May 22, 2018 / 1:53 PM / in 7 months

Squatters raise alarm about Berlin housing crisis

BERLIN (Reuters) - German police said on Tuesday they had released 56 activists detained on Sunday for squatting in empty buildings in Berlin to protest against rising rents and a lack of affordable housing in the fast-growing German capital.

The squatters could still face fines or up to one year in jail if convicted on charges of trespassing, the police said.

Almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city is grappling with a growing housing shortage, with property prices up 20.5 percent in 2017 alone, property consultancy Knight Frank said.

Last month, more than 10,000 people took to the streets to protest about the housing shortage.

Squatting has been a hallmark of Berlin’s post-reunification history. A serious wave of violence erupted in November 1990 in the newly united German capital as riot police evacuated militant squatters from abandoned east Berlin apartment houses.

The activists were detained on Sunday in the Neukoelln district of Berlin after an hours-long standoff in which the activists sought permanent leases in a building that the owners acknowledged had stood empty for five years.

An activist group had urged the occupation of nine buildings across the city over the holiday weekend to protest against rising rents and gentrification, and to demand better housing policies.

“We, self-determined Berliners, will no longer accept the stupidity of empty houses, poverty, evictions and lack of space to live in,” the group said in a statement on its website.

The owners said they had bought the building three years ago and had intended an immediate renovation but their plans had stalled due to a serious risk of the building collapsing.

“CLEAR POLITICAL SIGNAL”

Lawmakers of the far-left Left party and the environmentalist Greens party said the protest actions were understandable, while members of the ruling centre-left Social Democrats party defended the police intervention.

Katrin Lompscher, a Left party member who oversees housing for Berlin, said on Facebook that the incident underscored the problems facing people with low incomes as rents rose.

“The motivation of the squatters to send a clear political signal is understandable. However, the occupation of buildings is an intrusion of property rights and can have criminal consequences,” she said, calling for a cap on rental hikes.

In September, the Berlin district court ruled that rent brakes introduced in 2015 to put a limit on rent increases were unconstitutional.

Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Andrea Shalal and Gareth Jones

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