West Berlin's squatters hope to settle in -- for good

There are encouraging signs that many of West Berlin's youthful squatters may be making peace with the owners of the approximately 120 buildings they are occupying.

Die Neue Heimat, a semipublic renovation firm owned by the West German trade union federation, is trying to negotiate a rental agreement with squatters occupying 29 of its properties. The original Sept. 10 deadline came and went without result but has been extended to Oct. 8. Both sides continue hopeful.

One of the properties in question is a disused brewery in comfortable Zehlendorf on the south side of West Berlin. Rainer, the mild-mannered spokesman for the 30 young people living there, expressed concern that the negotiations may run aground over the question of interest payments. Squatters are willing to pay utilities and other costs of upkeep but have balked at Die Neue Heimat's demand that they pay some 1.5 million marks ($591,000) in interest on the properties.

Part of the problem is simply: among how many people should the amount be divided? Whose names should be on the leases? Squatters live in rather fluid communities; if evicted from one house they often move into another.

The Protestant Church in West Berlin has made a suggestion: It has offered a vacant lot of its own in exchange for Neue Heimat property. But a Neue Heimat spokesman counters that the property offered is worth only 500,000 marks ($198, 000), and the brewery alone - which Neue Heimat wants to tear down in order to put up condominiums - is worth three times that.

''What happens if you get thrown out?'' Rainer was asked.

''No one knows. Maybe we'll emigrate to America.''

One of the criticisms of the squatters has been that most of them - 90 percent according to city government figures - have places to live other than the occupied dwellings, although officials acknowledge that some of those may be just mail drops.

West Berlin doesn't have many apartments big enough for the communal lifestyle enjoyed by most of the squatters. ''We have no desire to live in couples or families,'' says Rainer.

Meanwhile, life goes on at the former brewery. On the afternoon of this correspondent's visit, several of the ''residents'' - some with punk haircuts and Day-Glo sneakers - were sitting out in the courtyard enjoying the sun or heading out on their bicycles. They range in age from 15 to 27, and are mostly pre-university students, apprentices, or job-hunters.

''There have been more of them lately,'' says Rainer, referring to the latter group.

The building has been occupied since March 1981; about half the original group is still here. The group makes ends meet with its cut-rate auto- and bicycle-repair business.

''Are those all customers' cars, or do some of them belong to you?''

''Those are all customers','' he says. The only one belonging to the group is an old, gray hearse.

''It's only Volkswagens today but sometimes we get Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes.''

Other activities here are art exhibitions and a cafe. Concerts are held in an old warehouse.

The squatters received a few complaints from their immediate neighbors when they first moved in, Rainer says, but on the whole the area has treated them kindly. ''When we first moved in, some of them brought coffee and cakes.''

Things have been a little different with the police. ''They haven't been brutal, but we have seen a lot of them,'' says Rainer. The complaints have been of petty theft, disturbing the peace, and the like.

Squatting in houses began in West Berlin in 1979, largely as a protest against the fact that this housing-short city has had so many buildings which have stood empty for so long. In December 1980 the police started throwing out the squatters - who responded by breaking windows and committing other acts of vandalism.

The Social Democratic city government has evolved the ''Berlin line,'' a policy of police restraint. Although squatting in itself is a crime, squatters were to be evicted only if property owners took out warrants against them and could prove that they had financing, building permits, and crews all in place to start modernizing, or demolition for new construction.

When Richard von Weizsacker, the new Christian Democratic mayor, took office in June 1981, he disappointed some of his more adamant supporters by not lowering the boom on the squatters. Rather, he decided to follow, with important modifications, the ''Berlin line.''

He took it a little further, though, in announcing that they would not tolerate the takeover of any more buildings. Indeed, the Christian Democrats point out that during the brief term in office of the Social Democrats' mayor, Hans-Jochen Vogel, new occupations took place on an average of once a day.

The Christian Democrats also let it be known that squatters would be evicted from buildings found to be dens of criminal activity. Police complaints against squatters have included cultivation of hashish, display of posters insulting to a foreign head of state - specifically, Ronald Reagan, who visited here in June - armed robbery, and illegal possession of weapons.

In September 1981 police evacuation of eight occupied buildings led to violence in which one young man lost his life. Officials see this episode has having divided the squatters into two camps: those genuinely needing a home and seeking a new communal lifestyle, and those for whom the takeover of private property is part of a larger plan to bring down the state.

Things have generally calmed down since then, and many occupations have ended through either signing of leases or voluntary departure of squatter. Construction Minister Ulrich Rastemborski has recently told the West Berlin parliament that in an overwhelming majority of cases, squatters and owners are willing to negotiate.

But promising negotiations in some cases would not automatically rule out police evictions in others.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.