Activists and renters describe the mood in Berlin following their city’s historic ruling against exploitative landlords
Earlier this week Berliners backed a campaign to abolish corporate landlords with 3,000 apartments or more, with 56 per cent of voters saying yes to the plans in a referendum. The historic ruling reflects growing frustration and anger in the German capital at extortionate rents, and the use of property as investment rather than a basic human right.
The initiative, Deutsche Wohnen & co Enteignen, was launched in 2018 with the express purpose of reclaiming properties from the country’s largest property owner, Deutsche Wohnen, to create more affordable housing. The overwhelming win for the campaign this week shows that renters do have power in the face of exploitative landlordism, and that collective action is a powerful tool to overcome it.
“Real estate companies are making big profits in Berlin with our rising rents,” says the mission statement on the Deutsche Wohnen & co Enteignen (DWE) website. “We will no longer accept that: We want to go through a referendum to socialise over 240,000 apartments from Deutsche Wohnen, Vonovia, Akelius & Co. Article 15 of the Basic Law creates the possibility for this.”
It continues: “With socialisation, we want to remove twelve per cent of Berlin rental apartments from speculation and enable affordable rents in the long term. No more fat dividends for shareholders that have to be paid out of our rents. No more crowding out of people who can no longer afford their apartment.”
The referendum required just a quarter of eligible voters to back the initiative to pass, but the result is not legally binding, and the government has the final say on what action to take. Not carrying out the will of the electorate, however, is not politically viable.
“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,” DWE activist and spokesperson, Joanna Kusiak, told the Financial Times when she learned of the significant result.
Is this ruling a sign that power is finally shifting away from exploitative property owners and into the hands of tenants, or is it just a minor disruption to the inevitable flow of capital and wealth towards the ruling class? We spoke to a few Berlin locals, renters, and activists to get a sense of the mood on the ground, and how significant the vote is for them.
DAN, WORKS FOR A RECORD LABEL
“I signed the petition and voted yes in the referendum. The ruling is a glimpse of hope after a tough couple of years for renters in Berlin. The Mietendeckel (rent cap) rules that briefly came into effect a year ago were overturned in a bizarre and cruel act of governance that resulted in thousands of Berliners owing landlords even more money than before. My former landlord Blaczko even wrote gloating emails to their tenants, instructing them to pay back the money they saved immediately, signed off ‘FY’ for ‘Fuck you’. Google ‘Blaczko Tagesspiegel’ for more on them.
“It’s no secret that these landlords are leeching off the culture of the city and working together to drive rents up” – Dan, 29
This ruling, however, makes Berliners feel the tides have turned slightly in their favour, and there is once again hope that the inflated housing market will be tamed and allow people to come to Berlin to live cheap and contribute to the culture for decades to come, rather than turn into an overpriced tech metropolis.
The atmosphere leading up to the vote had been angsty, primarily due to the above. Almost 1.5 million apartments were affected by the Mietendeckel, so everyone in the city knew someone who had cheaper rent dangled in front of them and then snatched away. In districts like Neukolln, Kreuzberg, and Friedrichshain, you couldn’t move for people canvassing, collecting signatures, protesting against the landlords. Many apartments had banners with anti-landlord mafia slogans scrawled across dangling out of their windows. It’s no secret that these landlords are leeching off the culture of the city and working together to drive rents up, and house hunting has become a total nightmare in recent years. So it was easy to galvanise the population of the ‘cooler’ districts in Berlin.
What was disheartening was seeing that the western districts like Steglitz-Zehlendorf and Reinickendorf still voted against it. Clearly the wealthier, property-owning Germans who live out there have no empathy for the citizens that have seen their rents increase in the last decade.
I think this ruling has to be the start of a bigger conversation. This referendum result now needs to be written into law and debated in the Bundestag, and one would hope that Germany’s (slight) move to the left would be against the corporate monopolies that are ruining Berlin’s ‘cheap but sexy’ neighbourhoods and in favour of keeping the city affordable. The rent cap, which had been ruled ‘unconstitutional’ should also be revisited, with a proper plan for keeping Berlin safe from corporate landlord greed.”
INES, WRITER AND CAMPAIGNER
I worked in one of the so-called Kiezteam (neighborhood teams), every district had a pretty autonomous team collecting signatures and campaigning. For me personally it changes nothing, but everyone whose landlord is one of the large companies like Deutsche Wohnen or Vonovia will benefit from it. All in all, 85 per cent of the people in Berlin are renters, so ultimately a large majority profits from lower rents and a certain public control over rents.
I was pretty sure we would win. After the rent cap fell due to federal law, many people had to pay back rent and were pretty angry. Their anger helped the campaign to get more energy for more radical means like socialising.
By talking to hundreds of thousands of people we could already sense a majority. I think the result could definitely be a starting point for something more, as it pressures the next government to really do something. It could also inspire other cities to try the same thing and be bold about public housing.
THOMAS, DWE ACTIVIST
This is a watershed moment for the city’s rental politics and shows how powerful our movement has been. Berliners have decided that their housing market shouldn’t be a plaything for investors. After years of campaigning against broken promises and political inertia, we’ve sent a clear message to politicians that radical changes are needed to fix how the city manages its spaces and housing.
The atmosphere was charged and full of anticipation. We were, of course, nervous about the end result, but over the past three years we’ve set up teams of hundreds of volunteers who were out daily handing out flyers and knocking on doors. Our bottom-up approach was unique and showed how a people-powered campaign can outperform even the most powerful interests like real estate capital.
“Berlin has proven that renters don’t need to water down their demands” – Thomas, DWE activist
Our campaign has also started talks about a national rent freeze in Germany and tenant groups around the world are pointing to us as a model for success. We’d like to live up to these expectations and help grow movements here in both Germany and around the world.
Our campaign targeted for-profit, corporate landlords with 3,000 or more apartments because these companies have an outsized influence on the market. They are able to act as channels for domestic and foreign capital, buying up housing in scale, and evicting tenants en masse. Our approach was to say: no one should own this many units and rather housing should be need-based, rather than being treated like a financial asset.
Cities shouldn't be afraid to think big. There is a lot of strength in putting a transformative vision forward: it rallies people and energises them. Berlin has proven that renters don't need to water down their demands.