Berlin Housing Victory Buoys Campaigners

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In September, more than a million Berliners voted “yes” on a referendum calling on Berlin’s legislature to pass a law socializing the housing stock of all landlords who own more than 3,000 units. If the legislature were to do so, some 240,000 apartments, or 11% of rentals, would be expropriated by the city. Although the prospects for implementation remain complicated, the “Expropriation” campaign’s victory at the polls shows what organized tenants can do.

The referendum, which passed with 57.4% of the vote, came after a decade of organizing against displacement and rapidly rising rents in the city, processes accelerated by the short-sighted sale of a significant amount of public housing in the 2000s. Frustrated by state inaction in the face of expiring subsidized housing contracts and the recent constitutional court ruling against a Berlin rent cap, housing activists coalesced around the citizens’ initiative Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen.

The initiative’s name and rhetoric singled out Berlin’s largest and most notorious landlord, Deutsche Wohnen, and invoked the historically charged and attention-grabbing slogan: Enteignen (expropriate). The referendum is anchored in the German constitution: Article 14, which allows for expropriation for the common good, and the as-yet-untested Article 15, which allows for nationalization, formed the basis for the referendum. The challenge now is for the referendum to lead to more than a symbolic victory.

The campaign shied away from a binding referendum on a fully formulated bill because it would have risked disqualification by the baroque, often contradictory mesh of Berlin, German, and European Union law, opting instead for a “resolution referendum,” which now requires further cooperation from the city government.

Berliners voted for the referendum across party lines. However, they also elected parties to the municipal government that oppose implementing the referendum. To enforce the popular mandate, the expropriation movement will have to convert the organized networks, know-how, and raised expectations generated by the campaign into pro-renter institutional power.

Roughly a quarter of Berlin’s 3.6 million residents lack German citizenship and were ineligible to vote in the referendum. Lack of voting rights didn’t stop the (unofficial) DSA Berlin from doing what it could to aid the referendum, while at the same time agitating for voting rights and tying our work to housing struggles in the United States.

DSA Berlin members translated campaign literature, turned out for poster-hanging events and demonstrations and, most important, helped collect the 350,000 signatures that secured the referendum.

Although DSA Berlin’s role in the referendum campaign was modest, our participation gave us confidence in our ability to make contributions to, and integrate with, local struggles and political structures. The opportunity to have thou- sands of meaningful conversations about a bold and realis- tic proposal with our loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers has been enormously educational and heartening. The fight continues!