How Berliners won a vote to expropriate big landlords

30 September 2021
Shirley Killen

Last Sunday’s German election was a big one. Angela Merkel’s sixteen-year chancellorship has come to an end, and Germans across the country went to the polls to decide which uninspiring member of an establishment party would replace her. But for Berliners, another important vote was cast that day: a referendum on whether to expropriate the property of the city’s biggest landlords and turn it into public housing. A stunning 56.4 percent—1,034,709 people—voted in favour.

The referendum targeted the corporate landlords that have a monopoly over a large portion of Berlin’s rental market. It called for any company with more than 3,000 units to have their excess properties turned over to public ownership. It’s estimated that, if actioned, this initiative could lead to the expropriation of up to 240,000 apartments, or 11 percent of housing in the city.

This result is a huge victory for the grassroots campaign that’s fought for years to challenge the stranglehold of gigantic corporations over Berlin’s housing. In a city where more than 80 percent of residents are renters, housing is one of the places where class inequality is most sharply manifested. Over the last decade, rent has doubled while wages have barely risen. Gentrification has seen working-class and migrant communities pushed out of their neighborhoods. And the city’s growing population, combined with a lack of investment in new housing projects, means that finding housing is a nightmare for working-class people.

This has made big landlords incredibly wealthy and powerful. Those that have benefited most are corporations like Deutsche Wohnen, which buys up huge swathes of housing and charges rents well above average while only investing 1 percent of its profits in building new stock. The company uses the rest of its profits to pay enormous dividends to shareholders and to add to its already bloated portfolio, estimated to be around 100,000 apartments. To add insult to injury, many of the apartments being snapped up by private companies today were once public housing, sold-off by governments in the early 2000s.

Last year, a rent cap provided much-needed relief to renters, but did little to change the long-term picture. Introduced in February, the cap froze rents for five years in nearly all of the city’s apartments, but it was overturned in April this year after being deemed unconstitutional. Almost immediately, rents rocketed up by hundreds of Euros, and many renters were forced to pay back the savings they’d accrued while the cap was in place.

The growing frustration with Berlin’s hellish housing situation provided solid ground for the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen (Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co) campaign to gain a hearing among the city’s disaffected renters. On the ground campaigning was crucial to building broad support for the initiative. DW Enteignen organised street demonstrations, bike protests, boat convoys and mass postering. They brought leaflets and petitions to busy streets and football games, connecting with ordinary Berliners and arguing that they should support the referendum. And the campaign clearly struck a chord: A massive 343,000 residents signed onto the campaign petition, smashing the initial target of 175,000 signatures required to translate a petition into a city-wide referendum.

Now the initial support has translated into a resounding vote in favour of expropriation. Whether the vote will be enacted, however, is another matter. Already, landlords’ associations have kicked up a fuss about the proposal being unconstitutional, despite the fact that Article 14 of Germany’s Basic Law explicitly allows for the socialisation of property for the public good.

But while resistance from corporate landlords was inevitable, the biggest hurdle may lie in the political sphere. The referendum isn’t legally binding and its enactment depends on the local government in Berlin. Out of the three party coalition that currently governs in the city—comprising the Social Democratic Party (SPD—equivalent to Australia’s Labor Party), the Greens, and the Left party—only the Left have committed to respecting the results. The Greens have been equivocal at best, and the SPD have been vocal opponents. At a DW Einteignen forum, Berlin’s newly-elected SPD mayor Fransizka Giffey made her position clear. She doesn’t want, she said, “a city that sends the signal: This is where expropriation is taking place.”

“You are horrified”, Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population.”

Given the situation in Berlin and many other cities around the world, who can say these words ring any less true today than they would have in 1847? A big majority of Berliners have voted “to do away with” the private property of major landlords, and the bourgeoisie is in a panic. They fear their engorged property portfolios might be taken away from them, and they’re working furiously alongside their loyal political servants to find a way to disregard the democratic will. Meanwhile, a large portion of Berliners can hardly afford to pay their rent, let alone dream of one day having secure housing.

Some in the political establishment argued that DW Enteignen’s demand for full expropriation was too radical and would alienate potential supporters. This weekend’s vote can put that argument to bed. In a world wracked by crisis, where the rich are getting richer and working-class people are being priced out of their own communities, only radical solutions will suffice.

This referendum shows that ordinary people can see there’s something deeply wrong with a system that allows even basic necessities to be controlled and exploited by the rich. It shows that only a serious on the ground campaign can win big reforms. Hopefully the German example inspires activists across the world to challenge the hegemony of corporate landlords. But it also shows that reforms alone aren’t enough. Even though a majority of Berliners have voted in favour, and even though the referendum is clear that expropriation will not proceed without compensation for the housing companies, there is a strong likelihood that the promised socialisation will not happen.

As socialists, we need to fight for reforms today. But we also need to fight for a world where workers can take back everything that we have produced, where not just housing but all private property is returned to us—a world where expropriation is carried out from below and without compensation. That’s a world worth living in.

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