Demanding the Right to Housing and the Right to Vote

Interview with Carol from the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen Right2TheCity group


Hi Carol, could we start off by you saying who you are, and what your connection is with Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen (DWE) and the Right2TheCity group?

I’m Carol, and I joined Right2TheCity (R2C) in February 2021. I’m active in the R2C Reproduction and Organising Task Force, we make sure the wheels keep turning and connect new people to the activities of the group. We are using relational organising techniques to try to activate our 150+ strong telegram contact list. We realised that unless we have a chat with people to get to know them and their interests they are unlikely to become active members of the group. Mainly because for most people, knowing how to contribute to a new group is a bit confusing and our telegram threads are too epic. But we need active members because there is so much to do!

DWE just had a record-breaking campaign collecting over 350,000 signatures for fair rents in Berlin. Why do you think this campaign was so successful?

For several reasons. Berliners do not need any convincing that the cost of rent should go down, 80% of people who live in the city are tenants, thousands of volunteers did countless hours of work in a decentralised neighbourhood based structure to collect the signatures. Also the branding of the campaign is super effective, the purple and yellow posters really stand out! The campaign started in really difficult pandemic conditions; restrictions have only eased towards the end of the collection phase, allowing collection at events, cafes and bars. There was one other thing that happened which, although it was a disaster, it helped the campaign. The Federal constitutional court overturned the Berlin Senate’s Rent Cap legislation. This meant that scumbag landlords levied retrospective rent from tenants – amounts based on the difference between the capped rent and the rent the landlord wanted to charge. For some people this meant thousands of Euros. This caused widespread and lasting anger which helped motivate people to sign and to collect signatures. Several people on in R2C were forced to work two jobs just to keep a roof over their heads because of this indefensible landlord behaviour, cheered on by the FDP and CDU.

Also the expropriation and socialisation proposal is really well thought out and based on already existing laws. It is proposed that the cost of buying the 240,000+ apartments (calculated at 8 billion euros) will be financed through bonds issued by the Berlin Senate, with the compensation amount set to repay the cost  via fair rents (3.70 euros per square meter) over a period of 45 years. Socialised housing will not be able to be sold and rental income will not be able to be used for profit. This makes sense, especially to Berliners familiar with Wohnungsbaugenossenschaften (housing asssociations). These exist thanks to the work and organisational skills of Berliners 100 years ago. Berliners understand the value of long lasting, well maintained, not-for-profit housing. The Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen campaign seeks to socialise an additional 11% of the existing housing in Berlin. The CDU and FDP like to pretend that building new housing is the only way to address the housing crisis but it is clear to Berliners, especially lower income Berliners that we need the housing we already live in to be affordable and secure while at the same time we need to build new housing.

About 30% of the signatures collected were deemed to be invalid, mainly because only people with German nationality are allowed to vote. How come non-Germans pay rent but aren’t allowed to vote in referenda like this?

Racist voting laws. The situation is the result of a combination of the actions of German legislators. They wanted the post-world war two ‘guest workers’ to go home after they finished rebuilding Germany’s cities. In addition, the German political and legal class would like to minimise the voting rights of EU passport holders, And of course, also the racist border policies and practices in relation to asylum seekers and refugees, people who the German state prefers to exclude from even the most basic rights in relation to long term asylum, movement, work, housing and also voting.

What is the Right2TheCity group doing to give a voice to disenfranchised voters?

We are adding some small contribution to the decades of campaigning that has been carried out by a range of racialised, refugee and migrant groups. The signatures quantify the number of invalid [for voting-Editor] signatures – giving a tangible way to communicate just how many people in the city are disenfranchised. The fact that even the referendum, the most democratic of instruments – is not accessible to migrants – is a bad look for a city that benefits from a cosmopolitan, multicultural image. The decision to collect ‘political signatures’ by the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen campaign gave us a tangible measure of just how many people who live in this city and want to have a say over its’ future are disenfranchised.

Recently Right2TheCity organised a Strategy Day to plan the next steps of the campaign. What were your expectations and were they fulfilled?

We needed to do several things. Some of them were related to group formation. We are new and our membership is in flux. Many people join and have to be brought up to speed and existing structures need to constantly be flexible to everyone’s learning curves, inputs and capacities. Strategy day allowed us to spend time together in real life (our meetings are largely all online) and get to know each other better. It also allow us to flex our organisational muscles, muscles that we developed at the Demo we held on Tempelhofer Feld in May (dubbed ‘a happening’ in the Neues Deutschland reporting). We had a large team of people helping with all the different tasks that are needed to hold a strategy day and we had fun looking after each other, and building skills such as getting experience facilitating large groups. Everyone got a chance to share ideas with people from the different task forces within R2C which has enabled us to be more coordinated and focused.

We also needed to shape a shared understanding of who we are and what we want to focus on in the third phase of the campaign. Part of that discussion was related to our structure. What structural changes do we need in order to carry out the work we want to do? How can we support all the people who join R2C to get involved, which of our task forces have served their purpose and what new task forces do we need? That sort of thing.

