The repercussions of the elections held a week ago in Germany will be felt for quite some time, with coalition talks that can last for months. But one of the most significant events of last weekend was the local referendum in Berlin in which citizens strongly backed an initiative to expropriate homes from large proprietary companies. ‘
More than a million Berliners voted in favor of the campaign Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Company, which targets companies with 3,000 or more apartments (Deutsche Wohnen is one of the largest investment funds in the city). In total there are 240,000 properties, 11% of all apartments in Berlin, which would fall under the terms of this initiative, which was supported by a majority of 56.4% in the referendum.
However, the vote is not legally binding, so it is now up to the city government, which was also elected on September 26, to decide how to move forward. And while the struggle for housing is nothing new in Berlin, this successful campaign marks a potentially transformative moment, which could have a major impact on the struggles for housing in other cities, and serve as a model and inspiration for activists in Europe and other places in the world.
The re-socialization campaign (Vergesellschaftung) was launched in 2018, in response to rapid financialization [creciente peso del sector financiero] of homes in a city where they were invested 42,000 million euros in real estate projects between 2007 and 2020, more than in London and Paris combined.
Smallholders and state-owned social housing have been aggressively attacked by large institutional players for whom housing has become a means of managing global equity funds.
For common tenants in Berlin – where at least 80% of the population rents -, the transformation of the real estate market it was accompanied by skyrocketing rents, widespread displacement, and the dismantling of local communities and social ties. Many neighborhoods quickly gentrified as low-income residents struggled to find decent and affordable housing.
Use the law
The real skill of the expropriation referendum campaign was its use of the German fundamental law to present their arguments, as established by the 1949 Constitution, which maintains that “property carries obligations” and “its use must also serve the public good.”
The Constitution allows the socialization of private goods “by means of a law that determines the nature and scope of the compensation.” Many jurists also agreed that recovering the housing as social property was allowor by the Constitution.
The campaign not only managed, at first, to collect the number of signatures necessary to call the referendum, but also presented more than 350,000, dealing all the time with the challenges of the pandemic.
This demonstrated the great grassroots effort sustained by the neighborhood teams scattered throughout the city’s districts. Working groups were also established that focused on key legal and financial issues and, in recent weeks, on the vote itself.
After its triumph, the campaign has rushed to ask the next Berlin Senate to recognize the result and draft a new law to make housing socially owned again.
The coalition that will form the new Berlin government, as well as the federal government, is not yet clear, but local politicians – with the exception of the left-wing Die Linke party – have expressed little interest in resocializing housing. The future mayor of the city, Franziska Giffey, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has already discarded the idea, but it will be difficult for him to ignore the dimension of the victory in the referendum and he has assured that will respect the result. The campaign has already outlined a proposition of law in an attempt to put pressure on the Berlin Senate.
Efforts to carry out the socialization process will undoubtedly face legal challenges, not to mention the problem of compensation to proprietary companies. Activists insist their model will balance meeting fair compensation with expropriation “neutral from a budget point of view”.
To some analysts they are concerned that the city will be forced to buy property at current market prices and that a social housing construction program is actually more profitable.
Regardless of the case, activists are well aware that what has been achieved so far must be part of a larger project to revive housing construction. “of orientation social “, including support for a spectrum of non-profit real estate policies.
The referendum is also a turning point that transcends Berlin. It highlights the role that ordinary renters – and grassroots organizations – can play in developing affordable housing policies while supporting communities increasingly exposed to the risk of displacement. It could be a catalyst for municipal housing movements across Europe.
Last Sunday’s results are a powerful reminder of the lack of meaningful alternatives for access to housing in other parts of Europe, such as the UK, despite the tireless (and often unappreciated) efforts of grassroots organizations across the country. Berlin has shown that community organizing and a committed group of citizens can design and run a long-term campaign around housing on a scale currently unthinkable in the UK.
What they remind us David Madden and Peter Marcuse, the contemporary housing crisis – whether in Berlin or the UK – cannot be solved with little political patches. What is needed are creative, large-scale solutions that address housing insecurity and empower residents to combat their increasing marginalization and vulnerability. While some are uncomfortable with the nature (and perhaps radicalism) of the socialization campaign in Berlin, it has also shown us the power of tenant activism and community organizing.
As the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Company activists proudly exclaimed: “This is our city, this is our home“.
* Alexander Vasudevan is Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford.
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies