On 26th September 2021, parallel to the national and local elections, citizens of Berlin took part in a referendum. 59.1% – over a million people – voted to expropriate the corporate landlords. If this result is implemented, all flats and houses owned by companiesin possession of 3,000 or more units will be put into public ownership.
The referendum had been called by “Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen” (DWE, expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co) an initiative which targeted large real estate companies. Thousands of activists got involved, doing everything from collecting signatures and attending demonstrations to knocking on doors and joining a cheer leading action group.
The campaign did not come out of nowhere. As in many cities world-wide, housing prices in Berlin have been rising at an extortionate rate. In 2014, a similar referendum prevented houses being built on the grounds of the old Tempelhof airport – now a popular park. Many of the DWE activists had cut their teeth in the 100% Tempelhofer Feld campaign.
In the run up to the referendum, the Berlin government introduced a city-wide rent cap. After pressure from the CDU (conservative) and FDP (liberal) parties, this law was deemed unconstitutional by the courts, even though it was very popular with tenants. This decision only strengthened grassroots support for the new referendum.
Who were the actors?
It was important that DWE was a cross-party initiative, as well as involving many people who felt alienated from party politics. Many more people voted for expropriation than for any individual party. It is likely that people voted in the housing referendum but not in the local and national elections going on at the same time.
All left of centre parties supported the referendum, but with different levels of enthusiasm. Although there was a degree of support from the SPD (social democrat) basis, party leader Franziska Giffey was implacably opposed from the start. The Greens formally supported the referendum, but leading Green politicians insisted that even if there was a vote for expropriation, they would only implement it “as a last resort”. Only the left party, die LINKE, wholeheartedly supported the campaign.
But if support was lacking from the main parties, many other organisations were active in the campaign. Most tenants’ organisations and the Berlin branches of many trade unions supported DWE, as could be seen by the flags at the many demonstrations that were organised.
I would like to pay particular mention to one group – non-Germans. Only German citizens were allowed to vote in the referendum. In a city where nearly a quarter of the inhabitants do not hold a German passport, this excluded nearly a million people. And yet throughout the campaign, hundreds of non-Germans were active in the DWE working group Right2TheCity.
As one of those activists, I was one of the lucky ones as I have dual citizenship. But I can attest to the fact that although people without citizenship were unable to vote, they are indeed affected by the result – non-Germans already pay disproportionately high rents.
What happens now?
Tenants in Berlin have now reached a stalemate. Berlin’s rent freeze has been rejected by the courts. The referendum has been passed, but it has not yet been implemented. And the new Berlin government – led by the aforementioned Franziska Giffey as mayor – will be very reluctant to displease the real estate lobby, which invests a lot of money in supporting politicians and political parties.
On the same day as the referendum, there were elections in Berlin. The result of post-election talks means that the city will continue to be ruled by the SPD, Greens and LINKE, but with die LINKE much weaker than before. Under the previous administration, the housing senator was a LINKE councillor – now it will be someone from the SPD.
Instead of promising to implement the referendum, the new coalition announced that it would set up a “commission of experts” to look at the feasibility of expropriation. This commission will take months to set up, and then has a year to make a recommendation. The government has the option of rejecting any recommendation and doing whatever it wants.
This is a clear attempt by the coalition to demobilise the campaign. The referendum was able to win because of a couple of years of nearly constant activity. We are now expected to wait at least 18 months to see what happens next. Giffey, and her supporters, hope that this will be enough time for us to become demoralised and leave the streets, so that she can implement a shoddy compromise with no serious opposition.
The role of the Left
This is the background to the recent vote among LINKE party members about whether the party should join the ruling coalition. I voted “No”, as did every active member of my local branch in the working class district of Wedding. And yet we were in the clear minority, as 75% of the party members who voted chose to join the government.
I think this is a serious mistake. If necessary, the SPD and Greens can rely on the support of right wing parties to push through policies which protect Big Real Estate. But, as part of the ruling coalition, die LINKE will now discourage independent activity, saying that change can be implemented in parliamentary debates. This will demobilise the mass movement.
The recent case of the rent cap has also shown that we cannot rely on the courts. There may be occasions when strategic litigation is necessary to build other movements, but the courts are not our territory. They largely exist to protect property, and cannot be relied upon to oppose the big real estate companies.
The key to our success is to maintain Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen as a mass movement on the streets and in our local communities. Ten years and more of struggles against gentrification and for fair rents have strengthened our networks. Without a clear focus in the near future, it will be difficult to maintain the current level of activity – but we have certainly not lost yet.
The housing movement is also generalising politically, and starting to address other issues. Right2TheCity is now working with other migrant groups to demand voting rights for people who pay rents and taxes, but who are unable to vote in most referenda and elections. The DWE campaign has taught us that when we unite, we are strong. La lotta continua.