"I am angry that the working class movement built this, but now it’s the corporations who profit off this.”
“I hope [housing companies] think ‘Oh, the Germans are crazy. Your money is not safe in Germany’. This would be great.”
- Two supporters of the Berlin housing referendum, quoted Vice
Germany’s 26 September general election was a mixed bag for the left. The conservative coalition was ejected from office for the first time since 2005, with the Social Democratic and Green votes rising substantially from 2017, the Christian Democratic vote plummeting and the far-right Alternative for Germany falling back. However the SPD and the Greens may form a coalition with the ultra-neo-liberal Free Democrats, and there is no question they will continue with neo-liberal policies. Meanwhile the Left Party lost almost half its vote, while continuing to move to the right…
On the same day as the election, however, the left and labour movement won a major victory.
In Berlin, a referendum voted for the city government to take into public ownership all housing owned by the twelve private real-estate organisations with 3,000 or more units in the city. This amounts to about 243,000 homes, out of 1.5 million rental properties in Berlin.
1,034,709 Berliners (56.4%) voted for the initiative, and 715,214 (39%) against. (The rest were invalid votes.)
This despite the fact that parties with a clear majority in Berlin elections, including both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, opposed the measure, in a de facto united front with the Berlin association of housing companies.
The expropriation demand was supported by the Left Party, the Greens and the SPD’s youth section (and many SPD members), as well a range of tenants’ organisations and trade unions.
The referendum’s official title was “Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen” — “Expropriate Deutsch Wohnen & Co.” Deutsche Wohnen owns 113,000 of the 240,000 housing units marked for public ownership.
In 2006 Deutsche Wohnen bought up 60,000 units of social housing, paying on average only €7,500 for each — from a city government led by the Social Democrats and including the Left Party. This was part of a wider trend of selling off public housing and strengthening the role of private developers and real-estate companies against local authorities.
Alexander Vasudevan summarised in the Guardian what this has meant:
“For ordinary tenants in Berlin, where at least 80% of the population are renters, the transformation of the housing market was accompanied by skyrocketing rents, widespread displacement and the dismantling of local communities and social bonds. Many neighbourhoods were rapidly gentrified while low-income residents struggled to find decent affordable housing.”
There are a range of figures floating around about how much rents in Berlin have increased. Some estimate that in a decade they have increased by about half overall and doubled for new tenancies.
The expropriation campaign has been running since 2018. Ironically, it gained strength partly because a much less radical measure, to freeze rents on most homes in the city, was introduced in 2020 but shot down by Germany’s constitutional court in April this year.
In July 2019, the campaign for expropriation had collected 58,000 signatures. By the end of June this year they had almost 350,000, with the number certified as legally valid easily passing the threshold of 170,000, 7% of eligible voters, needed to initiate the referendum.
Campaigners for a referendum on public ownership cited Article 15 of Germany’s constitution, which says that “land, natural resources and means of production may, for the purpose of socialisation, be transferred to public ownership or other forms of public enterprise by a law that determines the nature and extent of compensation”… However Article 15 has never been used before.
In 2013 83.2% voted for a Berlin referendum to take the city’s energy system back into public ownership. However, turnout was only 29%, so the vote fell just short of the 25% necessary for a ballot measure to be legally passed. Turnout in this year’s much harder-fought housing referendum was just under 75%.
The referendum is officially non-binding. The new Social Democratic mayor of Berlin, Franziska Giffey, opposed expropriation but says she will respect the result. However she seems to be working to delay (and block?) its implementation.
One argument will be over what the real-estate corporations are paid. Naturally they and their supporters argue that, if public ownership goes ahead at all, they should get the market rate — which would cost something like €40 billion, many times what they originally paid to grab hold of public housing. Expropriation campaigners argue to pay something like a quarter of that.
The fight is probably only just beginning.
Nonetheless, the referendum victory should give the left, labour movement and housing movements in other countries confidence to fight for radical solutions to the housing and other crises we face. Here we should discuss how to use the Berlin struggle to put the restoration and expansion of council housing back on the political agenda, and confront the Labour Party’s love-in with landlords and developers.