Germany Is Housing Refugees in Communist Ghost Towns

Will asylum seekers revitalize the crumbling housing projects of eastern Germany -- or turn them into ghettos?


MAGDEBURG, Germany — Danial Mahdian tottered across the deserted courtyard behind his apartment building on a gray afternoon in June, his parents, Vahid and Maryam, trailing close behind. As they walked toward the tram station, Maryam occasionally redirecting the 18-month-old to keep him on track, Vahid pointed to three other grim housing blocks lining the yard. They were long, low-slung, concrete slabs, just like his own, but wooden boards blocked their entrances. “All these buildings are empty,” the 29-year-old Afghan said in halting English.

The Mahdians’ building had been empty too, slated for demolition like the others, until the German government sent the young family to live there in early 2015, along with some 200 other asylum-seekers. An IT technician who fled Herat, Afghanistan, because of persecution from the Taliban, Vahid and his new neighbors from Syria, the Balkans, and elsewhere have brought new life to the dilapidated structure as they await decisions on their applications for asylum. Strollers line the ground-floor hallways; clothes hang out to dry on balconies; and bikes lean on mailboxes that are once again receiving mail. The new arrivals have filled the building to capacity, but there’s plenty more room in Neu Olvenstedt, the sprawling, notorious housing estate to which it belongs. A steady exodus of residents has left some 1,000 apartments empty in the communist-era complex, which sits on the outskirts of Magdeburg, an industrial city in eastern Germany.

By sending the Mahdians and others to live in places like Neu Olvenstedt, some think the German government can fix two problems in one stroke. As winter deepens, the country is scrambling to find accommodations for the newcomers who submitted more than 425,000 asylum applications during the first 11 months of 2015. Tent villages have cropped up across the country; barracks, hostels, and former airports are housing others.

Meanwhile, local administrations in former East Germany have long puzzled over what to do with their emptying modernist apartment blocks, built by the Communist regime during the Cold War, in the face of the region’s long-term demographic decline. After decades of simply demolishing them, towns and cities have suddenly found new use for these scorned structures: Municipalities like Halle, Neubrandenburg, Cottbus, and Schwedt are converting some into temporary housing for asylum applicants. Aimed at giving asylum-seekers a warm place to stay and a foothold in German society, the arrangement could also offer the country’s most precarious regions a chance to revitalize shrinking neighborhoods that had fallen into disrepair.

But Neu Olvenstedt and other mass housing estates in the east have histories of social dysfunction and right-wing violence — a dark legacy that has raised concerns about sending too many vulnerable foreigners to live in them. Traces of that legacy remain: Attacks on asylum-seeker residences increased dramatically in 2015, especially in the east. And experts warn that new arrivals could become ghettoized if too many end up in peripheral residential complexes that are isolated and economically depressed.

The Mahdians continued their walk across Neu Olvenstedt, heading for the tram that would take them to the halal grocers and department stores of the city center. They traced a course between derelict apartment blocks and empty fields where others like them had been torn down. “The silent place,” Vahid said — his name for this desolate corner of the estate, which the family finds vaguely foreboding. Maryam, 25, picked up Danial and walked faster.

They arrived at the station just as a tram was pulling in. In 1997, a group of young skinheads had killed a teenager affiliated with Magdeburg’s leftist punk scene on that same platform. The Afghan family boarded the train, leaving the station quiet and empty.

* * *

This is not the first time that Germany’s vast residential estates have sheltered those in need. As architectural historian Florian Urban writes in his book Tower and Slab, the origins of mass housing trace back to the early 20th century, when Europe’s leading modern architects — many of them German — joined efforts to alleviate the domestic misery of the industrial working class. They designed large, airy complexes on the edges of cities — far from the cramped and unsanitary tenements in urban centers. The engine of these great public projects was a radical vision of a modern city reconfigured into a more egalitarian form.

This humanitarian program took on new urgency after World War II, as Allied bombing left East and West Germany facing acute housing shortages. In response, both countries began assembling increasingly large configurations of serial apartment buildings — and East Germany in particular, which erected estates as quickly and cheaply as possible in an effort to meet state-imposed production quotas.

The country never did meet its quotas, however, and what it did manage to build was monotonous and interminably gray. Row after row of drab housing block came to encircle the cities of East Germany, offering few amenities and little in the way of social life — a trend that Neu Olvenstedt was meant to reverse.

The architects of Neu Olvenstedt were given unusual creative license with the design of the 556-acre estate, which was built in the 1980s for more than 30,000 residents. The buildings they drew up were still prefabricated concrete hulks, but decorative tiling wraps around their entrances, small ponds dot courtyards, and freestanding community buildings host meetings, meals, and parties.

