The Agentur StadtWohnen in Chemnitz (DE) offers solutions to one of the most pressing issues the city is facing: the large number of decaying historic apartment buildings abandoned after the 90s. Due to demographic and economic changes in the region, many buildings have fallen into vacancy and disrepair, linked often with complicated ownership. The Agency is a public project carried out by a private company that offers a flexible and proactive approach. By acting as a networking hub, the Agency connects owners, potential investors or users and public authorities for the revitalisation of the historic housing stock of the city. Positive effects are the activation of owners or the change of ownership and the channelling of public grants to places where they can be used most effectively. So far, more than 140 buildings were monitored, for 50 a change of ownership was organised and 40 are currently available for investment projects.
Agentur StadtWohnen Chemnitz fills the gap between the different stakeholders that are relevant for the revitalisation of historic apartment buildings in Chemnitz’ wider inner city area. Being initiated and funded by the city’s public authorities, the project is carried out by a long-standing private partner and has the means to act in the public interest as defined by the public procedures and interests of the city. With the assignment to deal specifically with historic and often listed buildings that have been unused for the past decades and are in different states of disrepair, the project acts where the regular real estate market is limited. It takes on a pro-active approach to activate owners towards a development of their property, often through connecting them with potential investors and users that have the means and the know-how to find sustainable solutions.
The project helps to mitigate effects of urban processes that are unsustainable. By strengthening Chemnitz’ inner city through the concentration and support of developments in the existing central neighbourhoods, the urban structures are valorised. This way, the reuse of historic housing stock helps to save resources instead of promoting suburban sprawl. Dense and mixed-use urban structures reduce distances and encourage alternative means of transport. What is more, the successful outcomes of the project help to preserve the intrinsic qualities of those quarters and help to overcome the negative image of neighbourhoods such as the Sonnenberg. The provision with moderately priced and appropriately equipped housing for families, elderly people or marginalised population groups strengthens social coherence and reduces the ground for conflicts of different sorts.
The scope of the project is to activate owners, private and public stakeholders to save, restore and reanimate buildings. It can be described as a networking hub between persons, groups and authorities that have an interest in this goal. Starting and keeping communication going around the objects is the core of the project’s activities. The agency is the only instance that connects the threads from all different sides:
• the relevant departments in the city government (e.g. urban planning, fund management, building control, preservation, finance and tax, public relations),
• the different owner constellations (private owners or ownership groups of different sizes and local/national /international backgrounds, public housing company, unappropriated),
• the potential investors and users (professional real estate developers, grass-roots housing initiatives),
• additional stakeholders in the neighbourhoods and civil society.
The strength of this project and our work lies in two fields. First and foremost, it actually works as intended to revitalise many of the buildings in need. In the past four years, we were monitoring more than 140 buildings, keeping contact with the owners of most of them. We published more than 40 on our website, helped to organise change of ownership of almost 50 and seeing or expecting the renovation and re-use of many of them. The project helps to reduce speculation. It helps to channel grant money to objects that need it most. And it helps to avoid future costs not only for the owners of decaying buildings but also for the municipal government. The second – which has not been foreseeable at the beginning of the project – is the fact that the Agentur has become the central collector and distributor of information on the buildings. We help, disseminate and connect in ways that neither public authorities nor private actors can achieve – through our continuing communication with official partners from different segments of urban government and the informal, pro-active approach to the owners, local initiatives and players in the real estate market.
We believe that the project is of great interest for other cities. We had the chance to present the Agentur StadtWohnen Chemnitz at the thematic meeting of the URBACT III Action Planning network “2nd Chance – Waking up the ‘Sleeping Giants’” in Chemnitz on 14 October 2016. The lively discussion we had with all the participants from all over Europe showed that similar problems exist in other cities as well, though always with local nuances depending on the situation in the respective cities.
A strong demographic decline and thus numerous vacancies in the old neighbourhoods are typical for former industrial hubs and towns distant from the economic centres in their countries. But the lack of communication between the public authorities, often unavailable or unable owners, and the very diverse group of potential investors and users, is a problem that is visible to different extents in almost any city. After all, approaching those problems demands solutions and agendas that take into account the specific city context. The solutions found for the City of Chemnitz and the successes they produced can encourage other cities to actively approach comparable problems.