“We have to look for new ways”

Last year Deutsche Wohnen was in the front line of a discussion that essentially revolved around the question of how to provide affordable housing. A conversation with Michael Zahn, Chief Executive Officer of Deutsche Wohnen SE.

Mr Zahn, for months your company has been at the centre of a hard­-fought public debate about housing. What do you say to the accus­ation that you are only interested in making  a profit?

The accusation is pretty blatant. Deutsche Wohnen is present on the ground in Berlin and is not some faceless fund in a tax haven. That is one reason why we are at the centre of the de­bate, which in my opinion is mostly about the widespread fears caused by the changes that are taking place in big cities. We have to take those seriously. But it doesn’t help just to listen to the people who shout loudest and press for the simplest solutions. What is needed to solve the problems on the housing market is courage, will­power, character, and the ability to persuade people and make things happen. We have to look for new ways of finding a solution that works for everyone.

Which ways do you suggest when you are talking to the political decision makers?

If we base rent levels more on incomes in future we would encourage solidarity in our city. Simul­taneously we have to answer the question of how cities will look in fifteen to twenty years time. Here we are faced with massive challenges. Cli­mate protection, an ageing society, migration, new ways of living and working also call for new solutions in terms of housing. Public and private housing companies, policymakers and critical stakeholders have to respond to all this as a chal­lenge for everyone. But we can achieve concrete, short­term successes right now if we speed up the process of new construction. Policymakers could do a lot more here, by which I mean making building land available, granting planning consent much faster and reducing the volume of taxes, charges and regulations.

Michael Zahn
Michael Zahn

You just mentioned several topics that are important, as well as rents. Owing to the “Fridays for Future” movement, climate change seems finally to be at the centre of global attention …

… and quite rightly so. We have been concerned with the topic for years – more than a third of all carbon emissions in Germany come from property. However, you can say that high energy efficiency is now standard for new buildings. But things are very different when it comes to existing proper­ties. Extensive investment is needed here to improve the buildings’ carbon footprint and to meet the climate goals set by the federal government. And it is precisely here that publicly listed housing companies can make a contribution to society. They have the financial strength and access to capital to fund these investments. At the same time more and more shareholders are calling for companies to make their business sustainable.

Where do you see the challenges for urban development in future?

In a few decades the great majority of people will live in towns. Estimates put the figure at around 84% by 2050. That not only means that a large number of new apartments have to be built. Life in metropolitan areas will also be very different. So we have to think about how we want to live together, above and beyond the topic of housing. What will transport and logistics look like in future? How green can megacities be? How and where do we do our shopping? As part of the real estate industry we are called on to create lively and socially diverse neighbourhoods, to maintain and support them.

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