Parents who fold out the sofa in the living room into a bed for the night, children who sleep on a mezzanine level under the old building ceiling: this is how some families deal with the lack of space in their apartment.

At the same time, there is also the opposite case: pensioners who continue to stay in the large family apartment after the children have moved out and the death of their partner, or well-earning single people who can afford work and guest rooms.

Julia Loehr

Business correspondent in Berlin.

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The German Economic Institute (IW) from Cologne speaks of a "mismatch in the housing market" in a new analysis that is available to the FAZ.

6.5 percent of households in large cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants live in cramped living conditions.

The definition for this is that there are fewer living spaces than household members, for example when a couple with one child lives in a two-room apartment.

Almost as many households, 6.2 percent, have a lot of space, specifically: the number of living spaces exceeds that of household members by three or more.

A single person in a four-room apartment falls into this category.

Berlin exchange market is little used

According to the analysis, two groups in particular have problems in the big cities: In 2020, every third family lived in an overcrowded apartment.

One in five households with a migration background was affected.

By contrast, around 9 percent of households in the 70+ age category lived in a very spacious apartment.

Study author Michael Voigtländer explains that the latest figures are a good two years old and contain neither the consequences of the Corona period nor those of the energy crisis, with the fact that the data from the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) are only available with a delay.

From his point of view, the figures show one thing above all: "There is great potential to ease the housing shortage in the big cities." Voigtländer suggests that housing companies, for example, should make more offers for downsizing to pensioners with a lot of space, for example by reducing the costs and the organization of the move can also be taken over.

But he also says: "It's not easy to leverage the potential." Long-term tenants often have contracts with rents per square meter that are still very cheap and would not necessarily pay less in view of the increase in new contract rents despite less space.

In addition, many want to remain in familiar surroundings.

A few cities are already trying to bring space requirements and available space closer together.

The six state-owned housing companies in Berlin set up an exchange market in September 2018, which clears one hurdle right from the start: Within this group, tenants can take their previous square meter rent with them.

If you downsize, you also pay significantly less.

Nevertheless, so far there have only been 454 cases or 908 tenants in an exchange - with a total of 360,000 apartments, a manageable number.

"For every tenant who is willing to downsize, there are about five requests for enlargement," explains a spokesman for the Association of Berlin-Brandenburg Housing Companies (BBU).

He does not believe that more help with the move could increase interest in downsizing.

Three of the six companies initially wrote to long-term residents and lured them in with up to 3,500 euros in relocation assistance.

But that didn't go over well at all.

The residents asked whether they wouldn't begrudge them the large apartment.

It used to be even more tense, according to IW

According to the analysis by IW Köln, the situation was more tense in the early 1990s than it is today.

After reunification, up to 9.3 percent of households lived in cramped living conditions, and only around 3 percent in spacious apartments.

With a new building offensive – according to IW, more than 600,000 apartments were built in 1994 – the situation eased.

From 2008 to 2012, even a larger proportion of households lived in apartments that were too large than those that were too small.

Only in recent years has the relationship reversed itself.

Voigtländer does not think much of demands to allow landlords to increase existing rents more sharply in order to increase fluctuation on the housing market.

"That is not politically enforceable." His conclusion from the numbers is different: "We need more new construction."

However, housing associations had recently reported that, due to the rise in interest rates and construction costs, as well as the growing number of requirements, less and less construction is taking place.

After the 293,000 homes completed in 2021, they expect the number to drop towards 250,000.

In contrast, the coalition agreement of the traffic light coalition states the goal of 400,000 new apartments per year.

Construction Minister Klara Geywitz (SPD) had stuck to this number for a long time, but then admitted in mid-December that the 400,000 could not be reached for the time being.

On Tuesday, she pointed out on the short message service Twitter that 321,575 new apartments had been approved from January to November 2022.

Dirk Salewski from the Federal Association of Free Housing Companies countered that “you cannot live in building permits”.

Many planned projects would no longer be realized.

The main annoyance of the industry is the slashed subsidies: after more than 10 billion euros for new buildings last year, only 1.1 billion euros are planned for this year.