German property gets refugee bump

Demand for emergency housing heats up real estate market

Members of the German army preparing beds and tents for refugees inside a hanger of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin on Saturday.
Members of the German army preparing beds and tents for refugees inside a hanger of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin on Saturday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Behind headlines warning of dire consequences from the ongoing refugee crisis is a blessing in disguise for Germany's real estate market. The newcomers are further stimulating a sector already buoyed by Europe's ultra-low interest rates.

The boost could come from the need to build hundreds of thousands of flats . This will provide a fillip, not just for property developers, but also construction firms, banks that finance projects, and the brokers and lawyers who earn fees from lease and sale contracts

That was no more evident than in a jam-packed Munich conference room at Europe's biggest trade fair for real estate industry - Expo Real - on Oct 6. The podium topic was "Refugee Accommodation - New Asset Class Suspended Between Yield and Social Responsibility?"

 "Some sat on the floor. The interest was so big," said Mr Thomas Glodek, marketing head of event organiser German property broker Aengevelt.

With investors lured by the prospect of easy earnings, finding places for at least 800,000 refugees arriving this year has turned into a veritable German gold rush - but one that has its downsides as well.

A well-known Frankfurt broker, who declined to be identified, said the situation resembles the 1990s, when people from the Yugoslav wars sought refuge in Germany.

"I get a lot of phone calls from people who are looking for vacant buildings and who say they want to convert them into homes for refugees," the broker said. "They want to get back what they have invested in a short time because the cities pay a lot of money.

"I don't want to have anything to do with them because they are the black sheep who want to make a fast buck."

NDR public radio station cited an example of how one broker tried to make a killing. He offered Elmshorn City a deal to house refugees for €23.90 (S$37) per day per person, or about €700 per month in a three-room apartment. That worked out to €2,100 a month for such a flat.  The monthly rent there, however, was only around €600 for the complete three-room flat.

Mr Glodek said the market has to weed out such unscrupulous businessmen, noting one can still earn a reasonable profit.

"You have to find the right way and the fair price for the refugees. The right price is the prevailing price in the market," he said.

"The add-on for investments to convert an office space into a living space you could get back in three to four years. If the lease contract is 10 years, you should then cut the rent from the fourth or fifth year."

With nearly 10,000 refugees streaming into Germany daily, the authorities, sometimes, have little time to hold public bidding to get the lowest prices for cots, mattresses or shelter operators.

An investor can go directly to a local government and present an offer, or an agent looks for an object, structures a deal with the owner and presents it to public institutions.

After finding a building, the authorities seek firms to manage operations.  In Hessen state, transit shelters are managed by European Homecare - the top commercial provider of refugee accommodation in Germany - as well as the German Red Cross and other rescue companies.

Refugees stay up to six months in shelters until they are distributed to smaller state-owned homes. When they get the official "refugee" status, they start hunting for flats in the private market, a search that can take a long time.This is a sore point as they compete with low-income Germans.

Property broker Aengevelt said, based on 800,000 estimated refugee arrivals this year, around 1.5 million sq m of living space is essential.

Immigration experts estimate, conservatively, the arrival of another 2.4 million refugees from next year until 2024.  All in all, that would add up to a need for around 35 million sq m, or 500,000 apartments of 50 to 80 sq m each.

European Homecare, founded in 1989, said its revenues should double to €50 million this year from €25 million last year, mostly from managing refugee centres.

It has 15,000 refugees compared with 8,000 last year, providing packages that include food, security and social care. The packages are offered to local governments to run shelters.

"Our return on sales is 5 per cent," said its spokesman Klaus Koks. Demand is great: "From the ten offers we get, we have to turn down nine."

ABUB, European Homecare's rival which has operated for 20 years, expects to shelter about 4,500 refugees by year's end. It also offers classes in the German language and tutoring.

ABUB head Stefan Hasche said his company is "very much in demand" lately. "But unfortunately in the public discussions, we are being put under the same category as freeloaders, who want to make a fast buck," he said.

"We are clearly distancing ourselves from such business practices."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2015, with the headline 'German property gets refugee bump'. Subscribe