The politics of the rent cap

Joel Dullroy tells the story of the Mietendeckel, a random proposal that stumbled to success – almost blowing up the coalition and contributing to the curtailment of the mayor’s career.

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(Photo by Jan Genge @Unsplash.)

Joel Dullroy tells the story of the Mietendeckel, a random proposal that stumbled to success – almost blowing up the coalition and contributing to the curtailment of the mayor’s career.

Berlin’s groundbreaking Mietendeckel seemingly came from nowhere. It wasn’t the result of a grand and idealistic political project. It featured in no party’s manifesto at the 2016 city election. It is a collateral result of infightings within Berlin’s ruling coalition partners, the SPD, Die Linke and Die Grünen – all eager to win ground among centre and left voters.

Its inception can be traced back to late 2018 and the grassroots campaign Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen that launched a petition calling for the city to forcibly take over thousands of apartments from large property companies. It soon gained enough signatures to trigger a referendum process. Startled, politicians scrambled to placate citizens with a moderate compromise. The first proposal for the Mietendeckel came from federal SPD member Eva Högl, who in January 2019 published a policy paper together with two lawyers, Kilian Wegner and Julian Zado. It was then taken up as official policy by the Berlin branch of the SPD. But not all in the party were on board: Michael Müller, Berlin’s mayor and SPD chief, was particularly opposed.

Administration insiders say Müller tried to kill off the Mietendeckel by handing responsibility for its implementation to someone he thought would fail: Berlin’s housing minister Katrin Lompscher, from Die Linke. Lompscher pushed back, arguing for a joint-party working group to realise the complicated legal policy. But Müller’s office refused: Lompscher and Die Linke should do the work, and bear the blame and shame when it failed. “The Sozis (SPD) are throwing us a hot potato. The Mietendeckel is a hard case. It puts us on thin ice,” Linke leader Klaus Lederer said in March 2019.

What followed was months of negative leaks to the Berlin press against Lompscher and the Mietendeckel, which some insiders think came from Müller’s office. This peaked on June 10, when details of the planned law reached the press, revealing for the first time that rents were to be frozen. Property owners’ association Haus und Grund immediately advised its members to raise their rents, and tens of thousands did so.

Incensed, Die Linke called for an emergency coalition meeting, threatening to pull out of the government if Müller didn’t stop undermining the Mietendeckel. The SPD, trailing in the polls, could hardly afford to risk an election. Days later, on June 18, the coalition parties jointly signed a commitment to deliver the Mietendeckel. Months of inter-party wrangling followed, but Lompscher managed to complete the complex job and hand over a draft law, which was finally approved by the Berlin parliament on January 30, 2020. Mayor Müller, the Mietendeckel’s least fervent cheerleader, was absent for much of that historic parliamentary session. One day earlier he had announced he would be leaving office before the next election.

Berlin has a history of revolutions caused by mistake, not least the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 because of erroneous comments by East German official Günter Schabowski. The Mietendeckel is the latest Schabowski moment. Now begins a new exciting, terrifying and unpredictable chapter in Berlin’s history.

Battling a greedy landlord? Not sure how to navigate the rent cap? Get in touch with Berliner Mieterverein, a strong, influential consulting organisation for tenants.