Berlin’s Vote To Expropriate the Landlords

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Ben Wray:

"In a stunning political defeat for rentier capitalism, Berlin voted in a referendum last month for “the socialisation” of 250,000 apartments. Ben Wray spoke to Bronwyn Fery, activist in the ‘expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co campaign’, to find out how it happened and what happens next.

Something special happened in Berlin last month. A campaign calling for the expropriation of landlords, who own around 3,000 properties which equates to about 250,000 apartments in the city, took their message to Berliners and convinced them that this radical housing demand was a good idea.

In a referendum held on the same day as the country’s federal elections, 26 September, 1,034,709 Berliners voted Yes to expropriation, 56.4% of all of those who voted. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had described the idea as “not the appropriate remedy for the housing crisis”, while the prospective mayor of Berlin, Franziska Giffey of the centre-left SPD, had said “I don’t want to live in a city that sends the signal that expropriation is going on here.” But the voters of Berlin ignored Germany’s political establishment, and voted for expropriation anyway.

The result is almost certainly the most sensational political defeat for rentier capitalism in Europe for decades. Not only does it show that radical housing demands can win majorities, but it also reveals that the sacred cow of property – that you can demand just about anything except encroaching on liberalism’s most sanctified belief that property rights come before everything else – can be slain.

The campaign began in 2019 with a demonstration of 40,000 through the streets of Berlin, the largest renters march in the city’s history, and involved a huge grassroots organising effort to defeat the big money behind real estate capital’s ‘No’ campaign.

But it’s not over. The vote is not legally binding on the incumbent Berlin coalition government, which is likely to be led by the SPD and include Die Linke (‘The Left’) and the Greens. Campaign efforts are now turning to ensuring the politicians respect the mandate they have been given by over a million Berliners."



Housing activist Bronwyn Fery is interviewed by Bella Caledonia journalist Ben Wray:

* BC: Let’s talk about the housing movement and how it has developed in Berlin. I know in 2019 a rent cap was introduced, but that was then struck down by the Constitutional Court in April of this year. Can you explain a bit of the background to this campaign and why the referendum became a key part of the housing movement’s strategy?

BF: I think this campaign is the result of over a decade of tenant organising. There have been other groups that have definitely fed into the expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co campaign. So for example there is Kotti & Co, which was centred in this Kreuzberg neighbourhood in Berlin, and lots of really experienced renters groups who have been fighting for a long time.

I think when the campaign really started to pick up steam was when we discovered articles 14 and 15 in the German constitution. Article 14 allows for expropriation – the taking of private property into public ownership – and Article 15 allows for socialisation for the common good – privately owned properties should be governed by the public. Expropriation happens all the time, the government will buy up your house to build a coal mine or a highway or whatever, and publicly run large organisations are not an exception either. The public transport in Berlin for example is organised according to principles that serve the common good.

The rent cap that was implemented by the social-democratic party in 2019, was actually a response to this expropriation demand. The proto-expropriation campaign brought their proposals forward and it was becoming really popular and the Social Democrats, who are definitely more friendly to real estate investment, said ‘no, no, no, we will do our own thing, how about we do this rent cap?’. And the rent cap failed because they didn’t check it was constitutional. So the failure of the rent cap only added fuel to the fire of our own campaign. We have done our research. We’ve asked the research groups of for example the German Parliament, Berlin’s senate administration for city planning, all these research groups have determined that our proposals for expropriation are completely constitutional, so we are ready for this.

BC: The Yes campaign seemed to have been a very well organised grassroots campaign. I noticed that Jane MacAlevey, who is a well known international trade union and community organiser and writer, has been helping to train the campaign on grassroots organising. Can you tell us a bit about how the campaign has organised?

BF: First of all, it’s a huge campaign. It’s organised around a main plenary every two weeks, and then there are different working groups; there’s a working group for figuring out the socialisation laws, a working group for public relations, a working group for managing the neighbourhood teams, and they have their own Telegram chats for organising putting up posters, collecting signatures and doing door-to-door talks. So there’s the working groups and then there’s the neighbourhood structure.

BC: What was key to getting your message across?

BF: One of the basic things is that everyone in Berlin is feeling this existential pressure. Even people who have good rental contracts now feel like they can never move again because if they do they will be moving out of the city. And people coming to the city are searching for months and sometimes up to a year to find a place. So everyone in the campaign has done a really good job of capitalising on that. So there is a really excellent social media team. It’s also a matter of engaging people face to face, collecting signatures there’s people on the streets in purple vests, and that’s a very visible type of branding

BC: In terms of the message of the campaign, to expropriate landlords, it’s obviously a strong message. When you were first trying to talk to people about this, what was the immediate reaction from Berliners to the idea?

BF: When I was collecting signatures for example I would just ask people if they wanted a city with affordable rent for everyone. Of course people want that. Or they had just heard about the campaign already because there was such good media about it. There were people who were against it, for example a lot of people who were in Berlin during the GDR who are suspicious of communism and think socialisation would mean there was less freedom about how to live their lives, which is not at all what this is about; we are not going to say people have to live in this apartment or that apartment or anything like that. So there was some mistrust there."