Berliners have backed one of Europe's most radical responses to gentrification: seizing property from so-called mega landlords.
In a referendum timed to coincide with Germany's general election on Sunday, locals supported expropriation by 56% to 39%.
“It’s nearly impossible to describe this feeling," Kalle Kunkel, an activist for Berlin's Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen campaign, told Euronews.
"For many of us, it feels like the end of a four-year marathon. Or at the very least, we’ve reached a major high point.”
The campaign is named after Deutsche Wohnen, a private landlord that held more than 110,000 apartments in Berlin.
Kunkel sees the referendum victory as the culmination of years of campaigning against skyrocketing housing and rental prices.
The vote could see private landlords that hold more than 3,000 units having them expropriated and folded into the city’s affordable housing stock.
This would socialise more than 240,000 apartments.
“It was an incredibly clear victory," Kunkel added. "A majority of Berliners in all but two (of 12) districts supported the initiative.
"Which means the whole city said: ‘We don’t want speculators to have a say in our housing’. And that’s a decision that political leaders simply can’t ignore.”
Desperate times, democratic measures
Socialising a quarter-million apartments may seem extreme, but this reflects a growing sense of desperation among renters in Berlin.
Once known as one of Europe’s most affordable capital cities, rents in Berlin more than doubled in the last decade.
For many supporters, the initiative is about ensuring Berlin remains accessible to all its residents and not just the rich while rethinking housing as a social good instead of a commodity.
The referendum is a vocal rejection of housing speculation where previous, tamer attempts to mitigate the city’s housing crisis failed. Existing federal rent control schemes did little to slow meteoric rises in rents.
A popular city-wide rent cap was introduced in 2020 but struck down by the federal constitutional court this spring. With parliamentary efforts having failed, the direct-democratic approach via a referendum was a logical next step for Berlin’s renters, who make up roughly 85% of the city.
The referendum campaign, which was first set in motion years ago and embraced colourful, fun messaging that stood out from typically staid German electioneering, helped spark a city-wide dialogue around a radical prospect.
For Kunkel, this was an important factor in the campaign’s success.
“This campaign managed to build a dialogue with a wider segment of the city than any other similar initiative I know of, from canvassing to phone drives and direct discussions with neighbours. I think that’s the secret to why it worked. On top of any normal media about the campaign, we held hundreds of thousands of discussions with city residents,” reflected Kunkel.
There are still many hurdles to jump
Though Berlin’s voters have spoken, implementing their wishes will be less straightforward than the simple yes/no vote of the referendum.
Not technically binding, the result simply means that Berlin’s parliament has to debate the initiative, not necessarily enact it.
The newly elected parliament has yet to form a coalition, but will likely be comprised of the outgoing constellation of centre-left SPD, Greens, and the Left Party. Of those, only the Left Party openly supports expropriation, while the SPD is against it.
Incoming SPD mayor Franziska Giffey has recently categorically ruled out expropriation. Given that more than one million Berliners voted for it, compared to the roughly 400,000 that voted for her, Giffey’s hand may be forced by the initiative’s popularity.
According to Kunkel, Giffey has already softened her stance on expropriation leading into the election.
“You can tell she realised she can’t just be indifferent to a democratic decision. Sure, she’ll try to use all the legal and formal tricks at her disposal to delay or circumvent its implementation, but we have over 1,000 activists around the city and they’re not going to be robbed of this victory,” he said.
If passed, mass expropriation will face another hurdle: Berlin’s constitutional court. Though critics point to the court’s ruling against Berlin’s rent cap as evidence expropriation is unconstitutional, the cap was struck down because it was seen as superseding federal legislation, not because it inherently went against Germany’s constitution.
The campaign cites Article 15 of the constitution, which expressly allows socialisation for the public good. Still, just as passing the legislation will be a fiercely contested political scrap, a legal one is guaranteed to follow suit if it goes through.
Likewise, a battle is already brewing about the proposed initiative’s costs. While Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen projects socialisation to cost roughly €8 billion, the Berlin parliament’s projections are closer to €30 billion. The deciding factor will be if the city has to pay the market price for the apartments.
The campaign claims that regardless of the exact price tag, it will cost taxpayers nothing as residents in socialised housing would reimburse the costs over time through their rental payments. Housing would be affordable, as the socialised apartments would no longer have to accrue profits.
Though jubilant campaign activists celebrated the victory deep into the early morning after results came in, they still have a long road ahead of them in order to make the referendum results a reality.
“We have to turn up the pressure on the parties, regardless of what the governing coalition looks like,” said Kunkel.
Given the rocky political landscape facing organizers, there is little time for triumphalism. And while there’s no guarantee the campaign will be able to deliver on its promises, its democratic approach to decommodifying housing can serve as a lesson to other cities struggling with exploding housing costs.
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