This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
I'm well versed in the world of WG-Gesucht, Germany's popular room-rental website. When I first moved to Berlin as an 18-year-old student with no job and zero money, all of my applications seemingly went straight into the virtual bin. Since then, however, the tables have turned: whenever we advertise a vacancy in our home, I soon find hundreds of emails flying into my inbox.
Which is odd. Our place is nice, but it's hardly a palace. It's in a grey block of flats near Alexanderplatz. From my window, I look down on two petrol stations, the remains of a demolished casino and one of German celebrity choreographer Detlef D! Soost's sports clubs.
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We don't have a living room, and when we want to eat together we have to sit around an IKEA table that completely blocks access to both the kitchen and the bathroom. At €370 (AU$580) per person per month, it isn't exactly cheap for Berlin (yes, yes, Londoners: I know I have nothing on you). The one upside is that the location is pretty good: you can be in Kreuzberg in ten minutes or Berghain in just five. But that doesn't justify the hordes who descend every time a vacancy opens up.
It makes me wonder: how shit does a room or house in Berlin have to be for no one to be interested in it?
This question calls for an experiment. Our "utility room" (cupboard) could quite easily be turned into a living space that no one should ever actually want to live in. It's three square metres and has no windows: is the housing situation in Berlin so terrible that even this spot would generate some interest?
The first thing we need is some furniture and decorations: an East German-era camping bed (£13), a battered painting I swapped for some chocolate, a free desk lamp in the shape of a heart and a wall sticker bearing that universal truth: "Home is where the heart is."
For the elements that actually need to be installed, I rope in a friend with some practical skills. The first thing is a bed on worryingly wobbly stilts, followed by a folding desk with hinges that barely hold the weight of the plywood surface. We attach a bookshelf and hang the painting and a calendar featuring photo collages of my dog, Uwe. After two hours of hard grind, the room is ready.
Next up is the composition of the ad. In the past, I've always shared my WG-Gesucht posts on Facebook, but I'm not keen on my friends catching me trying to rent out my utility cupboard. I decide to use a fake name and persona, and eventually land on Emanuel Flickenschild, an academic in his mid-twenties. I set up an email account and post the ad, with the headline: "A cosy room in a tower block (so Berlin!)." In the summary, I describe a "small oasis of rest" and speak of a "trashy charm that reflects Berlin's current zeitgeist".
Now comes the monthly cost of my terrible room. I decide on €100 per square metre, plus bills (wifi, utilities, etc). All-in, renting our utility room will set someone back €400 (£350) a month. Of course I'm not actually charging anyone this, as I won't actually rent the place out. But would someone be willing to pay?
Despite the fact this €400-a-month space is clearly a literal cupboard, Emanuel's inbox is soon full. Through WG and eBay small ads I receive 75 applications from a broad cross-section of society – physics students, bouncers and even residents of the Isle of Man.
A few are clearly copying and pasting the same message in response to every advert posted. I discard those first and will return to them if I don't get a proper response. Sprinkled among the rest, however, are some earnest compliments of the room, such as, "This is very different to the others, but it looks awesome and I like the vibe."
Surprisingly, I don't get that much hate, only a few snide comments. "Congratulations," writes a Philipp, "I don't think anyone can beat 3sqm." He's still interested, though. Jonas asks if it's even possible to stand up in the room, while Lena is curious as to who in the apartment has set up this scheme just so they can shift their rent onto someone else.
Watching people clamour for the space is making me feel bad for offering it in the first place. When I tell my friends about my discomfort, they try to reassure me by saying that I'm just highlighting the appalling state of Berlin's housing market. It doesn't ease my sense of guilt much; I have no idea how some landlords can live with this feeling all the time.
So as not to exploit anyone's desperation too much, I decide to sort the applicants for my fake room into groups. I ignore those who, for whatever reason, have found themselves suddenly homeless and are in desperate need of a place to live. Also out are any hopefuls who'd have to travel specially to Berlin for a viewing, or those only in the city for a short time.
Then there's the rest, who, after hours spent practicing my rationale for charging €400 for a three-square-metre room, I am finally ready to meet in person.
The first person booked in for a viewing is Matt, a student who wrote that he thought the room was "really cool". He never shows – something that becomes a pattern as I'm (rightly) stood up time and time again. The first to actually show up is Lisa, who is originally from a small village in Bavaria. She's moved to Berlin to take part in the government's youth volunteering service.
