You originally come from Essen and have now been in Berlin for over 16 years. In your opinion, what links these two cities? What could they maybe learn from each other?
Berlin and Essen are definitely both cities that have a long period of hard times behind them. Essen was able to learn quite a lot by watching and copying Berlin, but not everything. In Berlin, many things were done right, where investments in higher education of culture are concerned. I believe that they are very important location factors. There are naturally topics that can’t be copied due to the different functions of the cities. Essen has potential and is definitely an interesting city culturally, although many looking at it from the outside are not properly aware of this.
If we talk about Gewobag and the past year, it was very much influenced by acquisitions, for example, the Pallasseum or the purchase of ADO with 6,000 apartments in Spandau and Reinickendorf. Why are the acquisitions important for Berlin?
Well, you have to look at two things. We pursued the acquisitions in particular, because they were an opportunity for Gewobag to purchase and manage stocks at a reasonable price. Stocks that suit Gewobag very well. As a state-owned company, Gewobag is itself part of the housing policy of Land Berlin and so, together with the other municipal companies, we are one of the fairest landlords in Berlin. For the over 10,000 new tenants, this is also an advantage of living in our housing. For Berlin as a city, it opens up new opportunities to have a bit of a calming effect on the housing policy. It’s more than a drop in the bucket, but we also can’t expect any miracles to happen when you take into account the size of the portfolio.
There were also several critical voices concerning the acquisition. It was criticised, for example, that the money would have been far better invested in new buildings. What’s your response to the critics?
They are knee-jerk criticism that you hear time and time again. Starting with the allegation that taxpayers’ money was invested. That is wrong, because we don’t work with taxpayers’ money, especially not for acquisitions. There is no direct relationship between the purchase of stocks and the new build work, because they are financed in completely different ways. Our focus yesterday, today and tomorrow is clearly on new build. The purchase with 6,000 apartments in Spandau and Reinickendorf is one of the largest to be made by a municipal company to date. However, this has no influence on our new build planning.
Berlin is growing continuously and at a rapid pace; the outskirts of the city are also changing. To what extent does that affect Gewobag?
Berlin and Brandenburg are growing together. For Gewobag, the effect of this means that we plan to invest in Brandenburg ourselves, where it is quite possible for those who live there to come to Berlin. They are investments that are directly related to Berlin. Many others do the same for all sorts of different reasons.
For Gewobag itself, it can be verified that we naturally mainly invest within the Berlin boundary, in large or in future large housing areas It will be several thousand apartments, some of which already have good transport access. In some places it still has to be provided. In this respect it will be our challenge, in close coordination with the districts and Land Berlin, to ensure that the infrastructure grows again too. We are relatively far ahead regarding the topic of mobility, as far as our possibilities are concerned. But when it comes to local public transport, we are naturally dependent on Land Berlin and the investments it makes. The issue has been met with a response there. And you can see that when the pressure becomes great, politicians are able to act. We have to be vigorously, consistently and ambitiously making sure that they do. It is definitely an interesting challenge. Many Berliners will also have the opportunity to live a high-quality life outside the bustling inner city, without having to do without the opportunities that this city offers.
What do you think: Will Berlin become a megacity like London? And what do we have to pay particular attention to in the city’s development?
Berlin will definitely grow significantly. But it won’t have the same significance for Germany as London has for Great Britain. The same applies in comparison to Paris and France. Because in these two countries, unlike in Germany, almost all essential elements are concentrated in the capital. Berlin has a completely different history as a divided city, a different relative significance for Germany. Many economically important clusters are located in other cities, whether it be the financial industry, the insurance industry, or the industrial sectors with their corporate head offices. For example, we still do not have any relevant headquarters of large DAX companies in Berlin. That will probably change, but it will take many years. But this also has many advantages for Berlin. Developments in the last five to ten years would otherwise have been far more dramatic. And so, I am actually very pleased that we have a fairly balanced Republic, in which Berlin has an opportunity, in which it does not have to develop completely in response to the pressure and the enormous expectations, but can go its own way instead. And I believe that is good for Berlin. There is still lots to do. But that is hardly surprising in a city which basically did not awaken from a more or less politically imposed deep slumber until ten or twenty years go.
