondu. It’s this experience that inscribed itself. The Gecekondu embodies this.”
The Gecekondu is the result, expression and driver of social relations — it was built and is maintained based on social relations that strengthens and advances it at the same time. In a way, the (informal) permanency of the building might be the reason why the movement didn’t lose momentum after achieving the first, small-scale demand — the halt of rent increase in 2012 — and most of all didn’t lose sight of the bigger, more abstract demands and goals — communalization and re-communalization of several housing estates in the neighborhood and beyond, media attention, political actions that kicked off several other political initiatives and two decisive referenda. The Gecekondu is the narrative — one that can be read by everyone and leaves space for interpretation and appropriation.
Now, Kotti & Co has a few more years before social rent will be lifted, i.e. few more years to secure the building as a social property, to fight for “re-communalization plus” — a combination of communal management and more self-management, participation and decision making for residents and tenants of social housing. The question is whether the Gecekondu has to change once more, in order to resist institutionalization. Construction, alteration and transformation of the Gecekondu were accompanied with tensions, discussions and conflicts — also because appropriation overlapped with the building process. Should it be open or closed, insulated or permeable? Who decides, how to decide, what are the reference points, what is “good” architecture, what is architecture, how to overcome the hegemonic architectural canon, how to overcome the violence of language and privilege? The mode of co-production has strengthened their community, precisely because they had to deal with all these spatial questions, that also constitute the core questions of their political initiative. An insurgent architecture in this context is not only symbol or representation of an organized spatial battle, but it is an affirmative common space of constant co-production. It defies the dichotomy of public and private, legal and illegal, useful and useless, abstract and concrete, functional and decorative, temporary and permanent, even open and closed — a space made/remade/made again by the many and by the Other.
For the most recent developments regarding the housing question in Berlin that seek to expropriate and socialize large-scale housing corporations, the Gecekondu has once more become a base for a network of accomplices organizing political strategies on a larger scale. ■
This text is based on a conversation with Sandy Kaltenborn (co-founder of Kotti & Co), a public presentation by Ahmet Tuncer (core group of Kotti & Co), and Tashy Endres (architect), as well as texts by Kotti & Co, Ulrike Hamann and Sandy Kaltenborn.