One thing that kept coming up at Strategy Day was a desire to improve communication. We’re doing great things, but not enough people know about them. How can this problem be best overcome?

Mainly we need more people to get involved. In order to do that we need to get better at supporting people who join, which means more people in the Reproduction and Organising Task Force, a better filing system and more of an emphasis on communicating opportunities to get involved as individual tasks that need doing. Many people don’t want to attend meetings but are really happy to do concrete and specific tasks. Which means those tasks must be identified and communicated to non-meeting-goers. We also need more people who speak German well enough to help us translate and coordinate R2C involvement in the German speaking parts of the campaign, and to build awareness in the German speaking parts of the campaign about what R2C is doing.

So far, Right2TheCity has been doing a lot of work collecting signatures, but now we have collected all the signatures we need. What is the group doing now?

In the third phase, the ‘turn out the vote phase‘ of the campaign we have three focuses. The first is to spark a public conversation about the democratic management of housing. This is a key part of the socialisation model that the campaign is fighting for. Success in the referendum means so much more than just fair rent. It means the capacity to make decisions a bout housing infrastructure that are far sighted. When the cost of modernisation and other improvements can be spread out over years instead of being undertaken under an ownership model that requires quick profits so as to pay dividends to shareholders ( the current situation, which delivers few repairs and ever increasing rent rises), then we can make more long term decisions about our housing infrastructure. How would you use the communal space in and around your building if you and your neighbours had decision-making power over it? What climate adaptations would you make to protect you and your neighbours from extreme weather? How would decisions be made about how housing is allocated when someone moves out? Could we make decisions based on the wider housing need in the city? Would it be run like an elite club like the Wohnungsbaugenossenschaften (WBG)? Which we love, by the way, even though all of their membership lists are closed.

The CDU has unfortunately spread malicious rumours that the WBG’s will also be expropriated if we win the referendum – but do not fear! Wohnungsbaugenossenschaften are explicitly excluded from being expropriated in the wording that people will vote on. The number of falsehoods about the DWE comapaign’s proposal that are circulating in the coming weeks is likely to increase. We are working to build a solid understanding of the proposal amongst R2C members so that we can combat these falsehoods when we hear them.

One of the things we have realised as not-fluent-Deutsch speakers participating in the campaign, is that we need to start pushing now for an inclusive and accessible structure for the management of the socialised housing. We need the management to be accessible for people who speak a range of languages for example. Perhaps the housing management structure will need to include paid organisers so that tenants can be supported to engage in decision-making? There is a lot to discuss and we want migrants, queers and racialised people as well as tenants of the 240,000 apartments that we are seeking to socialise, to be part of this discussion.

Our other focus is on supporting the Kiez Teams to do the work of postering, door knocking, telephoning and events organising that is needed to turn out 1 million ‘Yes’ votes. The third focus is to keep up the pressure on the Berlin Senate and Federal Government to extend voting rights to people who do not have a Deutsch Pass. To this end we will be present at all the big and small demos in the next two months with our banners that demand the right to housing AND the right to vote – for all.

There was a lot of talk about winning new members for Right2TheCity. Why do you need new members? And why would potential new members need you?

R2C has many different things that we are trying to do, which means that there is plenty of opportunities for a large number of people to get involved. In turn we provide the opportunity to be part of something that is exciting and which could significantly improve the lives of all Berliners. Along the way if you join us in R2C you will meet and work with some fantastic people and have the chance to learn new skills. There is nothing like being part of a network of solidarity to make you feel more deeply rooted to place!

The referendum will happen at the end of September, parallel to the German elections. What happens to Right2TheCity after that?

We don’t know, but with our structures and relationships I think it’s certain that we will continue to work together. One of the ideas that came out of the strategy day is that people want a physical space to host our events and activities in – a place where we can deliver a program of political education in the style of a strike school. Others are talking about a migrant tenants union, and others about setting up a housing project or something that can directly address our housing needs, others are talking about how we can support other struggles by organising the English speaking tenants and workers that German speaking groups struggle to connect with.

When we win the referendum (you can see the wording here, hopefully with an overwhelming number of votes, the Berlin Senate will be under enormous pressure to pass legislation that enables them to purchase the apartments and to hand them over to the democratically managed non-profit organisation – the specific legal form will be an Anstalt des öffentlichen Rechts (AöR). The Vergesellschaften A.G of the DWE campaign has drafted the laws that we will offer to the Senate, and we expect these laws to form the basis of the final legislation which will govern the expropriation (ie: how much is paid, and in what way) and how the socialisation will take place (ie:what sort of democratic structures will manage the housing).

After the referendum, there will be the need to continue the work of creating opportunities for Berliners to come together to discuss what we want from this new democratic housing management system and to imagine what it will make possible (such as modernisations without evictions)