Berlin’s referendum to expropriate corporate landlords is a watershed moment for rental politics and a rare win against international real estate capital.
By Thomas McGath – Originally published on roarmag.org on September 28, 2021
Thomas McGath is a Berlin-based writer and housing activist. He is a spokesperson for Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co., a referendum to expropriate and socialize the apartments of mega-landlords in Berlin.
Nervous chatter and laughter held the mood at the election party on Sunday evening in check, until scattered whoops went up. More voices joined and small groups began to hop with sheer excitement. The first results were in, and they were looking very good.
These results would hold: almost 57 percent of Berlin voters had voted “yes” on the most radical referendum this city has ever seen, demanding that the city expropriate all corporate landlords that own 3,000 apartments or more.
In 2019, our referendum campaign Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen (“expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.”) broke dramatically onto the political scene, corralling 40,000 Berliners onto the streets in the largest renter’s demo the city had ever seen. The streets were flush with purple-and-yellow clad activists and renters carrying banners emblazoned with the controversial word: “expropriate.”
Politicians scoffed at the idea: “That’s nothing but a socialist fantasy.” “An unprecedented breach of taboo.” And, as Angela Merkel put it blandly, “Not the appropriate remedy for the housing crisis.”
However, the campaign quickly kicked off a national debate around housing and its crisis of affordability. Even the staunchly conservative state minister of Bavaria, Horst Seehoffer dubbed the housing crisis the “social question of our time.”
The response in Berlin was swift. After dragging their feet on tightening regulations on extortive landlords, the city government immediately began discussing a rent cap, and within two months its framework passed. Internal scuffles threatened the prospect and real estate interests almost torpedoed the idea, but in the end, Berlin passed perhaps the most radical rent cap in recent memory. The cap was ultimately overturned by the German Supreme Court, enraging renters who overwhelmingly supported the measure and rallying even more support behind our campaign.
But if Berliners are anything, they are stubborn. And the wounds were still fresh from the government’s attempt to build over a large portion of its largest park and nature sanctuary, Tempelhof field, the site of the city’s old airport that closed in 2008. A referendum put a stop to those plans, in a watershed moment that laid the groundwork for our own referendum.
Berlin has always been a city that has fundamentally questioned the rules around space, housing and lifestyles. West Berlin was well known for its thriving and alternative squat scene in the 70s and 80s. Many of the co-ops still providing affordable housing today had their origins in this scene, as renters got fed up with absentee landlords and seized their own properties.
This rich history and strong memories of a wildly affordable, liveable city set the stage for an explosive faceoff with one of the world’s most powerful forces: real estate capital.
Between 2008 and 2019, the city saw rent for new apartments listings double. The city had begun to draw loads of Germans and foreigners fleeing from more expensive cities like London, Paris, and even Stuttgart.
The city also had privatized large swaths of public housing, selling off over 200,000 units largely to institutional investors like Goldman Sachs and other constellations. The companies targeted by our campaign own around 250,000 apartments in the city; a number that has more doubled since 2014.
Coupled with years of almost exclusively luxury housing construction, the city’s affordable housing has more or less vanished from the market, and renters must resort to increasingly bad options when moving. Talk to any recent migrant in this city and they will tell stories about not having official rent contracts ever, despite living here for years.
This radical upheaval on the market was also spurred by intense speculation. Berlin has seen more capital flow into the city via large acquisitions than any other European metropolis — over 40 billion euros since 2007, far outstripping other centers of global capitalism like London.
Now, Berliners have sent a clear message that their city is not a plaything for speculation. After three long, intense years of campaigning we can say that we have sent a loud and clear signal to the body politic: ignore us at your own peril.
Not only have we accomplished something that would have been considered unthinkable even five years ago, but we have also learned how strong we can be. We have learned from professional organizers like Jane McAlevey — who advised our campaign and hosted training sessions — what deep and effective organizing looks like. Through our renter organizing arm and signature collection teams, we brought together over 2,000 volunteers into neighborhood teams that knocked on thousands of doors, hung up tens of thousands of posters, and collected hundreds of thousands of signatures.
The spectacular results also show that it is possible to build a mass movement around housing politics. Despite some devastating losses for progressive politics in recent years, movements like Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen certainly show it is still possible to galvanize people behind radical demands. We have also proven that the demands in their breadth and vision matter: people want to be a part of transformative politics.
Will this campaign herald in a true about-face in housing politics? Not immediately, but it is the loudest warning shot we have seen in years. Leilani Farha, housing activist and former special rapporteur for housing to the UN has bemusedly remarked that she mentions our campaign at meetings with city officials about what can happen if you neglect renters. The officials laugh nervously at the thought.
The fight is certainly not over in this city, either. Since our referendum is not legally binding, but rather has the same power as a resolution, it will be up to the next Berlin government to enact the referendum and turn our demands into law. This was a conscious decision due to the novelty of what we are suggesting — expropriation according to article 15 of the German constitution, which states that “land, natural resources and means of production may…be transferred to public ownership” in return for compensation. The article has never been used since the constitution was originally written in 1949. The open legal questions could have opened the door to sabotage through technicalities — which is exactly how Berlin’s previous renters’ referendum in 2015 was stopped by establishment politicians.
That said, the referendum is unmistakably politically binding and if the coming government chooses to ignore the city’s decision, they should be wary of the consequences of such a breach of public trust and the risks of further angering German renters, who make up more than half the population. In Berlin, that figure is over 80 percent.
For the campaign, this historic victory is not the end, but rather another beginning. It will take a lot of endurance to keep the pressure up and ensure that our demands are met. But after years of organizing and building power, creating networks and gathering knowledge, we are ready for that fight. The campaign will also continue to fight against other housing injustices including evictions, racism and gentrification. And there will be a lot to share with movements around the globe.
But at least for now, Berlin has proven that big, radical proposals can win. And win big. That is something we will need to draw strength from and build on in order to undo all the damage real estate capital has done to our cities and communities.