Germany: When a refugee seeks accommodation – a road full of obstacles (3/3)

The search for housing in Germany is not easy. And even that is often accompanied by exposure to racist attitudes. Some studies have concluded that a third of immigrants have experienced racism while looking for an apartment.

“Often all you need is a strange-sounding name to avoid being invited to visit an apartment you’d like to rent. Explicitly racist ads are unfortunately still part of everyday life.”

These were the words of an official from the German government’s anti-discrimination office while presenting a report on the property market in 2020.

In Germany, eight out of ten people (83%) think racism is a common phenomenon when looking for housing, according to the report. Among people of immigrant background, nine out of ten (87%) believe that this is real and is happening.

This means that the real estate market has become a place where there is a growing sense of discrimination based on a person’s origin and race, as well as feelings of racism affecting access to restaurants, on public transport, in dealing with the police or in professional life.

One in three people (35%) from an immigrant background say they have experienced racism while looking for housing. These experiences are generally difficult to prove, and formal complaints are rare.

Negative feedback

In the West German city of Cologne, four out of ten people are of immigrant background. In 2018, Turks accounted for a quarter of the approximately 200,000 foreigners. Iraqis made up about 4%, Syrians 3.4% and about 0.5% of the African continent.

Elias Hosseini, from Herat in northwestern Afghanistan, spent ten months desperately looking for an apartment. Hosseini fled Afghanistan immediately after the Taliban took power. He recounts that he narrowly escaped the suicide attack at Kabul airport that left dozens dead at the end of August 2021.

Through Pakistan and with the help of the German consulate, he was able to reach Germany about a year ago with his wife and two daughters. The family has been living in a reception center in Cologne ever since.

“Our asylum application has been processed,” says Hosseini. “The only problem we face now is getting accommodation.”

Elias aims to have a flat with at least three bedrooms and a monthly rent of €1,100 – the maximum amount that Jobcenter, the employment agency also responsible for housing assistance, will pay.

The Afghan refugee adds: “Every time I call the owners, I get a negative response. I have called many of them. Some refused to answer because I am a foreigner, others did not want to go through the service station didn’t or simply didn’t take any action.”

With very common experiences like that of Hosseini, the Runder Tisch für Integrasie association decided to investigate the issue by conducting a series of interviews with experts and people who have been discriminated against in their search for housing.

In Cologne rents vary greatly on both sides of the Rhine | Photo: Marco Walter

Geographical distinction

Most people of immigrant background live in Cologne on the right bank of the Rhine, the river that divides the city from north to south. Rent is relatively cheaper in these neighborhoods.

The association says “in general there is a significant shortage of affordable and suitable housing for low and middle income groups in Cologne. Added to this is the low number of public housing units”.

The housing shortage means that landlords are in a strong position. But as the association notes, “compared to other large German cities, the proportion of private owners is very significant in Cologne”, as more than 74% of property owners in the city are individuals “and therefore play a major role” when it comes to . to equal access to housing, where they can act as “gatekeepers” who decide whether a person is fit to live in the neighborhood or not.

Runder Tisch für Integration notes that people with immigrant backgrounds, in addition to discrimination based on names, still struggle with some misconceptions and prejudices about their “reliability (ability to communicate, ability to pay rent), behavior (noise level, property treatment, compliance house ) regulations, etc.) and concerns about possible disagreements (regarding the tenancy and the neighbourhood).

Elisabetta Khan and her team receive about 100 people a day |  Photography: Salman Abdo - In-Haus Media 2022
Elisabetta Khan and her team receive about 100 people a day | Photography: Salman Abdo – In-Haus Media 2022

Reduce the burden of paperwork

One of the most common problems in the Integrationshaus (House of Integration) in Kalk, one of the most diverse parts of Cologne, is the problem of dealing with too many official papers.

“We advise people 12 hours a day and welcome almost 100 people a day,” says Elisabetta Kahn, director of the association that offers language lessons and helps to deal with the dilemma of German bureaucracy.

The search for housing is part of the association’s interests. “We try to reduce paperwork. We help people to do this work, and we try to convince landlords to accept people whose rent will be paid from welfare money, because many of them are hesitant. “

Many refugees take advantage of this housing assistance while looking for work. But after all the other hurdles, it’s an added administrative challenge that can lead to longer processing times for landlords. In a highly competitive market, this can be enough to lead to rejection.

“Many times we make the call ourselves and pretend to be (the person applying) so the applicant can at least get an appointment to see the apartment,” Khan explains. “Every foreigner I know has had to deal with a landlord who told him the apartment is no longer for rent, although the ad is still there online, and some are straight up saying they don’t want a foreigner . There is a lot of prejudice, especially against unmarried and unemployed Muslim men.”

Elisabetta Khan added that she noticed that the search for housing is very difficult for families with children enrolled in preschool care. It limits where they can live because Cologne has a shortage of childcare: “If you don’t have connections, it’s very complicated.”

“There are certain neighborhoods that are not open to foreigners, where I feel differently. The south of the city, for example, is not open to everyone,” says Khan. “Many people want to live in their own community, where they can find food products that they know, for example.” .

The Integrationshaus in Kalk office is located in one of the most multicultural districts of Cologne |  Photo: Marco Walter
The Integrationshaus in Kalk office is located in one of the most multicultural districts of Cologne | Photo: Marco Walter

Less space, higher rent

In addition to discrimination in access to housing, there is also inequality in Germany in terms of rent. “While non-immigrant families live on an average of 50 square meters per person, people of immigrant background only have 34 square meters per capita. According to a study by Hans Böckler Stiftung.

Despite living in smaller housing units, the study shows that people with immigrant backgrounds pay higher rents and have to spend a larger share of their income on them.

Runder Tisch für Integration says that due to the shortage of and high demand for cheap housing in Cologne, “it seems relatively easy for landlords to rent an apartment in poor condition and in a poorly served area”.

More recently, the war in Ukraine has stirred the debate about discrimination, with many immigrants expressing concern about the difference in treatment of Ukrainian refugees versus refugees from the Middle East or Africa.

“This is painful racism, not jealousy, because no one is jealous of war and displacement,” says Elizaveta Khan. “People who fled war know what it means.”

Khan adds that the conflict in Ukraine has made us more aware of some of the problems that all refugees face in Germany. “Many people start to see the complexity of paperwork when they help Ukrainians to fill out their papers. There is a lot of solidarity in our society, but to show that, people need to know what life is like for foreigners.”

For Elisabetta Khan, hope lies in the youth: “We see that the younger generations are more angry and self-confident. They don’t just want to let things pass and are not prepared to accept racism, while the older generations are more conservative and above all they don’t want to make waves of the influence.”

➡️ This article is the third in a three-part series on finding accommodation as a refugee in Germany. Click here to read part one and click here to read The second part.

Marco Walter/AH

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