“Which cities will follow its lead?” asked one advocate, after 56% of voters told Berlin’s municipal government to transfer thousands of homes to public ownership.
By a margin of 56% to 39%, Berliners approved a referendum that instructs the municipal government to purchase housing from mega-landlords, or private real estate companies that own more than 3,000 units. If implemented, the move would bring approximately 240,000 homes, or about 15% of the city’s stock, into public ownership.
The referendum was secured by the Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen (Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.) campaign, which gathered 343,000 petition signatures to ensure the measure made its way onto the ballot for Sunday’s elections in Germany. Deutsche Wohnen—the largest residential property owner in Berlin, with a portfolio of more than 113,000 units—is one of several profit-maximizing mega-landlords that organizers expect to be covered by the decision.
“For years, Berlin’s rental market has been going berserk,” the campaign noted, adding that over the past decade, rents have risen to a far greater extent than wages. “That is why more and more people are affected by displacement… We seek to end the rental insanity.”
Progressives worldwide applauded Sunday night’s result—made possible by years of organizing by anti-gentrification activists and housing-for-all campaigners in Berlin, where over 84% of the population are tenants and “rents have doubled in the last 10 to 15 years,” according to Jonas Becker, a spokesperson for Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.
“Fantastic!” tweeted journalist and author Paris Marx. “Now which cities will follow its lead?”
Progressive International characterized the development as a chance to “return” hundreds of thousands of homes to the public. That’s because, as journalist Molly Shah wrote last week for The Real News Network, “Berlin used to have much more publicly owned housing, but since reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 more than 200,000 units have been sold to private equity and hedge funds.”
Notwithstanding the significance of Sunday night’s victory, the referendum to transform corporate landlords’ units into public housing is non-binding, meaning that fierce opposition is expected and organizers will likely need to put sustained pressure on Berlin’s elected officials in order to ensure the city passes a law that turns the plan into reality.
The newly elected parliament has yet to form a coalition, but will likely be comprised of the outgoing constellation of center-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.
Joanna Kusiak, an activist for Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co., warned the city government that “more people voted for our initiative than any single party in Berlin. We got support from every part of Berlin, and across the political spectrum.”
Kalle Kunkel, another organizer behind the initiative, said that Mayor-elect Giffey “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,” Kunkel acknowledged, “but we have over 1,000 activists around the city and they’re not going to be robbed of this victory.”
Seven independent legal experts have confirmed that the proposal is constitutional, according to Kusiak. The campaign invokes Article 15 of the German constitution, a previously unused eminent domain clause that, according to Euronews, “expressly allows socialization for the public good.”
While Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. estimates that the initiative would cost roughly $9.3 billion, the projections of Berlin’s municipal government are closer to $35.1 billion. “The deciding factor,” Euronews noted, “will be if the city has to pay the market price for the apartments.”
Earlier this month, Berlin’s government announced that it would buy nearly 15,000 apartments from two corporate landlords for $2.9 billion, a move that housing campaigners attributed to the potential success of the referendum.
Some progressives say that Berlin’s movement to decommodify thousands of homes in one fell swoop provides important lessons, given that moving units from the private market—where shelter is increasingly treated as a financial asset—to the public domain instantly increases the supply of housing that should, in theory, be permanently affordable.
Based on her conversations with housing organizers in Berlin, Shah wrote that “the reason so many of the city’s establishment have come out against the law is because of its possible effectiveness in solving the housing crisis—not only in Berlin, but as an example to cities all over the world.”
Kim Meyer of the Berlin Alliance against Displacement and Rent Madness told Shah that a successful referendum to decommodify housing in Germany’s capital city “might inspire people to question the current sellout of their land and cities to global investors and to [investigate] compulsory purchases of necessities by their administrations, like housing, water wells, power plants, et cetera, and to fight for their human right to housing.”
Kenny Stancil is a staff writer for Common Dreams.