Poverty on the rise

There is no denying it: The gap between the wealthy and those who have nothing is widening. The poor become more. The fear of job loss has also reached strata that thought they were safe from social decline. In Berlin officially already each sixth inhabitant is considered poor. Unmistakable indicators of the advance of poverty are the increasing calls for help in the capital's debt counseling centers and the increased demand for simple and inexpensive housing. 7000 Berliners are without own dwelling, thus on accommodations of city and charitable mechanisms dependently. 2000 people live and sleep on the streets.

Achim Gohsel's* apartment can only be heated with stoves. He calls it a "stroke of luck". Not that he's a nostalgic who wouldn't appreciate central heating. Gohsel lives on the third floor of an old building. Coal hauling is a hassle for him because he is physically impaired. His disability resulted in him being declared unfit for work. Since then, the man in his mid-forties has been drawing a pension of around 770 euros. He would not be able to afford a renovated apartment with central heating. Also larger purchases are not in it. The last furniture purchase was a long time ago. If the refrigerator broke down: "I don't know how I could fix it." More and more Berliners are feeling the same way Gohsel does. Yet early retirees are not even considered poor; according to the official definition of poverty, they still have too much money available to them each month (see box).

"The view on the income alone does not say much about poverty, there must be differentiated more exactly", explains Petra Böhnke. Researcher at the Social Science Research Center Berlin examines social inequality, precarious living situations and social integration. "You have to distinguish between lack of money and lack of social as well as cultural participation."

In January, police officers rescued six children from a prefabricated apartment building in Marzahn. The 39-year-old mother had lived with them in an apartment that was full of garbage. Of the five rooms only two were still habitable. Neighbors had alerted the police because of the stench. In the previous year, 314 neglected children were registered in Berlin. In 2006 there were 350. When we talk about the "underclass" and the "disconnected precariat", we are by no means referring only to such extreme exceptions. A much larger number of people are affected by poverty in Berlin – without attracting ne-gative attention. Lack of participation in social life, however, often goes hand in hand with lack of money.

When it is no longer enough for the rent

No books on the shelf, but a huge TV – "If you can afford that, you're not poor," some people say. However: Many people who own expensive consumer electronics can't actually afford these purchases. Frank Wiedenhaupt, debt counselor at the "Arbeitskreis neue Armut" in Neukölln, reports: "A big problem for most people seeking help here are the installments to banks and mail-order companies." First get cheerfully bought. If later the dunning notices flutter into the house, one pays of necessity – as far as still money is present. The catch: above this then quickly neglects to pay the rent.

Those who do not pay their rent have so-called "primary debts. And that means: now it's down to the wire! In the worst case, it comes to eviction. People who lose their homes usually have great difficulty in ever getting one again. Hardly any landlords are willing to rent an apartment to someone who still has rent debts elsewhere. Even a Schufa entry, which documents the debt level, means the sidelines. That's why debt counselors take rent debts in particular very seriously. "More than 25 percent of the people we advise have rent debts," says Klaus Richter of the Berlin state working group for debtor and insolvency advice. "This problem has increased greatly in recent years." The average amount of rent owed by those who seek advice is just under 3500 euros.

The amount of rent debt per person has remained about the same in recent years. On the other hand, the number of people seeking advice about these debts has risen sharply: from 9091 in 2003 to 11.281 (2005) to 13.532 in 2006. Short-term and crisis counseling are not yet included in this figure. These consultations are almost always about rent debts – and in all districts, even the supposedly better-off ones.

