Germany: Berlin housing campaign gets another green light for expropriation

January 5, 2023
A homeless person looking at their shoes
The right of individuals to earn money through managing apartments does not outweigh the right of the general public to socialise housing. Photo: Canva

After winning a referendum to expropriate housing from corporate landlords owning 3000 apartments or more in 2021, Berliners may actually see the implementation of their demands in 2023.

The newly elected state government in Berlin established an Expert Commission in April last year. The commission was tasked with developing a framework for a legally secure socialisation law, examining the “possibilities, ways and prerequisites for implementing the referendum on the socialisation of large housing companies”. It released an interim report on December 15 and will release its final report in March.

Ten of the thirteen members of the commission are lawyers, including three members of the expropriation movement’s organising group DW Enteignen (Expropriate Deutche Wohnen, DWE).

State elections were held on the same day as the 2021 referendum, and Berlin’s state government is now made up of social democrats (SPD), Greens and socialists (die Linke).

From the outset, the SPD — via governing mayor Franziska Giffey and Senator for Urban Development, Construction and Housing Andreas Geisel — actively hindered the referendum’s implementation. This started with a delay in setting up the commission, which occurred three months after the new governing body (Senate) took office.

The Office of Urban Development undermined the process by bureaucratic means, such as failing to take adequate minutes of meetings, setting extremely short timeframes for hearings and delaying setting up a website. Most recently, Geisel refused to provide the commission with the land register data essential for establishing which companies would be affected by socialisation.

The SPD’s position was further made blatantly clear when its commission chairperson Hertha Däubler-Gmelin stopped public access to meetings — a position that had in-principle agreement of the three governing parties. With the exception of two public hearings, the doors of all commission meetings remained closed.

Däubler-Gmelin also announced that she would not lead the commission impartially — as initially agreed — but would claim voting rights.

For a body whose composition, mandate and working methods were extremely controversial from the start, the interim report is surprisingly encouraging. In a nutshell, it states that Berlin is allowed to expropriate and socialise housing.

It clears legal hurdles by establishing that socialisation falls within the area of “competing legislation”, a broad field of policy for which the federal government and the federal states are initially responsible. However, since the federal government has never applied Article 15 of the German Basic Law (the constitutional basis for expropriation and socialisation), the states are allowed to take action.

Other findings include: that an owner of a single apartment is to be treated differently from a housing group with 3000 apartments, but clear criteria are needed; and the right of individuals to earn money through the management of apartments does not outweigh the right of the general public to socialise housing. It also found that European and international laws do not stand in the way of socialisation.

Critically, the commission found that compensation below the market value is possible — addressing a huge point of contention in the ongoing struggle around implementing the referendum. It notes that compensation must not be symbolically low, but it does not have to reach market value — ie the purchase price currently achievable on the local market — especially if the value “results, at least in part, from speculative profits”.

The report also affirms that an institution under public law (ie a statutory authority) is the preferred way to administer the new housing organisation.

All of these were demands of the referendum proposed by DWE.

While the report acknowledges numerous doubts and unanswered questions on how the referendum can be implemented in a constitutional manner, it sends an encouraging signal to the advocates of socialisation.

It is now up to the movement to maintain political pressure. This will be aided by a ruling in the federal constitutional court in November that state and local elections held in September 2021 will need to be re-run, due to numerous irregularities.

New elections will be held on February 12 and may just send a strong message to opponents of expropriation, especially since rents have continued to rise in Berlin.

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