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  • Red Flag: 350,000 signatures against Deutsche Wohnen


Red Flag: 350,000 signatures against Deutsche Wohnen

The campaign to expropriate the city's biggest landlord is over – and it was the most successful ballot initiative in Berlin's post-reunification history. Nathaniel Flakin looks at what's next.

Image for Red Flag: 350,000 signatures against Deutsche Wohnen

The campaign to expropriate the city’s biggest landlord is over – and it was the most successful ballot initiative in Berlin’s post-reunification history. Photo: IMAGO / IPON

Yellow posters with purple highlights. Purple vests with yellow highlights. You must have seen them all over the city. Last Friday, the four-month campaign ended with a rally in front of the Senate Administration of the Interior. Purple-yellow flags waved, purple-yellow flares burned, and the Sekt flowed freely as the final signatures were handed over.

350,000 people – one in every 10 Berliners! – signed the petition to expropriate the city’s biggest landlords. This was the most successful ballot initiative in the city’s post-reunification history. That record number was collected during a pandemic and a semi-lockdown. 2,000 activists were working around the clock to make that happen – but they were helped by universal rage at exploding rents. 

Only 175,000 valid signatures were required to get on the ballot in September – that hurdle was cleared weeks before the last signatures were handed in. A final tally is expected next week.

On September 26, when voters go to the polls for both German and Berlin elections, they will also be asked whether they are in favour of the ‘socialisation’ of large housing companies in Berlin. This is possible according to article 15 of the German constitution. For the measure to pass, a majority of voters and at least 25% of eligible voters will have to be in favour. While some past referenda have failed due to low turnout, this will be no problem on an election day. 

The campaign is called ‘Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen,’ but it makes no difference that Deutsche Wohnen (which owns 113,000 housing units in Berlin) is getting swallowed up by Vonovia (43,000 units). The proposal is to expropriate any company controlling more than 3,000 units.

350,000 people – one in every 10 Berliners – signed the petition to expropriate the city’s biggest landlords.

Of the 349,658 signatures handed over by last Friday, roughly 30% are being declared invalid. Only people over 18 with German citizenship who have been registered in Berlin for at least three months are eligible to sign. But the campaign has been deliberately collecting signatures from everyone.

An estimated 22% of adults in Berlin are denied the right to vote. They are treated as Ausländer*innen (foreigners) even if they’ve lived in the city and paid taxes for 50 years or more. Immigrants are suffering most in the housing crisis. The campaign included posters in Russian, Turkish, Arabic, English and even Sorbic, and there’s an English-speaking working group called Right to the City. A few weeks ago, they held an event on Tempelhofer Feld that was mostly in English.

The election campaign in Berlin is going to be all about Enteignung. The CDU’s main slogan is “No to expropriation!”. They promise, instead, that they want to “really help renters” – while their only concrete proposal is to throw more money at giant corporations that buy up existing housing stock and jack up rents. As a new website points out, the CDU has become, in effect, the Expropriation Party. The conservatives expropriate apartment buildings to construct freeways, or even entire villages to dig up lignite coal. The only time they oppose expropriation is when it’s intended to create affordable rents.

Berlin’s red-red-green government is kinda-sorta in favour of expropriation. DIE LINKE has consistently supported the campaign – though it shouldn’t be forgotten that this was the party that privatised 200,000 apartments in Berlin in the early 2000s. The SPD and the Greens were opposed – but then a majority of members in each party voted in favour of the measure. Thus, the SPD is running with a lead candidate, Franziska Giffey, who’s strongly opposed to expropriation, even while most of the membership is in favour.

Socialisation would take 240,000 housing units out of the hands of massive realty companies and create a new public housing company under democratic control by renters. (This is because Berlin’s existing public housing companies, without much accountability, are also terrible.)

Berliners will have a choice: should our homes be the property of investors with a fiduciary duty to maximise profits, and who therefore need to constantly raise rents while cutting services? Or should they be a common good, with the exclusive goal of creating affordable housing for everyone?

In the campaign, we will hear two main arguments against expropriation:

Firstly, “It’s too expensive.” They say the city will need to pay €36 billion or more. But this is far more than Deutsche Wohnen and Co. paid for the buildings 10-20 years ago. They have let their properties deteriorate – why should we pay them speculative prices? The German constitution only mandates an “appropriate compensation.” The Bavarian constitution even explicitly prohibits paying compensation for “increases in land value that occur without special expenditures of value or labour.” So, in reality, the city shouldn’t even pay half that amount.

Secondly, “expropriation won’t build new apartments.” But the thing is: private companies build very few affordable rentals. Instead, their business model is based on buying up existing housing that was already financed by public money. Socialisation will mean that rent income, which is currently flowing into the pockets of investors in tax shelters, will remain in Berlin and be invested in new housing. So yes, expropriation will in one stroke give a massive boost to the construction of new apartments in Berlin. 

Property is not granted by God. Property is a social construct. In the early 2000s, the Berlin government decided to put formerly public housing into the hands of private corporations. This was obviously a catastrophic decision. Why should the people of Berlin not be able to reverse it? I’m hopeful that a majority of people will vote in favour. Some people might not like the word “expropriation” – but they like constant rent increases even less.