Berlin - The alarm rings for the third time. I crawl over to my sweater and support myself with my free arm as I slip into it. You can't sit up in the bunk bed that Martin Müller (name changed by the editors) rents out for around €600 a month on Airbnb. After a bout of claustrophobia because I tried to lie with my head towards the wall, I was able to sleep quite well facing the curtain. I would recommend the hallway bunk for a weekend, but Müller only accepts “medium-term” requests - for a fortnight or more. That would be too much for me. If someone wants to stay for several months, he warns them. But many book anyway.

I didn't pay. The sleepover was for research only. The bed would cost me €584 for 30 nights, despite a 26 per cent one-month discount. However, the builder of this little empire has no qualms about his price for a space measuring 1.2 x 2.9 x 0.8 metres in an even tighter housing market.

The management consultant is aware that those around him might have a different opinion, which is why he wants to remain anonymous. We talk over coffee and cake in Müller's room. He seems tense. He considers the interview a favour and would actually have preferred to avoid it. Even though we're not publishing his name, the idea that readers might condemn his business model bothers him. We discuss basic needs, market mechanisms and the failed Berlin rent cap. When I bring up the example of a water seller who sells water at extortionate prices when it's hot, he softens up a little but still says that has nothing to do with his loft bed.

More bunks for Berlin!

“I plead for more bunk beds in Berlin so that fewer hotels are built,” says the 35-year-old. Because they take up the limited space for flats, Müller says. His loft bed, on the other hand, is a way to use space that is available anyway. “A wardrobe would neither make me money nor help people looking for flats. This way I create added value,” Müller argues. He also rents out his second room on a temporary basis on Airbnb for about €800 and on WG-Gesucht for €450. His costs for the entire flat, including utilities, are around €700. He say he orients his prices around those he finds on the online platform and pays fees and taxes for the income generated through Airbnb.

But how did it ever occur to him to make money with a bunk in the hallway? “When I was in the flat for the second time, I saw this gap,” Müller says. Immediately, he thought about how he could best use the niche between the kitchen and the stairwell. The fact that it was 1.2 metres wide gave him the idea to build a bed, originally intended for visiting or couchsurfers. But not many people came to stay overnight, so he decided to post it on Airbnb.

Despite the hefty price tag and the pandemic, demand remains high. “The loft bed is occupied about 80 per cent of the time,” he says. This is probably also due to the above-average ratings Müller receives as a host. He says he simply enjoys spending time with the visitors. “I wouldn't meet people like that otherwise. At most while hitchhiking. That's what makes it so interesting.” He concedes that living in such close quarters compromises people's privacy, especially when "ladies" come over. However, Müller says the visitors are more bothered by this than he is.

Temporary home for the desperate

Some of the renters are actually looking for something more long-term, others are here for a limited period for work or travel. Maximilian Wieser moved to Berlin for an internship and found no place to stay. He figured prices would be higher on Airbnb and booked straight away for four months. “I only found out later that the bunk bed was in the hallway. Martin wrote that to me, but there was no time left,” he says. So the Austrian stayed in the bed for a month and then switched to the second room. He has fond memories of flatshare life: “Martin is a pretty open guy. Most of the time there was also another person there, often from abroad. It was cool, interesting and funny.”

Valeria Delé lived in the loft bed for almost a month after moving from Minsk to Berlin. She found nothing permanent; a friend covered the cost as a gift. Delé has no gripes with Müller either: “I was desperate and happy to have found something at all. I'm also very grateful that I met Martin,” she says. Since then, the two of them often do things together, from cooking to tobogganing to planting flowers.

“My temporary rental contract had expired and the price was fair. It's Berlin,” says Hugo Cordeiro from Brazil, who spent a month in the loft bed and another month and a half in the second room. “I was only expecting a place to sleep, but Martin has become a good friend. I had a great time.” He sends greetings from Portugal and definitely wants to visit Müller as soon as the infection numbers drop. Will he book the bunk bed again then? “Sure, that's my place to sleep in Berlin,” says Cordeiro.

Not every renter was happy

Leon Leiner (name changed) was less enthusiastic. “I moved in out of sheer desperation,” he says. Leiner found the flat dirty and criticised the fact that he wasn't informed about the second flatmate. “Martin is absolutely right. He made an offer and I accepted it, knowing what it was. But the price is unfair. He took advantage of my emergency situation.”

It's hard to dispute that last sentence. But it has nothing to do with the rise of rental prices, says Martin Müller, because he's created living space where there would otherwise be none. “I could also sit alone in my two-room flat and not offer anyone a last resort” - like most Berliners.

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