On 26 September, Berliners voted in a historic referendum to expropriate residential property owned by major corporate landlords. The referendum, which passed with more than 56% of votes in favour and 39% against, is the culmination of more than three years of work by a campaign called Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co – Deutsche Wohnen is the name of Berlin’s largest private landlord – which built upon decades of tenant activism in the German capital.
The referendum question defined major corporate landlords as those owning more than 3,000 apartments in the city. If the expropriation of these properties goes ahead, it would transfer nearly 250,000 Berlin apartments to public ownership using an article in Germany’s constitution that gives the state the power to seize private property in exchange for reasonable compensation if it’s in the public interest.
The campaign was a response to the proliferation of real estate corporations in the city, which now own nearly 20% of Berlin apartments. These landlords are listed on the stock market and use housing to create more wealth for their shareholders, explains Joanna Kusiak, a research fellow in urban studies at Cambridge University and an activist with the campaign.
“A corporate landlord is a different landlord than the typical ‘Mr. Müller’ who owns two houses and rents them,” Kusiak says. “In the case of corporate landlords, tenants are actually not the clients. The actual client is always the shareholder.”
Berlin’s rental market was dramatically impacted by the 2008 financial crisis, which opened the floodgates to financial speculation. In the decade following the crisis, rents in Berlin more than doubled, and in 2018 the city was the hottest housing market in the world. This dramatic increase in prices has had profound and far-reaching effects in the city, where nearly 85% of people rent their homes.
Although the “yes” campaign was polling slightly ahead going into the 26 September vote, which coincided with federal and local elections, the result still feels “surreal” says Thomas McGath, a spokesperson for Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co who joined the campaign in 2018, shortly after it launched.
“I was looking for a way to get active because I had this really sinking feeling that if we don’t do something dramatic, Berlin will not remain affordable for the vast majority of people,” McGath explains. He feared the city would become a “speculator’s playground” like has happened in other major European cities such as London, Paris and Dublin.
With all the votes counted, the referendum is the most successful in Berlin’s history. More than one million “yes” votes were cast – more than twice as many as the party that won the most votes in local elections that same day. It swept ten out of the city’s twelve districts, and even two of the more traditionally conservative districts on the edge of the city voted about 45% in favour of expropriation.
McGath chalks up the campaign’s success to its ground game. It boasted more than 2,000 volunteers who canvassed the city for months prior to the referendum and reached people living in all areas, not just those in the progressive core. In the months leading up to the vote, it was impossible to walk down the street without encountering one of the campaign’s recognisable purple and yellow posters.
But McGath also attributes the win to Berlin’s rich and unique history of tenant activism. The city is well-known for its vibrant squatting movement that emerged in West Berlin in the 1970s, and which grew following the fall of the Wall as squatters established themselves in vacant spaces in the former East.
However, the fall of the Wall was also the beginning of the end for many of Berlin’s publicly-owned apartments, including ones the reunified city inherited from East Berlin. In the early 2000s, after pressure from the federal government to pay off its debts, the city sold off about 65,000 units of state-owned housing to a private equity firm. These apartments were later bought by Deutsche Wohnen.
“There was a big movement to save these houses — unfortunately without success,” says a tenant of Akelius, another major landlord in Berlin that would be expropriated if the referendum is implemented. The tenant wishes to remain anonymous due to a fear of reprisal from the landlord.
“When Akelius bought my house, I realised that now is the time to organise,” says the tenant. Prior to being bought by Akelius, their building had changed hands nearly every year. Without putting any investment into the building, the successive owners would sell after a year or two, making a profit simply because of the increase in land value.
“Why should my house be given from one speculator to the next speculator?” they ask. “I want it to be stopped.”
Now, Akelius tenants have formed a group to resist their landlord, which is just one of many tenant initiatives in Berlin that have organised around protecting their homes. This network of activist groups has meant that when a new situation arises, such as a new exploitative landlord in the city, they are able to react quickly and mobilise resistance.
“The expropriation campaign is one child of this long work of activists,” the Akelius tenant says.
Despite the referendum’s success, there’s a long way to go before expropriation is implemented. The vote was not legally binding, and the person likely to become Berlin’s next mayor after coalition talks has already said she’s against the idea.
“We’re saying it’s politically binding,” McGath says. “It would be a total scandal for this to be ignored.”
He says the campaign will continue to put pressure on the local government to draft an expropriation law. They have already planned demonstrations outside coalition talks between the social democrats and the centre-right Christian Democrats, calling for expropriation to be included in any coalition agreement.
“This is a historical moment,” says the tenant of Akelius. “The people know this, the economists know this, but I hope our politicians know this too.”
Isaac Würmann is a freelance journalist in Berlin, writing about housing, politics and queerness.