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  • “We’re closer than ever” What next for Berlin’s housing referendum?


“We’re closer than ever” What next for Berlin’s housing referendum?

An expert commission ruled that Berlin really can take back the city’s housing from corporate landlords. So, what happens next?

Housing in Schöneberg. Photo: IMAGO / Jochen Eckel

Berlin is in a housing crisis – skyrocketing rents, block-long queues for apartment viewings and dodgy landlords abound. To complicate matters, tens of thousands of those apartments are controlled by large corporations like Deutsche Wohnen, keeping a sense of housing security out of reach for families who live under threat of rent hikes and eviction.

The campaign group Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen (or “expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.”) – whose name pokes directly at the massive housing conglomerate – is out to change things. Two years ago, the group put forth a referendum that proposed deprivatising large swaths of Berlin and returning those buildings to public ownership. The vote, held in September 2021, passed with 59.1%. Despite this, many of the city’s leading politicians remain reluctant to act. 

Thirteen experts decided that the expropriation of Berlin’s large housing companies was not only legal, it was appropriate

After the vote passed, the city’s then-Red-Red-Green coalition government sent the proposal to an expert commission to assess its legality. At the time, many saw this manoeuvre as an attempt to avoid action or to bury the proposal in bureaucracy. This June, the commission issued their report – and the results were overwhelmingly positive for the campaign. Thirteen experts decided that the expropriation and socialisation of Berlin’s large housing companies was not only legal, it was an appropriate action in the face of the scale of the crisis. To understand what this means for Berlin’s rental future – and what the government will do next – we spoke with two activists at the forefront of the movement, Colleen Higgins and Wouter Bernhardt.


Let’s start at the beginning. What is Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen? What are your demands?

Our proposition is to expropriate the large profit-oriented corporate landlords in Berlin. In 2021, we had a referendum on this issue and it was successful, with 59.1% of the vote. A million people voted in favour of expropriation, and that doesn’t even include the sizable percentage of adults in Berlin who can’t vote. It was supported overwhelmingly by the people of this city.

Compared to many major cities, large housing corporations own a huge chunk of Berlin. They have a lot of power. Deutsche Wohnen, which is now Venovia, owns about 150,000 or 160,000 apartments in Berlin. It’s massive. And we’ve seen that these corporations are really bad for their tenants. They are the first to raise rents. By flipping social housing into condominiums, they are displacing our most vulnerable citizens. They deliberately understaff, and their workers, especially cleaners and Hausmeisters, are employed precariously through subcontractors. In other words, they have a disastrous impact on our city. We have this problem, and we have to do something about it. Our answer was expropriation.

This situation is devastating and we need to do something about it. We need something groundbreaking.

Just to be clear: what is expropriation?

What we propose is actually two steps. First is the Enteignung, the expropriation. This means that 240,000 apartments will be taken away from greedy landlords and brought into public ownership. That’s the first step, taking away the properties and compensating their owners. The second step is the Vergesellschaftung, the socialisation of the housing, which means putting things in the control of the people who actually live there.

What sort of compensation needs to be paid to these large companies?

The law is unclear. Article 15 of the German constitution simply says that if you want to expropriate, you need to compensate. How much? That’s up for debate. Some people say it only needs to be €1. Others say no, it should be market value. We’re in the middle. We propose that compensation is based on our fair-rent model, and that means a sum well under market-value. You’ve got to remember that these companies have been unfairly profiting off tenants for decades. It would be insane to hand them a bonus on top – it would set a horrible example for any future use of Article 15 and German expropriation law.

Were the supportive findings of the expert commission a surprise?

The question put to the commission was simply: does Berlin have the authority to do this? It was a kind of legal fact-checking. We’re very glad that these experts have said yes, financially, legally, you can do it. It has been made clear now that Berlin has the authority to expropriate. But at the same time, we knew this already. We had a lot of committees look at the proposal before the referendum even took place. Of course, we’re happy to have even more proof, but it has also put us back a year and a half when we should have been drafting a plan for expropriation. That’s time Berliners are not getting back.

The response of the expert commission was still quite a victory, wasn’t it? The ruling was overwhelmingly in your favour.

It’s important to remember the scale of the problem. Rents have been rising for decades, and for the past 20 years politicians have been promising to do something about it. All the half measures have failed. The rent mirror (Mietspiegel), the exclusion zones for specific areas (Milieuschutzgebieten), again and again we’ve seen that little thumbscrews like that don’t work. You have to go to the root of the problem, which is that these huge greedy housing corporations own vast amounts of housing and they do everything in their power to continually raise rents. This situation is devastating and we need to do something about it. We need something groundbreaking.

It’s important to remember the scale of the problem. Rents have been rising for decades, and for the past 20 years politicians have been promising to do something about it.

We’ve had a change of government since the referendum. Berlin has a CDU mayor for the first time in 20 years, backed up by Franziska Giffey’s SPD. Surely, that is going to make passing any housing expropriation law more difficult.

