By Morgan Meaker
MUNICH, Oct 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Firas swapped civil war in Syria for a chaotic refugee camp in Germany. Now he wants a home.
Since January 2016, the 28-year-old graduate has lived in three different refugee camps in Germany's southern Bavarian region and is now worn out and sick of night-long noise.
"I can't sleep, I can't study, the fire alarm goes off at least twice a week in the middle of the night," said Firas, nursing a coffee at his local McDonald's.
He is a victim of Munich's acute housing shortage, exacerbated by an influx of migrants from Germany and abroad that stretched the city's already limited stock and sparked a black market in rentals.
It has also hampered integration for many new arrivals in a country where immigration is a hot political topic.
After fleeing Syria's civil war, Firas and his wife were keen to re-start their lives by moving into a new apartment.
Although they have replied to more than 100 online apartment adverts, the couple are yet to find a place to live.
"To find an apartment in Munich you have to know someone German or pay money on the black market," said Firas, who, like all the refugees interviewed, did not want his surname used.
"I don't have that money and I don't know someone."
Firas was one of the 280,000 people to register as an asylum seeker with Germany's Office of Migrants and Refugees in 2016.
When people are granted refugee status, local job centres generally pay their rent until they find work, but this money is capped and competition for cheap housing is fierce.
Activists are concerned that a shortage of housing is hindering refugee integration.
While apartments are in short supply in major cities across the country, Munich is Germany's most expensive, in part due to its near zero vacancy rate, according to a Deutsche Bank report.
High building costs and strict regulation impede construction. Yet the city's population is growing fast as people move in from other parts of Germany, as well as abroad.
Of the 82 million people living in Germany, roughly one in eight is a foreign national, according to the country's statistics office. Most are from other European Union countries.
According to 2018 research by Deutsche Bank, when the city's population rises, so do its house prices. Between 2009 and 2014, Munich's population rose by 170,000, with house prices more than doubling during the same period.
"The situation does not only affect refugees," said Stephan Duennwald in the Munich headquarters of the Bavarian Refugee Council, whose phone never stops ringing. "It's difficult to get any kind of apartment in Munich, affordable or not."
In this month's regional election, polls repeatedly showed that housing was among voters' top concerns.
With limited social housing, refugees compete with Germans in the private sector but face language barriers and discrimination.
"Landlords want to have a 'proper German couple'," says Duennwald. "Because there are so many people searching for apartments, refugees have no chance."
Research by the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration found landlords were reluctant to rent to refugees because they worried they would not understand rules, such as when to put the bins out or that Sundays should be "quiet days".
As refugees feel locked out, their frustration fuels an alternative rental system. Numerous refugees report that black market brokers let people with money skip the queue, by offering to secure them apartments in exchange for a fee.
Basel - who asked for his surname to be withheld - struggled for years to find a place to live. He, too, hated camp life.
"They told us 'you should integrate' but how? I couldn't study. Every day, I couldn't sleep before 3 a.m. In the camp there were people drinking, fighting, people who were traumatised by bombs," says Basel, who used to teach Arabic at a university in Syria's Deir al-Zor.
In April 2016, a friend gave him the number of a broker.
Speaking on the messaging app, WhatsApp, the broker said he could find Basel an apartment for 3,000 euros ($3,460).
Basel did not pursue the offer.
"I didn't want to make trouble as a refugee and of course, I don't have any work yet, so I couldn't afford it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Munich's Gasteig Library.
Basel has since been able to find an apartment because a German friend was willing to act as his guarantor, making her legally responsible for the rent if he cannot pay.
He proudly flips through photos on his phone to show the sunny one-bedroom apartment and its adjoining balcony.
But not all refugees have German friends offering support.
Jneid, from Aleppo, has been searching for a studio or a small apartment for the past 18 months.
In that time, he has spoken to six brokers who have offered him apartments in exchange for a fee of 3,000 to 5,000 euros.
"They (the brokers) stand at the corners of Munich's Arab markets," he said, sitting on a bench in the city's Maximiliansanlagen park.
Brokers give richer refugees an advantage, allowing them to escape the camps without a search that can last for years.
Elif Beiner of Munich Refugee Council said the city's tight housing market was having a negative impact on integration in a country where immigration remains a divisive political issue.
"In the camps, you are just with other refugees, so you won't talk German," she said by phone. "If you go to school, or try to learn the language, you don't have the atmosphere to concentrate or to learn well."
Tobias Straubinger, spokesman for the Association of Bavarian Housing Companies, believes the problem can be traced back to government policy.
"Ten years ago, the message was 'Germany is built, we have enough houses, we don't need any more.' Now there are not enough flats for everybody," he said.
The city's Department of Urban Planning and Building Regulations agreed that affordable housing was one of Munich's most pressing issues.
Although the city has pledged to build 8,500 residential units each year until 2021, Deutsche Bank believes this is insufficient, predicting in January that residential space was likely to remain in short supply until 2030.
But residents have been vocal in their opposition to a denser city. Neighbourhood protests cite concerns such as increased traffic and a potential loss of sunlight.
In 2004, Munich's residents voted in a referendum against Frankfurt-style high rise blocks. "That referendum still vibrates here," said real estate agent Mischa Kunz.
"It is a confrontation between the people who are new to the city and on low incomes and those people who already have housing," says Kunz. "Politicians have a lose-lose situation. Either they lose because they can't provide housing, or they lose out from the protests."
Alongside his work as a real estate agent for franchise RE/MAX, Kunz is also co-founder of Munich Volunteer, which rents apartments from landlords then sublets them to refugees.
In less than two years, the organisation has sublet 20 apartments – 15 to refugees and five to low-income Germans.
But without a drastic increase in available homes, the situation is unlikely to improve markedly.
Until then, Firas must simply keep looking.
"I just want a normal life," said Firas, before returning for another night in the camp. ($1 = 0.8669 euros) (Reporting by Morgan Meaker, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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