Public Housing in the DDR

The second world war had a profound impact on Germany. Many hundreds of thousands were homeless, much of the infrastructure was destroyed, and 4,3 million displaced Germans from partitioned territory entered the the DDR. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) felt a responsibility to rebuild from the ruins. It was also an opportunity to demonstrate the value of a mass public housing project delivered by the state which would be publicly owned.

The main philosophical idea underpinning this notion of public housing was that housing was not to be a commodity. Generations of exploitation at the hands of the land-owning Junker class, the main financial backers of the Nazi Party, culminated in the demand to nationalise their land without compensation. This gave the SED the resources necessary for a vast and expansive housing project, the scale of which had never been seen before.

Immediately following the war, the priority was to deliver some housing, regardless of quality. This was understandable as the eastern part of Germany was the most damaged during the war, leaving cities like Berlin and Dresden beyond recognition. Nevertheless, the State housing projects began to spring up and heavy regulations were placed on existing properties which froze rent on old residential buildings at 1936 levels and redistributed living space at the landlord’s expense. Thus began the suppression of landlords’ power of disposal over their residential property.

Unfortunately, housing construction remained slow at first. The burden of war reparations to the USSR, a country which had borne the vast majority of the Nazi assault, were placed almost completely on the GDR, with little to no contribution from West Germany.

The demand for housing eased somewhat in the 1950s due to a decline in the number of inhabitants, although several problems still remained. According to Schmidt and Ritter’s “The Rise and Fall of a Socialist Welfare State”, the “existing buildings were very old, the residential structures in the GDR being an average of 63 years old in 1958 as compared to only 45 years in the Federal Republic of Germany”. Resources had to be reallocated to restoring buildings, meaning there was no real rest in the state housing projects. This ease would come to an end when around 500,000 made the journey from West-to-East Germany in the late 1950s as a result of improving economic conditions.

At the Fifth Party Congress (1958), the SED announced their intention of “eliminating the centuries-long housing shortage of the working masses in the historically shortest amount of time” (Walter Ulbricht). However, throughout the 1960s construction rates remained roughly similar, falling far short of Ulbricht’s declaration. From the beginning of the 1970s all of this began to change quickly.

Erich Honecker, who would later become General Secretary of the DDR in 1976, led the way in a great change in scale of public housing construction. Between 1976 to 1990, 1.7 million new public housing units would be constructed, in a population of 17 million. This was a significant improvement on the Ulbricht years, with approximately 1 million more units than had been constructed throughout 1957-1971.

Many in western countries criticised these buildings as ‘barracks’, attacking their aesthetic appeal. There is even an anecdote about Ulbricht gasping at these ‘soldiers quarters’, according to Mary Fulbrook.  Indeed, these buildings may not have been what most would call pretty due to the extensive use of the prefabricated concrete plates used in their construction. The DDR adopted the Soviet method of manufacturing large concrete plates and assembling them on site, allowing these apartment towers to earn the name ‘Plattenbauten’ (Plate-Buildings). While a few Plattenbauten had been around since 1953, Honecker’s public housing project (Wohnungsbauprogramm) would make these tower blocks synonymous with socialist Germany.

Brunhilde de la Motte neatly sums up the Wohnungsbauprogramm:

“In 1973, Erich Honecker, after his election as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, announced a massive house-building programme as ‘a core aspect of social policy’ and promised that by 1990 ‘housing as a social problem would be a thing of the past.’ Between 100,000 and 110,000 homes (mostly flats) were built each year from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. And the aim was to create three million new homes through renovation and new-build by 1990.”

One often associates public housing with a lack of amenities and indeed this is rather true for capitalist countries but the same cannot be said for socialist countries, especially not the DDR. In capitalist countries business owners usually do not want to set up near public housing because they tend to be lower-income households, hence less profitable. Without these businesses, the State invests less into these areas creating an economic problem area. One has to travel for work and/or leisure.

