While Paris’ radical new housing laws have been attracting attention, France’s capital isn’t the only city in Europe that’s been taking legal action to stop social displacement and gentrification. Across Germany, cities are increasingly bringing in rules that aim to ensure that rising rents in desirable neighborhoods don’t push working class residents out of their homes. Called milieuschutz—loosely translatable as “community defense”—these laws are drawing the battle lines in what might seem the most improbable place for an urban-development standoff: the bathroom.
Essentially, milieuschutz is a law to prevent a neighborhood’s real estate from getting too fancy. In the areas earmarked for protection, owners are either restricted or banned outright from adding new balconies, installing under-floor heating, or carving out guest bathrooms. They’re also not allowed to knock two smaller apartments together to form one big one. Decided on a street-by-street basis at local rather than national level, these laws aren’t actually that new: Hamburg first experimented with them in 1972, Munich in 1987. What is novel, however, is their rapid spread across Germany at a time when inner-urban real-estate prices are going through the roof. Berlin now has 18 zones protected by the laws, and has just doubled one in size. Last month, Munich introduced one more district, while Frankfurt pushed the boat out with a total of six new protection zones spreading across the city’s denser districts. The social-engineering intention is clear. As Frankfurt’s mayor Olaf Cunitz baldly puts it, “Using this urbanist tool, we want to put a brake on upgrading and displacement and thus secure existing living space.”