I smile nervously as I invite Lisa in, offer her a beer and ask if she found the place OK. Drinking tap water, she tells me that her father drove her and that she's pretty keen on leaving her current apartment on the outskirts of Berlin as soon as she can.
Lisa isn't getting on with her flatmate because he treats her like a child, going as far as sending her condescending lectures via WhatsApp audio messages. My sorting system didn't account for this variety of desperation.
For a while we just stand in silence – Lisa too polite to simply ask to see the room, and me too nervous to show her. Eventually, I walk her over and swing open the door to the utility room. Her eyes bulge before she produces a long, drawn out, "Ooooooh." She then composes herself and politely asks how one gets into the bed. "We still have to attach a rope ladder," I respond.
Lisa says she's seen all she needs to see. She's ready to move in if we'll take her. I walk her over to our hallway table to come clean. "Oh, this is just a joke?" she says, to which I nod. Thankfully, she smiles. My roommate joins us, and for the next 30 minutes we talk about what Lisa's months-long room search has been like. She reveals the sexual harassment she's received – "the rent is not cheap for nothing" – and tells us more about her terrible housemate.
She has another viewing tomorrow in Spandau, right on the edge of town, which she's quite hopeful about. As we say our goodbyes, I apologise three more times.
Originally from Austin, Texas, 25-year-old video producer Ethan approaches me with large, confident strides and greets me with a firm, "Nice to meet you, Emmanuel!" I feel horrible. He's currently sharing a room in a hostel in Kreuzberg with a stranger. As we share a beer, we talk about his love of reading, the TV series Babylon Berlin and American politics.
Fifteen minutes later, it's time to check out the room. He steps in, nods and says, "That will work." He steps out and asks about the apartment's cleaning rota. I'm stunned.
Instead of discussing our cleaning habits, I reveal the truth. Initially, Ethan seems disappointed – but then confides that he wasn't really that interested, as he doubts he would have been able to stand up properly in the room. Ethan says he would have cancelled on me as soon as he got home.
Ethan is fairly confident he'll find a place. He has a few other viewings that he thought were promising. Before he leaves, he asks me to send him a link to the published article, and we agree to grab a beer sometime – though I suspect he's as interested in having a drink with me as he was in renting our cupboard.
My next guest is Klara, a student at Humboldt University. Klara has brought a mate, Joao, who is on an Erasmus year from Portugal. I suspect they're dating and have visions of sharing a room. As we make small talk in the hallway, I learn she's endured 15 house viewings in recent weeks. Joao seems in a good mood, as we discuss his hometown of Porto. Klara, however, seems bored, so we get to the point. "Do you have any questions about the room?" I ask. "Yes, is it really three square metres?" Klara asks. "Precisely," I confirm. She then admits that she had hoped it was a typo.
Clearly disillusioned, we move towards the room – a move that involves passing my room, whose door has accidentally been left open. In comparison to the utility room, my bedroom suddenly looks as spacious as an international airport's business class lounge. Klara doesn't seem shocked, though – instead, she soberly analyses the room and its details. "No place to put my stuff," she notes. "No windows, either." I joke that the alpine landscape is better than a window anyway. She ignores me. "And the rent is really €400?" Yes.
Klara gives it some thought, then renders her verdict. "So, long term, I'm a no, but I'll take it while I look for something else." I was not expecting that. Klara explains that she can't bring herself to sleep in a room with her brother anymore, making this an improvement on that. I row back very quickly and explain that I'm not actually offering the room for real.
Klara assumes I'm joking, so I show her the other bedrooms and how normal and real they are; I demonstrate how absurdly unstable the bed is and remind her of the extortionate rent. Klara had a feeling something wasn't quite right – "but I would have taken it anyway". I think about offering her the room for free, until she finds something else, but I remember that it really isn't just the rent that makes it uninhabitable.
We stand around in silence for a while. "Yeah, OK," Klara offers into the void. Joao, who we have totally forgotten about, is still sitting at the table for some reason, and doesn't seem to understand what is happening.
Before she leaves, like with the others, I promise that I will keep my eyes open and let her know if I hear of anything going. And that's exactly what I plan to do. So, if anyone knows of a spare room in Berlin, email me at email@example.com. Thanks!
This article originally appeared on VICE DE.