Berliners voted for a radical solution to soaring rents. A year on, they are still waiting

Access to the comments Comments
By Dave Braneck
Graffiti with the slogan "Hands off our homes" is displayed at the building wall of an alternative housing project in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022
Graffiti with the slogan "Hands off our homes" is displayed at the building wall of an alternative housing project in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP Photo   -  

A year ago today, Berliners voted in a historic referendum that proposed one of Europe's most radical solutions to soaring rents.

Asked whether they backed seizing property from so-called mega landlords, voters in the German capital screamed a resounding "yes".

The referendum passed by 59% to 41%.

But a year on and despite a strong democratic mandate, there's little sign that the referendum victory will garner concrete results. 

Berlin’s housing crisis

While a public referendum on expropriating swathes of privately-owned apartments would be a unique solution, Berlin’s housing crisis represents a common challenge facing cities.

Global housing prices have risen at the fastest rate in 40 years, while a recent study of 200 cities around the world determined 90% of them to be unaffordable to live in.

Even in this painfully-pricey context, Berlin’s housing crisis is especially acute.

“Rents have risen here much faster than elsewhere," Wibke Werner, director of the Berlin Tenant’s Union (BMV), told Euronews.

"Sure, compared to other major cities, Berlin may have started at a more affordable level, but we also have particularly low incomes here.” 

In recent years, Berlin has consistently registered some of the fastest-rising housing prices in the world. 

Though still relatively low compared to other European cities such as London or Paris, rents in Berlin doubled from 2009 to 2019 and haven’t stopped climbing.

With roughly 85% of Berliners renting their apartments, nearly the whole city has felt the squeeze of a housing market increasingly dominated by speculation.

And for those who can afford the rents, the suffocatingly-tight rental market means it’s nearly impossible to find apartments regardless of price. Vacant apartments and rooms in shared flats get flooded with hundreds of applications shortly after being posted.

“It’s dramatic,” said Werner. “Students moving to Berlin often need months before they can find a room or an apartment. That means bouncing around on couches, staying in hostels, or jumping from short-term sublet to sublet.”

“On the other hand, when young families have a child or two and no longer fit in their apartments, it can be extremely difficult to find a bigger place. And if they can find something, it’s often so expensive that they just stay in their old apartment,” she continued.

Credit: AP
Arial view of the Wilmersdorf district with office buildings and apartment houses close to the catholic St. Ludwig church in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021Credit: AP

A radical response

A palpable sense of desperation among Berlin renters helped ignite a headline-grabbing response: a referendum to expropriate the apartments of private landlords holding more than 3,000 units and to incorporate them into the city’s social housing stock.

Crafted by the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen campaign -- named after the city’s largest corporate landlord -- the referendum calls for socialising more than 240,000 apartments. 

While Berlin’s crushing housing costs are an ever-present topic in both the news and conversation, the referendum passing by such a large margin took many by surprise.

“I think the [ruling coalition] is on thin ice here. We got more votes than the whole coalition combined,” Chris Koth, an organiser at Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen, told Euronews.

“I think they know if they don’t come up with a magic solution to the housing problem, they’re going to be in trouble.”

The campaign, which received nearly 50,000 more votes than the collective total of the ruling SPD, Greens, and Left Party, has accused the government of dragging its feet in implementing the referendum.

For many housing activists, the frustration is rooted in the failure of past attempts to curb Berlin’s housing costs. A rent cap was controversially deemed unconstitutional by the federal constitutional court and overturned in 2021. Many renters were forced to pay back to landlords the savings they had made while the rent cap was in place. 

Recent attempts by the Berlin government to encourage corporate landlords to voluntarily lower rents have also failed. Expropriating so-called mega landlords is seen by many as a desperate last-ditch attempt to reduce speculation, enshrine housing as a public good, and keep housing costs manageable.

For Werner, expropriating corporate-owned housing would only be part of a broader solution to Berlin’s housing crisis.

“I will admit that socialising housing won’t expand the city’s housing stock. Expropriation doesn’t create new housing. You also need to build, and not the profit-focused construction we typically see,” she said.

Credit: AP Photo
Cranes stay next to a construction site of an office building in Berlin, Germany, Monday, May 6, 2019.Credit: AP Photo

One piece of the housing puzzle

Roughly 90,000 of Berlin’s 1.9 million apartments are designated as public housing. The social housing stock has dwindled in recent years, as most of the city’s public housing has a 30-year bond before entering the private market.

For years, more apartments have fallen out of public hands than new social housing has been developed. Though the city government has committed to building 5,000 new units of public housing a year, zero applications to build public housing have gone through so far in 2022.

Berlin is also drastically behind plans to build 200,000 units of housing in general within the next 10 years. 

Those less enthusiastic about expropriating existing housing frequently argue that increasing the supply of housing -- whether it's subsidised or private -- will help dampen prices. Either way, there is little building that is getting done.

“Many politicians have argued that we just need to build, build, build to produce more housing and solve the issue. But this ignored the fact that building is really quite expensive, even before the crisis with inflation, and the war in Ukraine, so it’s not that simple to just build that much,” said Koth.

