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Berlin doubles down against vacation rentals

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BERLIN - Once burdened with abandoned real estate, Germany's capital is now looking to ax vacation rentals to alleviate a current housing shortage.

BERLIN -- "[We] could never have believed that this place would ever be seen as inhabitable," growls a local bar owner in a broken-English video diatribe about the gentrification of Berlin's Neukölln district.

"This is [the most] difficult for us, because it feels [wrong]. We're sorry to have kicked this off."

The eerily resonant video went viral over two years ago, capturing the angst of many longer-term residents in the once-run-down area -- and setting off a firestorm of controversy among others, especially newcomers who felt attacked. The video maker, Freiburg-native Matthias Merkle, told Der Spiegel he doesn't hate anyone and only wanted to begin a discussion.

But today the stakes are even higher: Germany's capital is short anywhere from 12,000 to 14,000 apartments -- a deficit that is expected to increase. Critics have said the growing number of short-term vacation residencies in the city is exacerbating the problem, prompting Berlin's municipal senate to draft a bill banning the wrongful use of residencies in highly saturated districts. The piece of legislation is set to go before the Berlin state parliament later this month.

The goal is for Berlin housing to be also available to Berliners, a speaker for the city’s Senate Administration for Urban Development told German news service dpa. If passed, the law would hold apartment owners accountable for occupying or leasing apartments to long-term residents only. Individuals or businesses capitalizing on short-term -- and often significantly higher -- rates for tourists could be subject to fines.

Apartment owners may not be the only group subject to prosecution under the proposed law: fast-growing vacation rental businesses like Wimdu and Airbnb, which currently hosts some 6,600 listings in the city, put the onus on users to beware local laws regarding short-term sublets.

“We’re currently reviewing proposed legislation in Berlin and other local regulatory efforts," Airbnb Communications Head Kim Rubey told SmartPlanet.

“[We have an interest in protecting] those who are contributing positively to cities through additional tourism and economic activity, while simultaneously preventing behavior that has an adverse effect on neighborhoods."

“The more we talk to cities, the more they begin to understand the benefits to the economy and to neighborhoods that the typical Airbnb experience can provide," she added.

While Airbnb has said that it is actively discussing the laws of places like New York with state and city officials following the near-prosecution of one Airbnb user there to the tune of $40,000, it is uncertain how passage and enforcement of the Berlin legislation will play out. Cities such as San Francisco and Paris already restrict vacation rentals in some way.

"Vacation homes are an important market sector, they always have been. But any sector can get out of hand, and we agree that it has to be regulated," Christian Tänzler of Berlin’s tourism office told SmartPlanet.

Tourism is the leading industry in the German capital, Tänzler said, adding that Berlin has opened itself up to the world in ways not seen since the 1920s.

"It took London and Rome hundreds of years to handle the kind of change we're handling in just 25. It takes time to adjust."

Some argue that government officials are using vacation apartments as a scapegoat for the real estate squeeze. But at least 30,000 new apartments are already planned for the city by 2016, according to German newspaper Neues Deutschland.

"New apartments alone won’t solve the problem in the real estate market,” Berlin Renter’s Association Director Reiner Wild told the paper.

“New apartments barely lie below ten Euros per square meter, and we need affordable housing."

This is not the first attempt by Berlin city officials to limit vacation apartment rentals. In 2002, the local administrative court struck down a similar measure, citing no shortage of apartments in the city. At that time, some 100,000 apartments remained to be filled.

PHOTO: Flickr/dieter titz

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure