Berlin’s grassroots housing movement Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen (Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen, DWE) launched its new campaign on September 26 for a legally binding referendum to expropriate housing from for-profit corporate landlords. The launch date marked exactly two years since the previous successful, but non-binding, housing referendum, in which 59% of Berliners voted to expropriate corporate landlords that own 3000 apartments or more.
If successful, DWE’s proposal would enact a law mandating the buy-back and socialisation of 243,000 rental properties.
Carol Peterson has been active in Right to the City — the English-language working group of the DWE campaign — since 2020. She told Green Left that, at the time of the first referendum, “it was too soon to get the wording of the law right”.
"If you win on a legally binding referendum and you don’t have the law right, then you lose in a way that sets a legal precedent that could prevent any future success,” she said.
Peterson highlighted the importance of working groups for people without a German passport within the housing campaign, given that nearly 25% of Berlin’s residents do not have German citizenship.
Non-German citizens face even greater barriers to securing affordable housing, Peterson said, “because they don’t have a German name, or they don’t have the right documentation or they’re experiencing discrimination on various levels”.
The backdrop to DWE’s campaign is Berlin’s worsening housing crisis.
Corporate housing profits have risen rapidly for decades. Rents rose by 70% between 2004–16, then plateaued after a rent cap was introduced in 2020. Rents then exploded after Germany’s constitutional court — at the behest of corporate landlords — scrapped the measure in 2021.
Just six companies own 11% of the apartments in Berlin. Speculation on housing has driven up rents, while delivering huge profits for corporate landlords.
The inequalities in housing ownership are stark — 57% of apartments are investment properties owned by housing and real estate companies.
Rising rents have pushed people out of their neighbourhoods, Peterson said, particularly in historically working-class suburbs like Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Prenzlauer Berg.
This compounds the racism and exclusion already faced by migrant communities in Berlin. “There’s a structural exclusion of Turkish people whose families came to Germany after the Second World War as gastarbeiters (guest workers),” Peterson said. “There are various racist laws that have resulted in second or third-generation German-born German-Turkish people not having German passports.”
“Elderly people, poor people, disabled people [and] people that are mentally ill have been pushed out of these areas,” she said. “We can assume a lot of individualised hardship, bad health outcomes and shortened lives have resulted from being displaced from neighbourhoods where people have lived their whole lives.”
In the context of Berlin’s spiralling housing crisis, DWE launched the initial referendum campaign in 2018.
Peterson said that the first step, before the first referendum, was to collect signatures. For a campaign to be put to a referendum in Berlin, 20,000 signatures are required in the first phase, then 170,000 in the second.
The signature collection was “an amazing way to have a conversation with literally hundreds of thousands of people,” she said. “We collected over 300,000 signatures.”
DWE’s widespread grassroots organising helped build public support.
“The referendum was won through building lots of alliances [and] through being present in local areas,” Peterson said.
This organising model involved “getting as many people as possible taking lots of little bits of responsibility to get the signatures collected”.
DWE created a neighbourhood team system, where “more than a thousand volunteers” worked to collect signatures and “turn out the vote” during the referendum.
The campaign door-knocked and handed out flyers across Berlin’s inner and outer suburbs, Peterson said.
“We had several newspapers that were distributed throughout the city, at train stations.
“We had an absolutely extraordinary, extremely talented social media and press working group who did exceptional work.”
Nearly all the work was voluntary, Peterson said, with the campaign having only one paid position and one part-time position in the final months leading up to the referendum.
Despite the overwhelming support for expropriation shown in the referendum result, Berlin’s senate has stalled the process. The conservative Christian Democratic Party, ruling in coalition with the Social Democratic Party, is openly opposed to expropriation.
But DWE’s proposed law would force the state government to act.
First, the Berlin state government would buy back apartments from corporate landlords owning more than 3000 properties, at a price below market value.
“One of the struggles is to ensure that [the state government] buys them so that the loan repayments can be made with very low rent,” Peterson said. “But if they pay enormous amounts, then there’s no low-income housing secured.”
Secondly, the apartments bought back would be socialised — placed under residents’ control.
A recent report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation estimated that socialising housing could lower average rents by 16%. The report also found that socialisation would help counteract segregation and increase the supply of affordable housing to people on low incomes.
Crucially, DWE’s proposal would force concrete measures to improve the housing crisis, rather than having to rely on the whims of Berlin’s state government.
“The previous senate had no actual plan to address [the housing crisis],” Peterson said.
“The current senate certainly doesn’t have a plan.
“That’s why the DWE proposition is so powerful ... because it really cuts through the shit and says, ‘we need to change the ownership model’, in order to secure a decent amount of low-income housing in the city that can’t be commodified and that is also democratically managed.
“None of the other offers on the table or purported solutions to the housing crisis have as much potential to actually deliver a result.”
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