Berlin votes on whether to expropriate landowners
While Berlin remains much cheaper than cities like London or New York, its attractive position as the capital of Europe’s largest economy and center of cool counterculture has fueled widespread gentrification over the past decade. , the rents having almost doubled in one period when wages increased by only 34 percent. Despite broad public support for state action to contain housing costs, most local leaders strongly oppose, or at least their mothers, the details of the campaign’s dramatic proposal to socialize around 240,000 apartments owned by companies with 3,000 or more units. Citing a prominent domain clause never used before in German Basic Law, Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen (DW Enteignen) does not hesitate to choose ideological battles, starting with its name. Rather than limiting its goals to âaffordability,â the campaign goes further in its critique of the private housing market itself. As residents listed in a recent announcement proclaimed: âOur neighborhood is not a financial product.
In the now trendy district of Friedrichshain, this idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Crossed by the imposing Karl-Marx-Allee, all the accommodations in the East German quarter were, not so long ago, socialized. Residents of the historically popular district, with its unadorned apartment buildings and yellow streetcars, are being put on a price by successive waves of new arrivals. âWe’ve all been touched by gentrification,â says Ronja Sorg, a longtime resident, who pays three times what her mother does for an apartment a fraction of its size. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, West German money poured into the neighborhood, buying properties that belonged to the state under communism. Now, with Berlin emerging as a booming technology hub, international capital has followed. For Sorg, the influx of capital is a “slap in the face” in his neighborhood, where wages are still well below those of West Germany. âThe people of East Berlin are very frustrated. “
To win on Sunday, however, DW Enteignen must build a coalition that extends beyond former Left Party (Die Linke) strongholds like Friedrichshain. Working groups and campaign events are held in Turkish, Arabic and English. Activists organized demonstrations of bicycles, techno tanks, and even a flotilla of boats on the Spree. At an underground queer party last week, a new team of DW Enteignen cheerleaders, dressed in yellow and purple skirts and matching pom poms, took to the dance floor, dragging the revelers into a choreography. “Enteignen!Â»(Expropriate!) Chants. Mateo Argerich, one of the organizers of the support team, sees the performance as “a perfect bridge between the campaign and the public”. For activists, “sassy chants are an outlet and a way to renew energy”, while the “tremendous boost of positivity” offered by the team “helps us get our message across in a seductive way.” Since its formation, the group has performed almost daily at events across the city.
Like many people living in Berlin, Argerich cannot even vote in the referendum. More … than 22% of adult Berlin residents do not have a German passport, which excludes them from the election. While the city is teeming with immigrants from both inside and outside the EU, the majority of people living in certain city blocks in various neighborhoods like Kreuzberg do not have political rights. Pedro Marum, who is also disenfranchised, is the organizer of a campaign working group called Right to the City which targets outreach to non-German speakers and migrant communities with the explicit aim of “scandalizing[e] the city’s democratic deficit. During the petition for the ballot initiative last spring, the group decided to collect the signatures of as many people as possible “whether they are valid or not,” recalls Pedro. âAt the end of the day, the people most affected by the housing crisis are often those who cannot vote. Even excluding non-citizen signatures, DW Enteignen’s petition to trigger the referendum garnered 343,000 signatures by the June 26 deadlineâan all-time record.
Unlike the stilted national campaign, local organizers of DW Enteignen mix lively humor and ideology in their creative strategies to reach voters. On the campaign’s Instagram account, a recent post features a “shit bingo“frequent counter-arguments to the proposal, and another TikTok post from a girl running away from the statement” When someone says the market will take care of it, “with Mitski’s”AnybodyâPlay in the background.
While the playful organization and communication strategy aims to broaden the appeal of the measure, DW Enteignen’s perceived links with staunch activists of the old left remain a handicap. Last year, the center-right CDU even went as far as make an application with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, accusing the movement of being controlled by non-democratic radicals. While Home Secretary Torsten Akmann, a member of the SPD, confirmed that the government “does not know that the ‘expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co’ initiative can be largely controlled by left-wing extremists”, the reputation has been difficult to shake. For activist Marum, bringing the word âexpropriateâ to the fore was a âstrategic incidentâ that made it more difficult to talk to voters about the merits of the idea. âIt doesn’t leave much room for nuanced debate. ”
Although he collaborated two years ago to pass the sweeping âMietendeckelâ (rent cap) law that froze rents for five years, Berlin’s ruling âred-red-greenâ coalition Left Party, Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens are bitterly divided over the upcoming referendum. The subsequent repeal of the Mietendeckel law by the German Constitutional Court in April immediately raised rents by several hundred euros for many low-income residents – a setback that has served both to catalyze the current referendum movement and to scare local policymakers against too much bending of the local housing market. “For me, the subject of expropriation is already a red line” said Franziska Giffey, the SPD candidate for mayor of Berlin at a recent Forum organized by DW Enteignen. âI don’t want to live in a city that sends the signal: this is where the expropriations take place.
The ascending Green Party has tried to find common ground, calling not for a cap but for an “umbrella” of new protections on large swathes of private buildings in negotiations with big real estate companies like Deutsche Wohnen. Bettina Jarasch, the Greens candidate expected for mayor, has said she would personally support the referendum, but called the actual expropriation of apartments under his leadership an âultima ratioâ. âIf we can create affordable housing in this way, we don’t need socialization.
Yet “socialization” is precisely what DW Enteignen wants. It is clearly stated on its website and even in its name. At a time when housing advocates across the Atlantic are focused on increasing the supply of affordable housing, the DW Enteignen campaign reverses this supply logic, focusing instead on community control. While the foreclosure of 200,000 of Berlin’s 1.5 million rental apartments is far from a panacea to the city’s housing problems, campaigners hope Sunday’s vote not only spur immediate action to reduce housing costs, but also invites people from here and elsewhere to imagine a de-commodification of housing as politically possible and popular.