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We Seized 240,000 Properties From Corporate Landlords Through Grassroots Organizing

This stunning victory for activists in Berlin could inspire similar actions for more democratic housing globally.

People display a banner during a demonstration against high rents in Berlin, participants hold a banner reading "Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co," on September 11, 2021, in Berlin, Germany.

The stunning victory won by grassroots activists in Germany this week seizing 240,000 public housing apartments owned by corporate landlords in Berlin and putting them in the hands of renters themselves — has the potential to reverberate globally, inspiring ongoing and emerging struggles for more democratic and ecological approaches to housing.

Having won the referendum, the army of grassroots activists that composed the expropriation campaign will now be pushing the government not only to respect the results, but also to install our vision of collective ownership.

A Democratic and Ecological Vision of Housing

The expropriation campaign that just won this victory in Berlin is known as Deutsche Wohnen und Co. Enteignen (“Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen und Co,” named after Deutsche Wohnen, one of the biggest corporate landlords in Berlin, DWE for short). I am one of the many activists who have worked together on this campaign.

Instead of privatized housing, the activists involved in this campaign are proposing the establishment of an Anstalt des öffentlichen Rechts (AöR), a public agency that is legally required to fulfill its constitution. What goes into the constitution is therefore critical.

In contrast to private ownership models, AöRs are not forced to be profit-oriented, cannot go bankrupt, and must serve all their users. This means an AöR doesn’t have to worry about returns on investments (one of the mechanisms that has driven the exponential rent hikes), and unlike housing cooperatives that only serve their members, the AöR has to serve everyone.

Currently, the political goals of the constitution of the AöR are to provide affordable housing, ensure democratic self-governance, enforce anti-discrimination policies and build new housing.

Instead of private and classical “state” ownership, activists are proposing a distributed, nested decision-making structure divided between four levels: the city, the district, the neighborhood and the particular house. Tenants (regardless of residential status), representatives elected by tenants, workers of the AöR and delegates from the city government these will be the forces that define the direction of travel of Berlin’s public housing.

Ecological goals are being discussed in the draft constitutional proposal. Currently, the AöR will prefer the use of renewable and climate-neutral raw materials instead of cement, steel or plastic. It also requires switching from fossil fuel sources to solar, thermal, geothermal or biomass fuels for heating or electricity. It proposes the greening of buildings through courtyards, facades and roofs, as well as establishing communal kitchens and dining halls within apartment buildings, and even downsizing residential large units. What’s more, it demands transforming parking space to favor bicycle boxes and ride-sharing means of transportation. Lastly, it will require that ecological costs cannot be passed onto tenants, meaning that rents cannot be raised in order to accomplish ecological goals; instead, funds for such projects will have to come from already existing funds within the AöR as well as from government coffers, thus avoiding ecological gentrification.

Of course, none of this is set in stone, and these goals will be the subject of great debate within the campaign. Nonetheless, the establishment of a public agency of this sort marks a significant departure from private ownership, which has been the motor of displacement and has done nothing to mitigate or adapt to the problem of climate change, seeking instead only to raise rents as cheaply and securely as possible. Indeed, whatever renovation has been done under corporate ownership has been largely cosmetic, as it provides the legal basis to raise rents.

The Organization of Victory and the Organization Still Needed

While grassroots activists have smashed through this daunting hurdle, it was neither easily accomplished, nor will it be the last.

The referendum is the outcome of a long organizational process that developed in response to the privatization of Berlin’s public housing in 2004. As DWE founders explain, capital investment firms saw housing in Berlin as a safe harbor of investment, particularly in the context of the subsequent financial crisis. Housing and other initiatives aimed at taking popular control over the city formed against rising rents and urban redevelopment projects focused on profit accumulation.

Over the years, the amalgam of individual initiatives each met dead ends, as these initiatives came to realize the necessity of a broader, more systemic answer. It was in 2016 that the tenant initiative Kotti und Co. first put expropriation on the table as the systemic answer to the problem. What’s more, in 2015, a referendum to reform public housing was launched, but was ultimately struck down due to a paragraph being deemed illegal under EU law. It was after these experiences that tenant initiatives from across the city joined with activists from the 2015 referendum under the banner of DWE to expropriate housing from corporate landlords.

This victory was made possible both by long-term organization and by organizers’ approach of reaching out to as many people as possible, regardless of their original political position. Prior to this year, the campaign focused on organizing demonstrations as well as seeding and supporting housing initiatives to fight back against corporate landlords. This seed-and-support process helped jump-start a number of initiatives that expanded the area of activation, functioning as a popular education campaign, that increasingly mobilized angry tenants into the expropriation campaign.

Then, when DWE was allowed to legally begin the collection of signatures to put the measure on the ballot, the campaign developed a distributed network of collection teams across each and every borough of the city. An app was created so that people could spontaneously and easily plug into signature collection initiatives, significantly reducing the barrier of participation. It was in the build-up to this phase that the campaign developed a migrant initiative composed of Berliners who cannot legally vote due to residency status to further underscore the democratic deficit of the ballot, as 25 percent of Berlin’s tenants are barred from electoral participation due to residency status.

The signature collection phase was a roaring political success, resulting in the accumulation of 343,000 legal signatures, in addition to 41,557 signatures that were thrown out due to nonresidency status. Organizationally, this phase further multiplied its forces as it involved thousands more people in the campaign.

Lastly, the get-out-the-vote phase was composed of an equally broad door-knocking campaign that was particularly focused on reaching out to people beyond the inner city. This on-the-ground organizing was in combination with an incredible media campaign that developed stunning productions and adeptly maneuvered social media alongside a distinctive cheerleading campaign that captured the admiration of the Berlin press.

In all, the campaign followed an almost ideal campaign arc, beginning with a soft tremor and climaxing in euphoria from a roaring, escalating crescendo.

However, the battle is far from decided. Berlin’s likely incoming social-democratic mayor, Franziska Giffey, ran with the promise that she would stop the referendum in its tracks upon election. In the week prior to the election, the centrist social democrats announced they would be buying almost 15,000 houses back from corporate landlords, in a plain attempt to diminish the perceived need for expropriation.

However, Giffey has been clearly shaken by the strong results. In interviews following the final tally of the referendum results, she remarked that while she still does not believe expropriation would help “a single household,” the results must be respected, so long as they are legal.

Rest assured that tremendous scrutiny will be placed on the legality of the proposal. This follows not only the 2015 referendum defeat, but also last year’s defeat of a city-wide rent cap that German courts struck down this April.

Regardless of the challenges to come, however, this week’s victory for housing activists is meaningful because it demonstrates the power everyday people can wield through collective organization and has the power to inject new energy into housing struggles globally by showing that even finance capital can be put on the menu.

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