Berlin debt counselors see one reason for the rising demand in the Hartz IV legislation: Anyone who has been unemployed for more than a year receives unemployment benefit II (Alg II) – and no longer unemployment assistance, which was higher for many in the past. Alg II recipients have to get by on 345 euros a month. Rent is paid in addition – but only within a narrow framework: Single-person households are supported with up to 360 euros, including ancillary and heating costs. Those living as a couple can claim up to 444 euros a month; for three-person households, the limit is 542 euros. For Björn Wilden*, this was no problem: He received assistance for three months last year. The freelancer lost orders at short notice, so he went to the job center. His advantage is the cheap apartment. Not far from Auguststrasse in Mitte, he pays 320 euros in rent for 59 square meters, much less than usual. But he is also one of the few who soon got their act together again. The order situation became better – the receipt of state support is a thing of the past.

Lunch at Brother Antonius

Volker Neumann*, for example, has had to get by on 345 euros a month for quite a while. He shares his two-room apartment with a subtenant. When he wants to eat something hot at lunchtime, he often drives from Neukölln to Pankow. There, at Wollankstrasse 19, food is served from 12:45 p.m., except on Mondays. Brother Antonius, who runs the soup kitchen at the Franciscan monastery in Pankow, feeds about 350 people a day. On some days, up to 500 hungry people come. "It started in 1991, when there were about ten people on average." Very few of the visitors are homeless. Most of them have a room somewhere, a small apartment or live under care. Because some people have had their gas and electricity cut off, they are happy to be able to shower here. Fresh laundry can also be picked up at the clothing store. The little money most people have to get by with is no longer enough for all fixed costs or even acquisitions. Gerald Wanger*, for example, who also comes here every day, receives a pension of a good 700 euros. "I pay more than half of that for my rent," says the 67-year-old former industrial craftsman. At least he has hot running water and a modern bathroom.

Since the 1990s, those who earn little in Berlin – or are dependent on state support – have had less and less in their pockets due to a significant increase in rents. "The wave of redevelopment has also meant that cheap apartments have become rare," says Andreas Kapphan. "In the rapid development that Berlin has made – economic decline combined with an enormous push for renewal – many have fallen by the wayside."Kapphan, together with urban and regional sociologist Hartmut Häußermann, has written a book analyzing this development: "Berlin – from a divided to a split city?".

Segregation is also on the rise in Berlin

One finding of their study is that Berlin is becoming socially polarized, with the poor and the rich increasingly living in separate neighborhoods. As cheap housing becomes scarce, poverty is concentrated on the one hand in the large housing estates on the outskirts of the city, and on the other hand in centrally located unrenovated old building quarters. "The special thing about Berlin is that there is so much poverty in the center of a European capital city. The others – for example Paris or London – push poverty completely to the outskirts of the city," Häußermann states.

Although conditions on Berlin's housing market are still moderate compared to other metropolises, Ekkehardt Hayner, a consultant at the nonprofit Society for the Care of the Homeless and Socially Weak (Gebewo), predicts: "Alg II recipients will have to move more often in the coming years because their rent is too high."So far, debt counselors in the districts have reported only a few isolated cases. The feared large relocation wave failed to materialize for the time being. One reason for this so far is that the costs of moving – which have to be borne by the state – would often not be in proportion to the savings resulting from a cheaper rent. Forced relocations have only been possible since June of last year. "Many cases have not yet been worked through," warns Hayner. The consultant also criticizes the job centers for not fulfilling their duty to advise in many cases: "If a deposit is due for the new apartment, it must be refunded. Often however one tries to get these back over a loan from the assistance receiver."

Seek advice and help in good time!

Those who are unable to cope with rising costs on their limited budgets can call on help (see box). But not all of them know where to find one. And who does not worry in time about assistance, which threatens in the end the homelessness. At the end of 2004, around 7,000 people in Berlin were without their own homes. This means that they live in homes or boarding houses financed by the state.

For six years, Harald Ortmann* (49) has lived in "Haus Langhans," a residential home for alcoholics with chronic multiple impairments who are unable to abstain. The project supervised by Gebewo offers its residents a home accompanied by social pedagogy. The former welder from East Berlin got by with ABM jobs and gardening after reunification. Due to rent debts, he lost his apartment after two years. For a while he lived with friends. When that was no longer possible, he found shelter in the house "Grabbeallee. This transitional house, also run by Gebewo, offers 24 homeless men temporary housing with socio-educational counseling and care. Today, in the "Haus Langhans," Ortmann has a home of twelve square meters. His household: a television set including base cabinet and a budgie.

