You might have heard of the early noughties squatting scene in Leipzig, where artists, the unemployed and alternative lifestylers took over dilapidated buildings. Maybe you saw the “Wächterhäuser” banners on semi-derelict houses around town and wondered what it meant? Or perhaps you heard that rents here were rock bottom compared to any comparable city in the world.
Unlike any other major German city Leipzig is characterized by street upon street of Altbau apartment buildings constructed around the end of 19th century. And unlike nearby Dresden, Leipzig wasn’t firebombed in WW2 so most of the architectural heritage remains intact. The communist planners of the GDR destroyed some key buildings and put up many ugly ones but by and large they left most of the city to simply decay.
Today Leipzig is a city of more than 500,000 and rapidly growing, but this is a far cry from the nearly one million who lived here in its heyday. Public spaces and private residential space abound in Leipzig. Anyone coming from crowded London or Amsterdam or Hong Kong can certainly appreciate this.
Many areas of Leipzig are coming back from near death thanks to re-development in areas such as Lindenau, Volkmarsdorf and parts of Gohlis. Plagwitz is well on its way to becoming trendy and areas like Südvorstadt and Schleußig have already gained enough traction that they are now busy and thriving areas. Some Altbau buildings have protected status (Denkmal) and investors can avail of favourable tax treatment if they renovate. However, due to the sheer number of vacant apartment houses in Leipzig, basic refurbishment is often uneconomic from the view of the owners.
The Wächterhäuser scheme
Wächterhäuser, which means ‘House Guardian’, is a scheme run by the Leipzig HausHalten association. It was set up in 2004 to try to preserve endangered buildings and find new tenants. People with alternative living requirements can benefit from the availability of uneconomic properties through the Wächterhäuser scheme. Leipzigers who have a special social, cultural, or commercial attraction for certain quarters of the town are of particular interest as tenants. The association views matching low or zero cost housing needs with uneconomic properties a ‘win-win’ situation for all parties involved (here’s a related Reuters article from 2008).
The occupants become the guards of the house. Their presence helps prevent vandalism, fixes weather damage and looks after general maintenance. The occupants take responsibility for the operating costs, re-design and refurbishment of the property out of their own pocket. In return the owners allow the users to inhabit the spaces free of rent and are relieved of responsibility for the day to day maintenance. The owners responsibility to the tenants ends with arranging for the provision of electrical, heating and water supplies to the houses.
The legal framework for the Wächterhäuser outlines the rights of use which extend for between five and ten years. Property rights are not affected and a sale or a change in use is possible at anytime. If the users in the house become established and want to stay longer term, the basic contract between the users and the HausHalten association will be replaced by a direct agreement between the owners and the users.
Lützner Straße 30
The first Wächterhaus was at 30 Lützner Str. in Lindenau. This corner building is listed and had suffered from years of being empty and an almost complete lack of maintenance. It had significant rot in the timber structure, the roof was breaking and parts of facade were threatening to collapse onto the sidewalk.
The owners had acquired the house in the middle of the 90s. After some initial negotiations they were convinced to enter into the Wächterhäuser agreement. With funds secured by the City of Leipzig the roof and the external walls were made secure. Since May 2005 two floors of the house have been converted into studio lofts used by students attending the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig.
Now there’s a large corner shop on the ground floor which serves as a popular meeting place. The household association has established another shop on the ground floor with a tool rental business for new Wächterhäuser clients. Things are definitely looking up.
For more information and potential opportunities to be a ‘House Guardian’ check out the Leipzig HausHalten association