Laurette Hanna is a sophomore at University of Washington and previous Citizen University intern. This summer she entered a program that sent her and 14 other students to Germany to study how the German government and German citizens navigated different identities and communities within their cities, including the refugee community and Turkish community.

 

 

Berlin, German

June, 2017

 

Kottbusser tor, Germany. A small neighborhood within the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. The locals affectionately call this little enclave Kotti for short. This place has been an artist haven, and Turkish pocket of Berlin for years, known for being relatively affordable and very welcoming to the Turkish, new migrants, refugees, and artist alike, as long as they contribute to the community. We ventured here on this cold and cloudy summer afternoon to talk to Sandy Kaltenborn, an artist and co-founder of Kotti and co., a local activist group that works with refugees and fights for housing rights.

 

“Why don’t you guys head inside while I finish my cigarette, then we can start.” He was easily six feet tall, maybe a little more, dark hair, wearing a black shirt and pants, and glasses, talking to his fellow co founder. He ushered us into a little shack set up underneath the U-bahn train line in the middle of the neighborhood. It was small, one room, four walls, a roof, a small kitchen and a few chairs and tables. Posters and pictures littered the wall taking up almost all the available space. Most signs were in German but a few were in English, protesting rising rent and proclaiming their love for Kotti.

 

Rising rent and gentrification: a problem people in Seattle, and all over the world are familiar with. Kottbusser tor is no exception, but Sandy and the people in this neighborhood have found a way to harness their citizen power and use the power of organizing to win a few battles in the name of rent control.

 

This shack is an integral part of that battle. It is very much informal, and very much illegal, yet it still stands. It all started in 2011, when neighbors got a letter from the housing company that the rent would go up. This was a problem for many of the tenants, as many of the apartments were part of the social housing program.

 

In Germany, the program of social housing is mostly privately run as a sort of investment program. These houses were built by the government in 1970s as an investment in the community and then sold to private investors with the expectation that the housing price would stay in a range that was affordable for those on social welfare, but in 2011 the rent went up to a price that would no longer be fully covered by welfare. In a neighborhood where most people were paying more than 60% of their income in rent, this left only about 200 Euro (around $235) for other expenses each month. While their is rent control in Germany, it does not apply to social housing as the social housing rates were assumed to be protected and already pretty low. Without rent control, the investors were allowed to raise their rent, putting a lot of people at risk for loosing their houses.

 

With this threat looming over them, the tenants did not stand by, they began to collect signatures of those who protested the rise in rent, which included those who lived in social housing and those who didn’t. The community became united against this issue, but when they went to tenant rights organizations, they were told they should move out, as they didn’t believe there was anything they could do.

 

This didn’t stop Kotti. They held block parties and for a year, the community came together to support each other and work on ways to protest this change. They began by squatting in public spaces and showing people that they were here and they were not happy. Soon people began to build the walls of a small shack that they would keep up until the problem was solved as a reminder.

 

“We didn’t have a plan. We were so busy.” People just kept coming together and taking the initiative to organize events and sit ins. Eventually began to build the little shack that became the safe haven and central meeting space for Kotti and co. Sandy explained how the most surprising thing about this was that this little shack was definitely illegal, and cops kept driving by it, but it was never torn down and nothing was ever said about it.

 

“I want to clarify, we’re not activists. We’re just neighbors.” He wanted to make that clear. They accept people of all political backgrounds and views. “It’s not about political ideology, sexual orientation, or religion.” If you care about the neighborhood, and you care about the housing crisis, you are welcome here.

 

With the added media attention they were getting through their sit in and the building of their shack, a wave of solidarity swept through the neighborhood and more began to join in. “This neighborhood is shaped by the history of migration. Even though this is considered a melting pot, there were few places where people merged.”

 

That was pretty clear in this neighborhood, as looking around, you can tell that most people in this neighborhood were of Turkish descent or migrant descent, but Kotti an co. wanted to be a place that truly was merged. The group expanded and included doctors, student, the unemployed, covering all demographics. There was a general understanding that political views and agendas were not pushed, and that all they were here to do was to talk about housing and getting the rent back to an affordable cost.

 

This was reflected in their demonstrations. They were loud, drawing attention. They banged pots and pans and shouted rather than giving political speeches, drawing the eyes of those observing to the show of disagreement and support. They held rock concerts and classical concerts to benefit the cause, enlisting local artists to perform. “There was so much media attention that no one wanted to crush down such a protest.”

 

With the rise in attention, support, and solidarity, Kotti and co. drafted an open letter to those in their local government stating their demands: Stop the increase of rising rents and organize a conference on social housing. The mayor listened and in November of 2012, a conference on social housing was held in parliament.

 

“At the end of the day it was a symbolic slap in the face to the government.” It showed the government that the people were capable of learning how to organize, and for many in the Turkish community of Berlin, it was a representation of the Turkish working class, of whom many cannot vote. “The politicians had to face the victims of their policy.”

 

At the end of 2012, rent increase was stopped for 35,000 social housing flats and as of early last year, they were able to stop the rent increase for all 110,000 flats.

 

Kotti and co. and the rest of the Kottbusser tor community serve as a great example of what can be accomplished through citizen power. They were able to change the game by adjusting the arena and making it less about political stances and focusing just on rent control, allowing people of all sides to identify with the cause and join the fight. They changed the story by making their community heard and making their story of community bond and resilience hard to ignore and beat down, to the point where the local government didn’t want to stop the protest for fear of backlash. This gave them the power to demand a conference on the issue and enact change.

 

What started as a concern over the housing conflict turned into an amazing organization that continues to challenge housing policies today, and has expanded into a project of diversity working with everyone in the community as well as working with refugees to promote responsible growth within their neighborhood.

 

You can learn more about Kotti and co by visiting their website.