Johannes Schroth, the estate’s head architect, said that Neu Olvenstedt’s tens of thousands of residents were happy to live there in the 1980s, not least for its egalitarian spirit. “It was considered a matter of course that a professor would live next door to a bus driver and a saleswoman,” he said of such estates in the east. “That was really something special.”

If Neu Olvenstedt was a pinnacle in East Germany’s housing program, it also marked its demise. Construction on the estate began in 1981, just nine years before the country that commissioned it would cease to exist. Large residential complexes were already stigmatized west of the Iron Curtain by then, after projects from Paris to St. Louis had become hubs of poverty and crime. In East Germany, the typology’s fall from grace took place mostly after reunification, but its decline there was all the more precipitous.

Almost as soon as the Berlin Wall fell, droves of East Germans began heading west in search of jobs, contributing to spiking vacancy rates in estates like Neu Olvenstedt. Right-wing radicalism came to fill the growing vacuum of social and civic order. According to David Begrich, who works for an anti-discrimination NGO in Magdeburg, teenage skinheads in combat boots and bomber jackets prowled Neu Olvenstedt’s paths and courtyards throughout the 1990s, harassing residents and picking fights with seeming impunity. The east’s few foreigners were regular targets of such violence. “It was a time of lawlessness, a time of anarchy,” said Begrich, who counted at least 10 instances when he himself was assaulted by Neu Olvenstedt skinheads.

Right-wing activity subsided in the estate and in the rest of the east over the course of the 1990s, Begrich said, as government institutions strengthened and the generation of youths radicalized at that time grew older. But the empty apartments remained. In response, Germany initiated an extensive demolition program, tearing down hundreds of thousands of apartments in the east. Of the roughly 13,000 units originally built in Neu Olvenstedt, around 7,300 remain, statistics kept by Magdeburg show, though the estate’s vacancy rate still hovers around 17.5 percent. Only some 10,500 people live there now, down from more than 32,000 in 1991, and those that remain are far poorer and less likely to be employed than national averages.

The flight of residents and the wrecking balls that followed have left Neu Olvenstedt a ghost of its former self. A feeling of loss hangs over the estate, over the vacant lots where vacant buildings once stood, over the shuttered bars and empty playgrounds — all relics of a state that is no more and of a grand urban vision gone awry.

Schroth, Neu Olvenstedt’s architect, does see one possible future for the dying estates, and it involves newcomers like Vahid. “Where are they all supposed to go?” he asked of the wave of new arrivals in Europe. “This situation could suddenly produce entirely new possibilities for these housing complexes — whether positive or negative.”

Such speculation is rarely heard from among the local officials responsible for actually housing the newcomers. Almost 200 additional asylum-seekers are being sent to Magdeburg every week, said Simone Borris, the local official overseeing applicant housing, who views renovating abandoned buildings mainly as a pragmatic response to the Sisyphean task. Simply finding accommodations for all the migrants has left little time to reflect on the long-term impact they could have on their adopted neighborhoods.

But Borris acknowledged that reviving derelict structures for the job is changing neighborhoods like Neu Olvenstedt for the better. Vahid’s building, once planned for demolition, will re-enter Magdeburg’s housing stock after its stint as an asylum-seeker residence, the Volksstimme newspaper reports. And Borris hopes that families like the Mahdians will stick around if granted asylum. “It would be great if refugees actually find homes in the neighborhoods where they were sent” as asylum-seekers, she said, “and actually even revitalize them.”

Some think that migrants could even mitigate the country’s broader demographic dilemma. Towns and small cities are hemorrhaging residents throughout Germany — but especially in the east — and the average age of those who remain is rising rapidly. A 2014 report by the Hamburg Institute of International Economics and Berenberg Bank predicts that the country’s population will fall from 81 million to 65 million by 2060, at which time 40 percent of Germans will be 60 or older.

This sweeping demographic realignment could have serious economic consequences, but some experts think increased immigration might blunt its impact. “It could certainly slow down the transition,” said Giovanni Peri, a labor economist at the University of California, Davis. “In countries where labor markets are relatively competitive,” he said, “immigrants actually tend to be employed even more than the natives.”

Whether Peri’s findings apply to those currently seeking refuge in Europe remains a subject of debate. Susan Fratzke of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said that refugees have not typically fared as well as other immigrant groups in Europe. “It’s been a challenge,” she said of previous integration efforts, due in part to a mismatch between the skills refugees may bring and the jobs available. “I can’t say that there have been many outstanding success stories.” In any case, Fratzke and Peri agree that the ability of asylum-seekers to fill the gaps growing in German society will depend largely on how well they are integrated — and how quickly.

