The struggle of the tenants of Gelsenkirchen in Germany

When the right to live is not a question of property

Elodie VITTU, 2008

Collection Passerelle

The Flöz Dickebank housing estate in Gelsenkirchen (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany) is made up of 328 mining dwellings saved from demolition in 1974 thanks to a strong mobilization of its inhabitants. This citizen movement, active for 35 years, has won several battles during its existence  : transforming a « luxury   » modernization plan into a lighter rehabilitation but adapted to the needs of the occupants, preventing a new construction project on their own gardens. The movement continues and adapts its struggle to the new pressures facing the neighborhood: buyout by private investors, forced sale to occupants. Today, Bürgerinitiative Flöz Dickebank und Umgebung is no longer just an associative grouping  : it has become a housing cooperative founded in 2006.

When housing and work were inseparable

Flöz Dickebank, a housing estate built in 1868, under French occupation, was intended to accommodate the region’s miners and their families. These were affected by a specific law which included low-rent housing and other benefits such as the provision of charcoal for heating. The paternalistic system put in place by the mining companies seemed to work only by viewing work and housing as a single entity.

However, this living environment was maintained when the mines closed, since the public limited company that built the subdivision remained the owner and the beneficiaries kept their accommodation against payment of a rent well below the market price, even social. The former miners, as well as their families later, did not leave the area but became tenants, losing all rights to housing, the fruit of their labor.

The mining town  : promoting collective life or organizing social control  ?

Mining life, as it was organized, did not lead to mobility  : each family was attached to a mine, and therefore belonged to a neighborhood. The employer regulation system for holidays, recreation and school was accompanied by a miserable daily life with pollution, disease, poverty and danger in the mine.

As regards the plan, the specific shape of the plots and public spaces of the city still influences, 140 years after its construction, the modes of sociability. On the one hand, because of the fairness in the architectural treatment because each house is alike and each has its own garden. On the other hand, because the district functions on itself with interior squares, pedestrian streets, common places of life.

It was without taking into account the urban qualities of this district that in the 1970s the community, in partnership with the lessor, prepared major changes for the city involving demolition and densification, without involving the inhabitants. The public authorities, which do not feel the need to involve tenants in their project, are in a way reproducing the control previously carried out by employers over the living environment. Despite the hard work they represent for minors, this accommodation does not belong to them.

The situation will soon be reversed thanks to the action of the inhabitants. This position is based on strong ownership in relation to the neighborhood, but also on the financial interest represented by these very low-rent housing in a context of rising real estate pressure.

Starting a movement

The 1970s image of modernity saw the towers as a symbol of progress, and the city planned for traffic. In this context, the demolition of cités minières represents a social advance and allows owners, at the same time, to benefit from interest on new construction.

In March 1974, a unilateral decision by the city council of Gelsenkirchen provided for the demolition of the district and the construction of thirteen-storey residential towers. The vacancy begins to organize, the leases are not renewed. The only information the occupants receive is a letter asking if they want to be relocated to a tower block.

Faced with this lack of consultation, a tenants’ association is created  : demonstrations, leaflets and weekly meetings aim to protect the city, but also its social structure, that is to say that the inhabitants can stay in the neighborhood .

The first action will consist in classifying the district as a rehabilitation zone  ; this does not necessarily prevent the demolition, but imposes, according to the German town planning code, a consultation hitherto non-existent. “  Now everyone will be heard  ” said the residents’ representatives.

A heritage to be preserved

This example from Gelsenkirchen is striking because it has its roots in a radical project - demolition - and results in the awareness of a heritage value and its protection.

Counter-projects are proposed in partnership with the school of architecture and the municipality commission, for its part, an architectural expertise  : the conclusions, in November 1975, recommend maintenance and rehabilitation. The municipality bought the whole of the city and only about twenty very degraded housing units will be demolished.

In 1977, an active woman in the neighborhood, in the course of her work for the mining company, realized that, according to the law, a third of the rent had to be invested for work. Those were never made, which allows him to denounce the let-rot-to-demolish strategy.

Modernization works were carried out between 1977 to 1979, to preserve the district in its historic form. A difficulty persists  : protection against rising rents because the work involves costs that are transferred to tenants. Street by street, the municipality and the inhabitants then discuss the 3 solutions available to them for each plot  :

This last solution only applies with the agreement of the occupant because it involves a significant increase in rent.

The city is equipped with an emblematic place  : the former public baths for minors are transformed into associative premises and classified by UNESCO.