Homeless people are not even included in the statistics of homeless people. According to estimates by the Senate Department for Integration, Labor and Social Affairs, around 2000 people live on the streets of Berlin. They have the least chance of finding their own apartment again.

* Names changed by editors

One in six Berliners is poor

The measure of "relative income poverty" is the so-called "average equivalized income". This takes into account a more favorable cost-per-person ratio in larger households – a common international method. Depending on the definition, people are considered poor if they only have a maximum of 50 percent of the equivalent income – according to another calculation, it is 60 percent.

The equivalent income in Berlin in 2004 was 1201 euros, so the poverty line is 601 euros according to the calculation model used in Berlin so far (below 50 percent of the equivalent income). For each additional person in the household aged 15 and over, the poverty line was thus 421 euros, and for children under 15 301 euros.

In 2004, there were 599.700 people are affected by poverty, which is 17.6 percent, or one in six Berliners. These people lived in 295.800 households. Proportionally, 14.4 percent of the population is considered poor in the eastern part of the city, and 19.5 percent in the west. The Senate Department for Integration, Labor and Social Affairs identifies unemployment as the main cause of poverty. Which, in turn, is favored by "lack of or poor educational or vocational qualifications".

Children and adolescents are particularly victims of poverty: in 2004, 32.4 percent of all underage children were poor because they belonged to poor households. Children are not only affected by poverty themselves, they are also a poverty risk for their parents, especially single parents. The more children in the household, the greater the risk of falling below the poverty line. Another fact: At 37.5 percent, the risk of poverty among non-German households is almost three times higher than among German households.

Rent debts: What to do if there's a fire?

When can the landlord terminate the apartment?

If the rent has not been paid or has not been paid in full for two consecutive months and a total arrears of more than one month's rent has accumulated, the landlord can terminate without notice. This also applies if the rent has not been paid in full or on time over a longer period of time and there are arrears of two months' rent in total.

What to do if the landlord threatens to terminate the lease in the event of rent arrears?

It is best if rent arrears are cleared before the termination letter is received. This means that the landlord may lose his right to terminate the lease. If compensation is not possible: immediately apply to the social welfare office to have the rent taken over. If one can repay rent arrears in the foreseeable future itself, then there is the possibility to talk with the landlord and offer an installment payment. But: Don't make offers that can't be kept! The alternative: agree a deferral of the rent arrears. Provided that the landlord agrees, the notice can be averted with it.

When can the landlord file an eviction action?

If the apartment was terminated without notice, the landlord can file an eviction action in court. The eviction notice is served by postal delivery certificate or by depositing it at the post office. Important: A two-month period begins when the eviction notice is served or deposited in the mail.

How to avert termination and eviction of the apartment?

The rent debt must be paid no later than two months after service of the eviction notice, or a public agency (welfare office or job center) agrees to take over the rent arrears. In certain cases, the social welfare office can take over rent arrears in order to prevent the loss of housing. Attention: If this has already been done in the last two years because of a termination, the landlord is not obliged to continue the tenancy.

Who helps if the rent arrears can not be settled?

If the income is not sufficient to pay the rent in arrears, an application can be made to the social welfare office to take over the rent debt. Social Services will only approve the takeover of rent arrears if future rent payments are secured and if the takeover is justified to secure accommodation and without help there is a threat of homelessness. Homelessness threatens in the event of termination of the apartment or an eviction suit. A takeover is considered justified only if no rental debts have arisen so far and if the rent is appropriate (inexpensive rent and not too large living space). Rent arrears can be granted by the social welfare office as a one-time subsidy or as a loan.

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