Stall tactics or due diligence?

Shortly after the referendum succeeded last year, an organiser with Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen told Euronews that the campaign now had to “turn up the pressure” to ensure the election results were enforced. This is proving at least as fierce a battle as getting the referendum passed in the first place.

Given that Berlin’s mayor, the SPD’s Franziska Giffey, spoke out clearly against expropriation before the election, campaign organisers didn’t expect the implementation of the referendum -- which is technically non-binding -- to be a walk in the park.

In March, the city established a 13-person "expert commission" charged with assessing the legality of the draft law proposed by the campaign over the course of a year. Koth and other activists see this as opponents within the government buying time.

“Obviously we were against the commission. Because it’s a way for the Berlin Senate, or at least the Social Democrats and Green Party, to put the referendum on hold so they don’t have to do it,” Koth told Euronews.

The three governing parties and Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen each drafted three members into the commission, along with a head selected by the senate. The SPD selecting members that had publicly criticised expropriation likely wasn’t reassuring to the campaign, but the rest of the experts seem to largely be supportive of the initiative.

“I think these are generally just normal political processes. I know [members of the campaign] are frustrated because they view this as a means of putting on the breaks, but I don’t fully see it that way. It’s an extremely complex question, and it has to truly be airtight, given past defeats at the constitutional court,” reflected Werner.

Activists re-find their feet

While the commission embarks on its year-long quest to publish a report about the viability of the proposed expropriation law, the campaign has had to shift gears.

“We are kind of in a phase of finding ourselves again. We don’t have a big, practical thing like before where we were collecting signatures and everyone could get involved,” said Koth.

The initiative’s vibrant campaign was highly visible and electrified the electorate. While they’ve partly retreated from the public eye to apply pressure on members of the city government, they are also planning to use their organisational network to launch tenant organising campaigns that are independent of the push for expropriation.

Pressuring the governing coalition is another question. Focus has largely been laid on the base of the three parties, with some positive results in the campaign’s ledger. 

This summer, the SPD’s local annual congress voted in favour of carrying out the referendum, meaning ignoring it would pit Giffey directly against her party.

The Left Party, the only party in the coalition to openly support the initiative during the election, could also be put in a difficult position depending on what the commission decides. There was a deep internal debate about whether or not the party should even join the coalition without a clear promise from partners to carry out the referendum.

In the end, the Left Party joined, with a commitment from leaders to exit the coalition if the push for expropriation fails. 

“If the referendum gets cut out for good, the party will have a huge internal problem if they don’t leave the coalition,” said Koth.

Still, they likely had a stronger hand to play during initial coalition talks than they will a couple of years into governing. And not only did the Left join the coalition, but they also gave up the housing ministry, which they held in the last coalition, to the SPD.

Credit: AP
A protester with sign reading "Rent cap nationwide!" during a mass rally to protest against a court ruling removing a rent cap in Berlin, Germany Thursday April 15, 2021Credit: AP

Hoping not to need a Plan B

So far, only one of the commission’s monthly meetings has been public. Getting a read on what to expect can be quite difficult.

“I think I am probably a bit more optimistic about that than a few other people in our campaign. I expect that the majority of the commission will say yeah, it’s complicated, but it’s possible. It will be some kind of shade of grey,” speculated Koth.

Werner has fairly similar expectations. 

“I think with the current political constellation in government, it’s going to be quite difficult for the referendum to be fully enacted. I think it will probably come down to some form of compromise, and then the question is whether or not the initiative can swallow those compromises,” she said.

Regardless of what happens, Werner sees the referendum as having made an important contribution to Berlin’s housing politics.

“The referendum brought important impulses to life. Topics like rent, affordability, housing as an existential right, these are things that now are being discussed in broader society and seen as vital topics,” said Werner.

“You can’t get around these things. And I think that’s already a major success. And solutions to these issues, whatever happens, have to be pushed for.”

Though the referendum’s success brought global attention to Berlin’s radical, innovative approach to the housing crisis, a mere symbolic victory would likely be deeply unsatisfying to the millions of Berliners struggling with exploding rents. Especially given the glacial pace at which new social housing is being built and the cost of living crisis only exacerbating long-standing issues.

If the commission does squash the referendum, or it is killed during its implementation, the initiative has few options for formal recourse. One would be to enact another referendum, this time legally binding (which requires having fully-drafted legislation written before starting the referendum process, something Koth claims the campaign did not have the resources for the first time around).

“I wouldn’t want to say it’s Plan B. Because actually, all the voters have already said, ‘yeah, we have to do this’. And that’s a powerful thing,” he said. 

With 59% of Berlin’s voters supporting the referendum, there’s plenty of inherent pressure on local politicians to deliver. But the lengthy political battle that’s followed the referendum, and that’s sure to continue regardless of what the commission decides, demonstrates just how complicated and unresponsive democracy can be.

Euronews contacted the Berlin Ministry of Urban Development, Building and Housing to comment on this article, but it had not responded by the time of publication.