In the DDR this was not the case. As the State owned all enterprises the government was able to institute a socio-political planning strategy which prescribed that each new housing complex would include the necessary infrastructure of schools, nurseries, sports facilities, polyclinics (a hybrid of GP office and medical centre), shops and restaurants. This meant that the new tenants would have everything they need within walking distance and could begin to build good neighbourly relations very quickly. An excellent example of this was the large Halle-Neustadt complex outside the old town of Halle, which was built to house workers employed in the big Buna and Leuna chemical works. After the end of the socialist DDR, most East German architects were at a loss as to planning a housing project without considering all possibilities. They would never put these skills to use after 1990 in the Federal Republic.

A Walter Ulbricht approved apartment block

Another association many hold is that public housing is for low-income earners but once again this is not so in the socialist DDR. In the DDR, almost everyone lived in rented public accommodation. Each Plattenbau had mixed-income members – there was not the ghettoisation as one finds in the capitalist West. Furthermore, each apartment block had a residential committee, responsible for organising community orientated activities and the maintenance of the building. Examples of these activities include organising birthday parties residents, recycling, and raising funds. In fact, these activities were intrinsically linked as recycling was the main source of funding for these committees, as the government sought to incentivise the activity.

But perhaps the most noteworthy quality of housing in the DDR, and perhaps the most distant notion for those living in capitalist countries today, is that rent levels were almost completely unchanged throughout the entire course of the DDR’s history, and no one could be evicted from their home.

Citizens paid about 4-5% of their income on rented accomodation. This stands in stark contrast to the capitalist system where landlords set their own prices which are not based on a percentage of one’s income but rather are subject to market speculation. In Dublin, for example, those renting privately can expect to pay somewhere between 25-50% of their income on housing costs. Additionally, when one can be evicted, the economic insecurity of the situation forces the tenant to prioritise the cost of commercial housing over one’s other needs. In this sense, it can be asserted that there was less socio-economic insecurity in the DDR than capitalist Germany, France, or the Republic of Ireland today.

The DDR put a great emphasis on accomodating families. Through various housing policies families received supports such as rent subsidies, priority housing assignments, interest-free marriage loans, basic scholarships for married students, and a moderation of working hours for employed mothers and for fathers raising a child alone.

This is not to say that all housing was created equally. Unskilled and semiskilled labourers lived in less favourable housing. Retirees, peasants, middle managers and the self employed would have enjoyed better accommodation, and senior managers and the intelligentsia which was approximately “one third more favourable” according to Schmidt and Ritter.

Plattenbauten typical of the Honecker years

Nevertheless, housing in East Germany, for all its faults, was superior to that in the other socialist countries by quantitative standards such as surface density and dwellings equipped with running water and built-in toilets.

Additionally, one could criticise Honecker’s concentration of the construction of new housing units, while neglecting old structures. The concentration on new builds sometimes displaced focus on repair of dilapidated housing. While overall Honecker built a tremendous amount of housing the loss of older buildings is lamentable, if only for aesthetic reasons.

The success of Honecker’s public housing construction remains undeniable, with even western German scholars citing the success. As Schmidt and Ritter noted:

“The policy of the 1970s and 1980s in this area did add to the number of units on offer, with prestige projects even demonstrating qualitative improvement. It also had more to show for itself under Honecker than under Ulbricht. For instance, the number of new buildings (and the total number of units completed) after Honecker succeeded Ulbricht was higher each year than it had been before 1972.”

During the lifetime of the DDR, the state transformed itself from one of the most war-torn nations into a place where people did not know the meaning of the phrase ‘housing crisis’. Ultimately, those who are interested in public housing as model of providing affordable accomodation, in place of the current private market system, cannot argue their case without considering or defending the housing projects of the DDR, especially those of Erich Honecker (1976-1990). The DDR and its public housing projects should stand as a testimony as to what socialism and a state concerned with working people and families can achieve.

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