Berlin votes to expropriate rip-off landlords

03 October 2021

By Tomasz Jaroslaw and Veronika Schulz

Berliners have voted by a massive 56% to approve the expropriation of all landlords with more than 3,000 properties. German Homes (Deutsche Wohnen), with 113,000 properties in the city, is the largest and most widely hated. In total 226,000 tenant households could see their apartments transferred into public ownership.

The victory at the ballot box is not legally binding, but it sends a strong signal after decades of privatisation. It increases pressure on the next Senate (Berlin state government), especially on the Greens, SPD and Left Party, whose members and voters have supported the demand for socialisation.

Left Party, Greens and SPD

The struggle is by no means over. Although the Greens have made positive statements, their official position is that public ownership should only be the ‘last resort’, meaning in practice that they will seek to avoid it. They favour sanctions for ‘bad’ landlords, while retaining a market economy.

Similarly, while the SPD favoured talks with the expropriation campaign at its Berlin state party conference in 2019, it is nonetheless also against a policy of socialisation. The SPD’s Berlin leaders, Michael Müller and Franziska Giffey, have repeatedly emphasised that they are against socialisation, even though the campaign’s goal includes compensation for landlords. This, of course, is encouraged not only by the real estate lobby, but also the CDU, FDP and hard right AfD. However, since most SPD voters and members voted for socialisation, Giffey and Müller are not only opposing the interests of Berlin tenants and wage earners, but also the majority of their own party.

On the whole, the SPD and the Greens are both oriented towards temporary, “public welfare-oriented”, voluntary agreements with private real estate companies, such as a nationwide cap on rents. It is doubtful how energetically the SPD and the Greens will push even such limited projects without a strong, nationwide movement that can put them under as much pressure as the expropriation campaign has in Berlin. Moreover, they are always ready to soften their demands or drop them altogether, if there are coalition negotiations with the conservative CDU and/or the market-liberal FDP.

The SPD left and the Left Party must insist on a clear law that follows campaign guidelines in any coalition negotiations. If Müller and Giffey say that this would not work for them, the voters and tenants have to say – then it will work without you!

After the referendum

Following the stunning referendum victory, we advocate a national tenants’ conference to discuss the housing crisis and decide on an action plan. A nationwide tenants’ movement, based on the mass organisations of the workers’ movement, must emerge to build on the Berlin result.

The Senate will try to evade responsibility and the will of the voters in different ways, depending on the strength of the different parties. It will be important not only to campaign for an appropriate law, but to put real pressure on the Senate through a variety of measures:

A successful campaign would not only have immediate practical benefits for tenants in Berlin. The political signal it would send would have a massive impact far beyond the city. It would not only be a blow to property developers, but a powerful argument for expropriation and re-nationalisation, for example, in the health, transport and energy sectors.

The Gruppe Arbeitermacht (Workers Power Germany) is fighting for the expropriation, without compensation, of the big real estate companies under workers and tenants’ control. The movement should force the developers to open their books to experts chosen by the tenants and workers’ movement, to determine where the profits have gone and expose how their business runs on speculation and exploitation, not investment.

Tenants and trade unions should have the right to set and monitor rents. They must also drive racism and discrimination out of the housing market, by demanding the control and disclosure of housing allocation. They should demand that all social housing is built or renovated to environmentally sound standards, again under trade union and tenant control.

Let’s reclaim what used to be public property and manage it on a cost-effective and non-profit basis!

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