A heritage to organize

In 1981, a comprehensive urbanization plan was finally proposed, consolidating the positions of the tenants movement  : conservation of the character of the city through the development of public spaces, the rehabilitation of public buildings and especially the maintenance of tenants in place. Hitherto non-existent in the debate, these inhabitants obtain the guarantee of their right to housing and become co-decision makers of the future of their city.

The city’s plot organization leads to technical difficulties. Indeed, the housing units of the subdivision are family houses shared by several households with individual entrance. Over the years, the occupants have carried out work themselves by enlarging the dwellings (two families instead of four in a house), but the sharing of spaces must be rationalized.

These difficulties increased from the 1990s when homes began to be sold on a piecemeal basis. The buildings are intended for community management and are not suitable for individual occupancy, in particular because of the charges and the distribution of work. There is no conceivable consensus between tenants who have been around for decades and new owners who have benefited from a financial windfall.

In 2008 again, the long-term management of the site was very complex. This led the municipality to launch urban studies to define an organization guide. The tenant friendly is associated with these reflections.

The pressure of privatization

The «   management » issue involved in the privatization is not the only obstacle to the development of the district. Privatization also threatens the well-being in the city and the rights of its occupants. It is located in Flöz Dickebank at the local level, but the underlying issues are transnational.

The sale is offered to the occupants, but only 6 or 7% of them have the financial means for this acquisition. Small private investors then begin to take an interest in the neighborhood, which the tenants experience very badly ("~ {We were like monkeys, they looked at our houses and said ~:"   I will buy this one and I will expand   ”}  ”).

This small estate in the Ruhr area is also of interest to those involved in globalization  : in the 2000s, the owner, the mixed economy company Viterra, will be bought by Anington, an international pension fund, whose interests are only speculative and stock market.

The cooperative  : sharing management and protecting against speculation

Faced with the fear of being dispossessed of their property, of suffering exorbitant rent increases or even of being expropriated, the tenants of Gelsenkirchen joined a movement to fight against the privatization of social housing, supported by associations of tenants in the sector (Mieterbund Ruhr), specializing in rental law. Thus, under the slogan «   housing is a social good, not an object of speculation  ", a political lobbying is carried out against this privatization, a real scourge of German housing policy (note) 1 .

Eventually, no house will be sold and the proposal to set up a cooperative will emerge as an alternative form of housing management. The cooperative operates like a real estate company, but without financial incentive. The property is common and meets a specific regulation  :

Following numerous discussions with the Land and the municipality, the Gelsenkirchen tenants’ association will have founded its cooperative on September 10, 2006. It now has 261 members out of the 330 housing units.

Today, it is the financial difficulties that arise. The Land, which financially supports the cooperative, requires the work to be carried out, but the cost, estimated at 10 million euros, is too high. Likewise, the sale price imposed by the municipality must correspond to the financial capacities of the cooperative, and therefore of its members. However, the city’s population is made up of elderly people and households in social and economic difficulties. They finally managed to secure their housing and obtained the right to stay in their neighborhood, but what will happen to the moderate prices they still enjoy  ?

Lessons of a struggle  : the right to live

This experience shows that the status of owner or tenant has no relation to belonging to the neighborhood. The identity acquired through work and solidarity is the legitimate element of the position of «   inhabitant ». In other neighborhoods, this identity can refer to an environment in which one recognizes oneself, to family or friendships, to specific facilities.

Faced with the threat to their living environment, these residents have turned the situation around by seizing on this legitimacy to live in the neighborhood. The tenants ‘associations have supervised this movement, going beyond their simple mission of legal advice for tenants’ rights. Because this «   right to live  ", that is to say to be consulted, to decide on the future of the district, to obtain aid to stay there in the event of rehabilitation, is not enshrined in law …

(note) 1 To meet their debts, German cities, in the East as in the West, are selling thousands of municipal housing units to international investors and thus dispossessing their social housing policy. See the example of the cities of Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt, …]]


This article was written from information collected in August 2005 within the framework of the associative exchange between the ( MieterInnenverein de Witten, the Aitec and Echanges et Partenariats .

Update with local stakeholders in July 2008.

This sheet was originally published in n ° 1 of the Passerelle Collection. You can find the PDF of the issue ( Europe  : not without a roof  ! The accommodation in question

To go further

  • On the move

Gestaltungsfibel für die Werkssiedlung, Flöz Dickebank, Gelsenkirchen, Ückendorf, City of Gelsenkirchen, February 2008

Wir im Flöz…, Mieterhaus e.V., May-June 2005

MieterInnenRat, monthly journal of MieterInnenverein Witten, 2000 to 2003

  • On the neighborhood

The ( “  industrial culture route  ” offers a route through the mining heritage in North Rhine-Westphalia

( Town planning department of the City of Gelsenkirchen