By Flora Adamian
Housing activists in Berlin have made headlines around the world with a radical proposal: Expropriation. The Berlin initiative “Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen” (in English, “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co”), targets large real estate companies that own more than 3,000 apartments in Berlin. It takes its name from the largest of these companies, Deutsche Wohnen, which owns over 115,000 apartments in the city.
“Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen” spokesperson Thomas McGath said the initiative has already gathered the 20,000 signatures needed for the Berlin Senate — a coalition of Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens — to consider expropriation.
“So we’re actually shooting for about 50,000 signatures now,” McGath said. “We think if we can reach at least 50,000 signatures that would be a nice symbol of the progress of our campaign so far.”
The initiative can force a referendum on expropriation by collecting an additional 170,000 signatures by February 2020, according to the city of Berlin’s “Volksbegehren,” or “people’s referendum,” guidelines.
Those opposed to the movement are labeling it radical, associating expropriation with the former communist East German government, according to McGath.
“We have had some extreme reactions from the other side, so I think the common kind of dismissals are that ‘oh it’s DDR 2.0 all over again. It’s pure communism. It’s just a bunch of crazy left radicals doing this that have absolutely no support from the public,’ which is simply not true,” McGath said.
Separate polls conducted by the Forsa and Civey institutes both show that there is support among Berliners for the idea. One poll found expropriation was supported by 44 percent of those surveyed — in the other, nearly 55 percent.
The second-largest owner of housing properties in Berlin is a company called Vonovia. Max Gille, a Vonovia spokesperson, agrees the movement has forced large real estate companies to address the issue.
“This whole topic is quite emotional, and I guess what really is important is that we understand the worries of the people — not only of our tenants or our stakeholders — but of all people that are living in Berlin or that would like to live there and they can’t find a flat,” Gille said. “So we really take this whole thing seriously, but we are very sure that expropriation is not the right measurement to deal with it.”
The solution, according to Gille, is to build more housing units. McGath agrees that more units are necessary, but he said the influence of large real estate companies on market prices cannot be ignored.
The initiative, according to McGath, is about taking back housing formerly owned by the city of Berlin. In 2004, the city sold GSW Immobilien AG, its public housing provider, to Cerberus Capital Management, an American private equity firm. In 2013, Deutsche Wohnen acquired GSW Immobilien AG and around 60,000 housing units.
Elena Poeschl is a Berlin-based housing activist unaffiliated with the expropriation initiative. She said the Berlin government made a mistake by selling these public housing units back in the early 2000s. Poeschl believes the city should have offered to sell the units to their residents.
“A person living there at that time would have paid off that apartment by now,” Poeschl said. “The private person would have been able to buy one apartment. But what they did is they sold this huge quantity of apartments to a fund, a fund that’s interested in the profit because they have people who invest in this fund, and of course they want to see returns. So this takes a whole new level on making housing an issue of profits.”
In total, “Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen” is looking to expropriate around 200,000 housing units from private companies, but how expropriation would legally work remains to be seen. The movement invokes Article 15 of the German constitution, which allows for the “socialization” of “land, natural resources and means of production” by transferring it to public ownership.
“We expect it to go to the courts,” McGath said. “I’m sure they will sue, and I’m sure they’ll throw all of their legal resources behind this, but we say that that’s actually an issue for political will. So if our referendum is successful, it is the job of the Senate to turn it into law. And therefore it’s the job of the Berlin government to defend it as well.”
Article 15 has never been invoked before, so there are a lot of legal unknowns regarding the expropriation process.
Helmut Aust, professor of public and international law at the Freie Universität Berlin, is skeptical whether expropriation under Article 15 would be constitutional. He said it’s important to ask whether the action being taken (in this case, expropriation) is proportional to the end which is being pursued (in this case, an affordable housing market).
“You would have to ask: Are there not any other possibilities for the Senate in Berlin to provide for more room for housing? This can be building more apartments, enforcing tighter mechanisms of rent control, also speeding up permissions for building, actually, which seems to be quite complicated in Berlin,” Aust said.
Whether or not expropriation will be realized is unclear, but this new debate keeps the issues with Berlin’s housing market in the limelight.