Photo: IMAGO / Christian Mang

There is a huge difference between the leadership of a party and the voters. We had a clear majority of Berliners voting in favour of our proposal. That means a big chunk of CDU voters were in favour of it, as were a majority of SPD voters. They see that this can be a solution. And if the membership of the parties are in favour, Kai Wegner or Franziska Giffey can’t just dismiss it, no matter how much they might like to.

Of course, the CDU and the SPD are in different places. We know that Kai Wegner’s CDU took €800,000 from one of the major real estate owners in 2020. That’s clear. With the SPD, Giffey cannot simply dismiss the opinion of her party. On two separate occasions, the party has overwhelmingly voted to enact the referendum, depending on the opinion of the commission. Now the result has come back. The pressure is on to make something happen.  

What is the Expropriation Framework Law? Some people seem to think this is the next legal trick that the government will employ to avoid taking action.

Our understanding is this: they want to put together a Rahmengesetz, a framework law to determine how to do any expropriation. The problem is this would likely mean bundling the housing situation together with talks on the climate and other societal issues. We don’t have any problem with Berlin taking control of its own heat distribution network, that’s a good idea – the issue is making a one-size-fits-all approach. We’ll run into different problems when taking over large housing companies than we will solving problems on the climate. The law needs to reflect that.

‘So that Berlin remains our home’. Photo: IMAGO / Winfried Rothermel

Might Berlin politicians try to buy back housing at the market rate?

We’ve seen this before. Right before the election, I think it was July or August 2021, the mayor at that point, Michael Müller, decided to buy back 20,000 units around Kottbusser Tor. They were partly owned by Deutsche Wohnen and Venovia. You don’t need a referendum to do that. But, of course, it’s insane.

You’re just giving the companies an incentive to raise rents, be horrible landlords, and then they’ll get their properties bought out for a huge price. The politicians that argue for this say that if you pay under market rate, you set a bad example for investing in Berlin. But we say, good! We don’t need that kind of business. We don’t need these companies to extort us, to drive us out of our homes. We need the companies that implement these crooked business practices to be afraid: if you don’t follow the rules, if you don’t take care of your tenants, you’ll be punished. 

One argument you hear all the time from right-wing politicians is that expropriation would not result in a single new house being built. What’s your argument against that? 

There’s a bunch of ways to tackle this question, but one of them is to point out that housing is not like other products. They’re not sandwiches or cars or mobile phones. Houses are situated in a neighbourhood which comprises a whole network of schools, family, friends, infrastructure, jobs and so on. You can’t make a house appear anywhere, it doesn’t work that way.

When people talk about building, quite often what they mean is like, “Oh, let’s build houses on the border of Brandenburg, far out on the edge.” But what does that mean? It means a place out of the way in the suburbs or the further districts for people who can’t afford the houses in the centre anymore. It’s forced displacement. No one at Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen would say that we never want new houses to be built. But what we need is social housing, affordable housing.

We need that, but we also need 240,000 houses with about half a million people living in them to be brought back into public ownership. That’s protecting half a million people who don’t need to worry about skyrocketing rents, or being evicted from the place where they grew up, or becoming disconnected from their families. That is different from building housing. Both are important. We can build new houses and expropriate. Let’s do both.

Vonovia, another real-estate giant. Photo: IMAGO / Sven Simon

The politicians are coming back from their summer recess. What’s next for the expropriation referendum?

Well, this is politics, so first they’ll go back to business and they won’t immediately tackle the thing that we want them to tackle, but they will have to get around to it eventually. It might be September or October, we don’t know. But they will have to talk about the results of this committee. They have to talk about what this actually means. We believe there’s a whole bunch of people in Parliament that have been waiting for this moment to push the government and say, “The law has to come now.”

In the Left Party, in the Greens and in the SPD, there are people waiting to jump on this. The CDU and SPD are in power right now, but the Greens, the Left and the SPD also have a majority. The votes are there. We’re excited to see what is going to happen. From our side, we’ve got to do everything in our power to make sure that the people of Berlin don’t forget.

Is public opinion turning against expropriation?

Look at the last election. The FDP tried to push against expropriation. They made it a big issue and now they aren’t even represented in Parliament. So no, I don’t think public opinion is turning against it. What we see are delaying tactics. They’re trying to ignore it. Meanwhile, we see lots of other expropriation campaigns, both in other German cities and internationally. Hamburg is working on something similar. In Lisbon, they’re collecting signatures. This is a popular and necessary concept – and it is only going to grow in popularity when you look at the scale of the problem.

Your campaign has come such a long way. How do you reflect on this moment in the fight?

We’re closer than ever, you know? We’re almost there. And it really feels possible that we’re going to bring a law and actually do this. At the same time, we have to be so vigilant and to fight. No one is going to give this to us. We need to fight for it as a campaign. The people in Berlin need to fight with us, because if the politicians at the top can get away from it, they will. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen.

For more information, visit dwenteignen.de