The changes in the city are sure to leave their mark on Gewobag too. How is Gewobag equipping itself for the future?
The one thing that I believe is very easy to see is that we are growing with the city. That we are trying to meet the increasing demand. In recent years, 30,000-50,000 people yearly moved to the city. In 2019, 18,000 people came to Berlin. That’s a declining trend. We will build 10,000-15,000 apartments in the next few years. Half of these apartments will cost less than 7 €/m². And that is very good value for money. But beyond this purely quantitative consideration, we also naturally have the situation that society and the economy are in a state of radical change, which we cannot yet fully understand: digitalisation. The word has now become a “universal weapon”; a term used as an instrument in the battle of political opinions. We are faced with it in every aspect of what we do. Internally, in that we simply adapt our processes to the situation, make them faster, leaner. We have already made some progress, but still have a lot to do. And in this context, we are also dealing with the other challenges. Housing is no longer merely a matter of providing a few square metres, which are divided into one or two rooms. We also have to think about the infrastructure, in new build developments and in existing housing areas. This also means mobility, on which we very concentrated.
Mobility will experience a change, which not only represents the issue of combustion engine versus electromobility versus hydrogen, but also the question whether, as a normal Berliner, will I own a car in ten years’ time, or will I borrow one? What is better for me? What is still possible in this city? Where can I still park a car, where can I drive it?
Another topic is the rapid ageing of society. We know that an increasingly large proportion of our tenants will become older, and so the current question is, whether we can reasonably expect them to accept present day housing from their perspective. In many cases, we are already able to answer this question with no. We have to retrofit technically and we have to concentrate far more on thinking about how we can provide services for these people. The topic of care services and outpatient care, or rather care in the home or care in the community, will become increasingly, indeed enormously important for an ever-larger proportion of the population overall, and in turn for our tenants. We are gearing up for this, which means altering apartments and making additions to housing developments with a strong commitment on the services level. We will participate to ensure that these services can be provided to our tenants and their neighbourhood with very good cost effectiveness. We hope to be able to roll these out in our existing stocks in two or three years. I am very keen to see how we do. We are very behind.
Which project is particularly important to you in 2020?
To be honest, there are very many projects. What must be seen as a whole, is the way in which we enter the topic of new build. With significantly more than 3,000 apartments, this project involves the largest number of built or started apartments since our beginnings in Haselhors. Managing it and then bringing it to an end is a major challenge. Setting up the appropriate management team so that it achieves this with a high quality standard will be an important project.
At the same time, we are very intensively involved in getting to grips with the topic of digitalisation. Not only internally, but also regarding the question of how we convey these topics externally. I would say that these are the two things that will occupy me most this year. Furthermore, we will be subject to regular, continuous change as far as our structures and processes are concerned. I am pleased that we are able to continuously take on young people, that we can renew our workforce and offer new topics. We have an unprecedented range of services. The topic of personnel development and organisational development will play a large role in this year and the next, both conceptually and in its implementation. I am personally looking forward to it, because it involves people that we bring on board. People with whom we want to progress together, enjoy successes, tackle new fields of business, manage new projects.
A friend comes to Berlin and has never been here before. But he only has an hour. Where do you send him to get a good initial impression of Berlin?
That’s easy, to our URBAN NATION Museum. He has to go to Bülowstraße in Schöneberg and take a look. I believe that it is a typical Berlin microcosm, which he will never forget. In my experience, there are also people who had more than an hour, who have told me about this museum time and again.
And your favourite place in Berlin?
My favourite place in Berlin? I have many. I like a whole range of parts of the city. I like gems such as the Berlin zoo. I used to go there often with my children. I like certain parts of Charlottenburg, and Schöneberg. I would actually find it difficult to specifically say, my favourite place is…. But it’s not only the places, but also the moments. This morning, as I saw the sunrise between the Philharmonie and the Sony Center, I said to myself that I need to take time to appreciate it and I enjoyed that moment for me alone.
Photos © Maren Schulz