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Society

Housing market frustrations spur a rise in German co-ops

The dream of owning a home in the suburbs seems more and more obsolete in Germany. So, many people are banding together in co-ops to design and build their own houses - without investors who drive up prices.

Hamburg's HafenCity

Hamburg's HafenCity is a prime example of high-priced real estate

Raising kids right in the middle of the city was a pretty uncomfortable idea for many in Germany just a decade ago. Families headed out to the suburbs or even into the countryside to set up their homes.

But moving away from cities has familiar drawbacks both for the families and the urban areas they leave behind. Most families need two cars - one for driving to work, and one for toting the kids around during the day, for example. And a flight to the suburbs can lead large segments of a city to unravel into row houses with monotonous and unimaginative architecture.

But in the 21st century, the trends are reversing, especially among young families.

"Cities are undergoing a renaissance," said Olaf Bahner of the Association of German Architects. "If both parents work and also have to coordinate raising kids, then it's easier if distances are shorter and if stores and educational and cultural offerings are nearer to home."

But many two-income households don't want to forego the sense of community in smaller towns.

"Many families are forming building co-ops," Bahner added. "They seek out a vacant lot in a good location, hire an architect and construct a building together."

The co-op model of building and owning homes isn't just cheaper. It also promotes sharing space and responsibilities among residents, including for childrearing.

Driven by practical concerns

A row of houses in rural Germany

The trend of heading away from cities to start families is reversing

Co-ops began gaining traction in Germany during the 1980s in Hamburg and in parts of Berlin, where abandoned buildings were taken over by illegal squatters who often identified with leftist politics. But the popularity of private co-ops in recent years is driven less by politics and more by pragmatism.

Those most interested in co-ops include academics and self-employed workers in the creative sectors, according to a study by architectural journal Bauwelt.

But those demographics prompt critics to point out that co-ops can lead to gentrification, which squeezes out lower-income families and individuals. The example of smaller German cities like Freiburg or Tübingen, where entire co-op neighborhoods have risen up in the last decade, show that such fears could be well-founded.

Nonetheless, the trend toward co-ops is spreading across Germany. There are currently 130 privately organized building projects registered in Berlin's Wohnprojekte web portal for housing developments. They account for a third of all new building projects in the central part of the city.

Utopian vision

Utz Ingo Küppers at a building site

Utz Ingo Küppers heads a co-op of home buyers in Cologne

The idea has also spread to Cologne in western Germany, where Utz Ingo Küppers, a 70-year-old retiree and former head of the urban planning office, banded together with 17 like-minded citizens three years ago to form a co-op. They wanted to create a living space suited to everyone's needs and in which they could choose their neighbors for themselves.

"There is a group room, a guest apartment, shared washing machines and a roof terrace, which we can all share," explained Küppers.

Their joint project is intended to serve as a model for ecological, social and affordable living, right in the middle of Cologne. At 3,000 euros ($4,100) per square meter, it's hardly an inexpensive property, but investors generally seek 5,000 euros per square meter in nearby residences.

"Working as a group, you can achieve prices about 20 percent cheaper compared with apartments and buildings that developers construct," said Thomas Luzcak, the architect in charge of Cologne's project.

But idealism is often as much of a factor as price.

"It just may signal the end of a way of thinking and living that is oriented solely on the self," Luzcak added.

No easy task

Thomas Luczak's design for the Cologne co-op

Thomas Luczak's design for the Cologne co-op

However, founding a co-op isn't a matter of just following a simple blueprint. There are many obstacles along the way, and the process demands a lot of time, as Utz Ingo Küppers knows well. Organizing the project has amounted to a part-time - and unpaid - job for the retiree.

The group's first proposal, a draft with complete plans for financing, was rejected by the city of Cologne. That prompted half of the co-op members to bail on the project, despite the already significant amount of time and money invested.

The co-op's second proposal was accepted, but the increased costs meant that the social composition of the group had changed.

"We could not accept any more people with lower incomes. We had to concentrate on higher-earning people," noted Küppers.

The co-op's weekly meetings showed just how difficult it is to bring everybody's interests under one roof.

"The fundamental philosophy was that we wanted to live in an eco-friendly way. But the younger members who came to the project later decided, for example, that a solar power generator isn't really so important," said Küppers.

Worthwhile results

Küppers still views co-ops as a good alternative to the greediness of investors as well as a solution to the serial and unimaginative architecture that fills many of Germany's cities.

Some architecture firms have already begun to specialize in co-op development. Architect Thomas Luczak has tried to tailor his services to exactly what private developers are after, from 65-square-meter (700 sq. feet) apartments to three-level duplexes with 130 square meters each.

"There are more and more people who don't like the housing market but still want to remain in the city," Luczak said.

Despite all of the disagreements endemic in organizing a co-op, Küppers remains convinced that he's on the right path.

"Privately, we all get along very well," he said. "I really want to live together with people from other generations and stations of life - even if that means a lot of work,"

Author: Sabine Oelze / gsw
Editor: Louisa Schaefer

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