Expropriate or socialise: Berlin’s housing campaign

October 16, 2022
Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen
Housing rally in Berlin. Photo: Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen

Just over a year ago, around 1 million out of 1.9 million Berliners voted to expropriate corporate landlords owning 3000 apartments or more, affecting around 240,000 properties in the German capital.

Apart from expropriation, the demands of the referendum were to compensate corporate landlords below market value, establish a new democratically run statutory authority to manage public housing stock, and to prevent the properties from being privatised.

The background to the referendum is Berlin’s ongoing housing crisis. Berlin experiences the most dramatic rent rises of all German cities. About 85% of Berliners rent and almost half experience rental stress.

The beginnings of the organised housing movement started in 2011 in Kreuzberg, a well-known alternative suburb of Berlin with a large Turkish population. The focus was on astronomical rent rises and displacements, including evictions of people who had called Kreuzberg their home for decades and generations. The movement organised regular protest marches, established a campaigning hut in a local market place and actively networked.

A coalition of numerous local housing groups and organisations formed in 2018, with the slogan “Resist — together against displacement and rent madness”. The campaign for the expropriation referendum (DW Enteignen) was part of this growing movement.

A number of factors contributed to the success of the referendum campaign. Specific to Berlin was the fact that the socialist party die Linke was part of the ruling coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. Die Linke openly supported the referendum, its members were active in organising the campaign and the party and its foundation — the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation — provided policy papers, studies, resources and skills.

Specific to the German context was the decision to use a concrete, legal path to curb Berlin’s spiralling rent prices by utilising constitutional rights. Article 15 of the German Basic Law (the constitution) states that “land, natural resources and means of production may … be transferred to public ownership” in return for compensation.

The campaign organisers referred to this article even though that law has never been tested. Article 14 of the German Basic Law is customarily used when expropriating property in instances of motorway construction or coal mining. Hence, the referendum was about socialisation rather than expropriation, though the latter term was chosen for the campaign.

The starting point from the outset was a plan to win. This resulted in political and legal professionalism, with the commissioning of legal opinions from constitutional lawyers, in-depth research on opposing arguments, and an assessment of previous housing campaigns. A major shortcoming identified from these earlier experiences was that campaign work was carried out almost exclusively by activists in the inner-city districts and as a result effectively excluded affected tenants themselves.

A meticulous analysis of the housing crisis and a proposal for a feasible solution was critical to the campaign. Early on it was decided to develop the concept of how to finance socialisation. Short animated videos (with English subtitles) were created to explain various compensation figures that circulated and an interactive calculator was made available for people to make sense of the impact of compensation payments on rents.

This professional approach was also applied to messaging. This resulted in a disciplined public relations strategy that avoided overloading messages with secondary issues.

It was also decided not to run with charismatic figureheads as this was perceived as reducing opportunities for expropriation campaign opponents to attack.

The final aspect contributing to the success of the referendum was the campaign focus targeting all of Berlin’s renters, and not only individual groups. The plight of specific marginalised groups were embedded in the larger issue of affordable rents, allowing people of different backgrounds to see their situation reflected in the campaign. Thus, the slogan “So that Berlin remains our home” — which at first may appear vague — was consciously aimed at inclusiveness beyond political affiliations.

Various working groups were established and one of the first had the explicit goal of networking among the tenants of the main corporate landlords in the outer suburbs through doorknocking. This also included providing practical support to tenants. The door knocking was informed and supported by US union strategist Jane McAlevey’s organising model. McAlevey advised the campaign and ran training workshops.

Reflecting the diversity of Berlin’s population, a variety of messaging channels were utilised in multiple languages, including newspapers, posters, social media and a campaign bus.

Purple and yellow vests became the signature colours and identifiers of campaign volunteers, supported by smoke flares and seas of flags. The chosen approach of decentralising the campaign was critical. Anyone wanting to support the expropriation campaign was able to pick up a toolbox with logo, typefaces and material and do what they wanted. As one organiser put it: "Things we never expected ended up happening."

Since the successful referendum outcome, there has been little movement by the incoming state government, elected the same day the referendum was held. While the coalition partners remained the same, the Greens became the second largest partner leaving die Linke in third place (SPD 21.4%, Greens 18.9%, die Linke 14.1%).

The referendum is not legally binding and with die Linke weakened this impacts the prospect of implementation. Die Linke has been the only party to openly and consistently support socialisation throughout the campaign. The SPD has already spoken out against expropriation, and the Greens continue to maintain a low profile on the question.

An Expert Commission including members of the referendum campaign was established earlier this year, but has been criticised for not being transparent and following ministerial instructions. The Commission is meant to develop a framework for a legally secure socialisation law.

To keep the campaign momentum going and continue to put pressure on the government, an expropriation conference was held in May this year.

The referendum campaign has challenged the concept of property in a way not experienced for decades. It has also illustrated that the demand for socialisation or nationalisation cannot be carried by extra-parliamentary movements alone. Strong alliances including with unions, left parties, academics and people impacted by capitalist relations of production and years of neo-liberal policies are necessary to turn the challenge into an opportunity for the left to go on the offensive.

Germany may be doing just this. Expropriate Hamburg was formed after the successful Berlin referendum and they are hoping to replicate the result. A broader socialisation conference took place in Berlin on October 7-9, debating strategies for a democratic economy.

A new referendum campaign has started in Cologne, calling for the expropriation of RWE & Co and to socialise energy production in the light of winter approaching and heating costs rising astronomically due to gas shortages. RWE is one of the largest energy companies in Germany.

[This article is based on a talk delivered to the Ecosocialism 2022 conference in Sydney on October 9.]

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