* * *

“The black shirt is from Afghanistan,” Vahid said. “One is from Kosovo.” It was two days after his trip into the city center, and he found himself once again in the courtyard behind his apartment building in Neu Olvenstedt. Some of his neighbors were playing soccer on a bare stretch of asphalt, and Vahid stood on the sidelines, listing off their nationalities as they ran past. “The small lady is from Serbia,” he continued and pointed to a teenage girl standing next to the trashcans that served as goal posts.

New asylum-seekers were moving into the Neu Olvenstedt facility every month. “Today, Tony cleaned our top floors,” Vahid said, referring to the on-site social worker who helps Vahid and his neighbors navigate their daily lives in Germany. “Maybe they are bringing someone new.”

Vahid doesn’t mind the building’s bleak appearance. He considers his family lucky to live there as they wait out an answer to their application, especially compared to the gymnasiums and converted shipping containers where other asylum-seekers are being put up. The Mahdians have a kitchen, three rooms, a bathroom, and balcony to themselves — all quiet, freshly painted, and equipped with new appliances.

But the apartment is virtually all that the Mahdians have. Restrictive labor laws have prevented Vahid or Maryam from working (although Vahid recently received permission to apply for a two-week internship at a local IT company), leaving the family dependent on a small monthly stipend from the government. The Mahdians likely can’t relocate from Magdeburg before receiving a response to their applications for asylum, which, for Afghans, could take over a year. In the meantime, the family can do little more than wait.

Despite their boredom, sporadic outbursts of xenophobia in Magdeburg have left the Mahdians wary of spending time outside their apartment — and of interacting with Germans. In the fall, Maryam instituted a curfew for the family after a group of 30 attacked six Syrian asylum-seekers with baseball bats near the city center. Vahid is quick to put such episodes in perspective, however, by citing the many positive interactions he has had with locals. “It’s not a German problem — it’s a person problem,” he said.

Still, the family spends almost all of their time alone in the apartment. Vahid and Maryam are cordial with their neighbors, though Vahid says they haven’t really made any true friends. The Mahdians keep to themselves — a byproduct, perhaps, of having had to rely on smugglers, some less scrupulous than others, during their traumatic seven-month journey from Afghanistan.

Experts say that the isolation of families like the Mahdians could have grave repercussions over the long term — especially in places like Neu Olvenstedt. “These mass housing estates in particular will have the tendency to develop into ethnic ghettos,” said Harald Simons, an economist at the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences, who has studied asylum-seeker housing. “Then we’ll see conditions like those that we know from the banlieues of France.”

Integrating foreigners becomes more difficult when too many are clustered in a single place, Simons said, and the anonymity of large housing blocks only exacerbates the problem. Underemployment, poor performance in school, reliance on state support, and lackluster German language skills are all potential outcomes if large numbers of newly minted refugees end up in the disadvantaged peripheral neighborhoods where they were first sent to live as asylum applicants, he warned.

Instead, Simons advocates for dispersing new families widely across towns and small cities where jobs are available and vacancy rates are similarly high. Mass housing estates like Neu Olvenstedt now only account for a fraction of Germany’s 1.7 million empty dwellings, Simons noted, in part because so many empty buildings were demolished.

Authorities in Magdeburg seem equally wary of ghettoizing asylum applicants and have worked to spread them proportionally throughout the city. And Borris, the local official, thinks that large abandoned buildings aren’t actually ideal for the job. Renovating them can be costly and slow, she said, which is one reason why the old East German estates are only some of the many places where asylum-seekers are being sent to live.

Still, as tens of thousands of newcomers arrive in Germany every month, more and more empty buildings in the east will likely be spared from demolition to house the needy once more. Two streets away from the Mahdians’ building, another large, decaying apartment block is slated for renovation to house asylum applicants. The Social Welfare Office has even told the Mahdians it will pay for them to find their own apartment in the city, as it needs their unit in Neu Olvenstedt for new arrivals who will require more assistance from the on-site social worker.

The Mahdians don’t know whether they will stay in Magdeburg if granted asylum. Vahid hopes to resume IT work if his application is approved; he’ll move his family for the job, if necessary. Vahid is certain, however, that many refugees will stay in Magdeburg — and that those who do will change the city for the better. “We will make this place like Hamburg and Berlin,” he said one weekend in July, on a bike ride into the city center along quiet, empty streets. “More refugees will come and will work and make a noisy home.”

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