How Berlin’s Voters Took on Corporate Landlords And Won
A campaigner sets off a flare in celebration as referendum results come in. Photo: Ramin Rahman

The Inside Story of How Berlin Took On Corporate Landlords and Won

The city of renters has spoken decisively in a referendum that could have a huge impact not just in Germany’s capital but across Europe.
September 27, 2021, 4:05pm

BERLIN – When Kilian Weisser moved to Berlin in July 2020, he immediately fell in love with his local area. Gesundbrunnen, located in the north of the city, had a strong community feel, not to mention local bars on every street. “It feels very unique,” Weisser, 32, said. 

There was one more thing that Weisser loved about his home. He had moved in while the Mietendeckel, Berlin’s city-wide rent cap, was in effect, meaning he was paying just €420 (about £360) a month for his apartment which he shared with a friend. But in April, the cap was overturned following a court ruling, on the basis it conflicted with German constitutional law, causing Weisser’s rent to jump by around €280 (about £240). But for Weisser, that was just the beginning of his struggle.

Weisser, like many Berlin residents, lives in an apartment block owned by a corporate landlord: Heimstaden, which owns around another 6,000 flats in the city. Disputing his rent, Weisser argued that due to another housing law that caps certain rents depending on the area, €720 was way too high. Heimstaden disagreed, but did offer a slightly lower rent. Weisser rejected the offer, demanding that the rent return to €420, which he believed was legal. But without the means to take the landlord to court, Weisser continues to pay the high increased rent, along with hundreds of thousands of other people in Berlin.

“W​​e are incredibly angry,” said Weisser. “The thing is, we can't just move out, we can't just say ‘OK, we can just go and look for something else cheaper,’ because it's incredibly difficult to find flats in Berlin.”

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But this weekend, residents in Berlin felt enough was enough. Months after the rent cap was overturned, locals voted in favour of local authorities taking control of flats from mega landlords in a city that has seen rents rise by a third since 2015.

The final results saw 56.4 percent – 1,034,709 people – vote in favour of socialising property. Although the referendum is non-binding, campaigners say they have a mandate to now put 240,000 flats back into public ownership, in a decision that could have huge ramifications for housing and rent controls in other European cities.

On an overcast September day in south Berlin, residents of the Hufeisensiedlung – meaning Horseshoe Estate – sat outside the listed building’s cafe, sipping coffee and chatting. The collection of flats, painted blue and white, wrap around a central lawn and lake with an opening at one end, giving the Modernist estate its recognisable shape. The area is quiet for Berlin (“All the hip and exciting is not happening here,” one resident said), and the leaves on the trees are turning burnt orange and red as autumn sets in. 

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Hufeisensiedlung found itself the centre of Berlin's housing referendum. Designed by architect Bruno Taut in 1925 after a housing shortage fuelled by the First World War, it was an example of progressive social housing which sought to prioritise the living standards of residents. Today, however, the building is privately owned by Deutsche Wohnen, one of Berlin’s biggest corporate landlords, with a property portfolio worth €26.2 billion. If the result of the referendum – which is technically only advisory – is successfully implemented by Berlin’s state government, these flats will return to public ownership.  

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Hufeisensiedlung (the Horseshoe Estate) was originally designed by Bruno Taut in 1925 as social housing but later became privatised. After the referendum, it could return to state control. Photo: Ramin Rahman

The campaign group, Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen (which roughly translates to expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co.) was confident the city’s voters would back the housing reform. Founded in 2017, the campaign group of around 3,000 activists took advantage of a feature of German law which allows certain topics to go to a referendum if seven percent of the city’s residents sign a petition. In June, the campaign announced it had collected 343,000 signatures – well above the 175,000 threshold and most likely aided by the controversial decision to revoke the rent cap in April. 

On the day of a match between FC Union Berlin and Arminia, I joined the group on one of the last days of campaigning at Alten Försterei stadium (FC Union Berlin would go on to win 1-0). Fans streamed in from the S-Bahn, the city’s metro, nearby, chanting and swigging bottles of Pilsner. Leonard Haas, a 27-year-old originally from Cologne, distributed leaflets to football fans. “Für bezahlbare mieten in Berlin,” (for affordable rents in Berlin), he said, over and over, to passing fans. 

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“A lot of people look at Paris and look at London [fatalistically],” said Haas, referring to the cities’ notoriously high rents and property prices, “but it is not inevitable!”

Haas has been campaigning with Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen for a year and has lived in the diverse and popular Neukolln area for three years, where he said 50 percent of his income goes on rent. He lives in a building owned by one of the landlords targeted by the referendum, Adler, which owns more than 30,000 flats in the city. 

“You feel like you have no power,” he said. “That's why people are really enraged and why they are angry. You feel like you have to shut up and take the next higher rent your landlord says, because [otherwise], what will you find? Where will you go?”

Haas had campaigned all across Berlin, including at Taut’s Hufeisensiedlung. He remembered speaking to an elderly resident, who told him, ‘“I am angry that the working class movement built this, but now it's the corporations who profit off this.”

“It’s a moment that will stay with me,” he recalled. 

Berliners march in a protest against rising rent prices earlier this month. Photo: Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Berliners march in a protest against rising rent prices earlier this month. Photo: Omer Messinger/Getty Images

It’s not just young Berlin residents fighting for the campaign – there’s political backing too. At a farmers market selling cheese, fresh vegetables and kartoffelsuppe (potato soup), Canan Bayram campaigned for reelection for the Greens. 

“The aim [of the referendum] is to change the economic system to separate the rent issue from the other market because homes are not for sale, or shouldn't be for sale,” she said. “The aim is to take them away from the market.”

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Victory in the referendum for housing campaigners would “announce to the whole world that Berlin is not a warehouse and that you can’t mass buy flats or houses here, because the people are against it. And that [tenants] are also protected by the government,” Bayram said.

“I hope [housing companies] think ‘Oh, the Germans are crazy. Your money is not safe in Germany’. This would be great.”

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The entrance to Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) in Berlin. Photo: Ramin Rahman

But not everyone agrees the outcome of the referendum is the best thing for Berliners. Namely, the bodies representing the landlords. “[The referendum] doesn't change the core problem of the Berlin housing market that they have too few flats available,” said David Eberhart, a spokesperson for the BBU Association, which represents many corporate landlords in the city. “Changing the ownership has nothing to do with solving the problem that Berlin has because Vonovia [the second largest corporate landlord in the city] has an average monthly rent of €690. Compared to London, you would laugh because it's so affordable!”

Deutsche Wohnen, which owns around 113,600 properties in Berlin, declined to be  interviewed for this piece. Instead, it told VICE World News in a written statement, “We understand that people in the growing cities are frustrated by rising rents and the hopeless search for vacant flats...we know that the main problem is the scarcity of flats not only in Berlin but in nearly all big cities across Germany. Every vacant apartment we offer on the internet we have to remove after two or three hours because hundreds of people are applying for the apartment – [it] doesn´t matter what location or rent it has. So we just need more flats and new buildings are the only way to solve the people's problems in the housing market.”

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“Independently of that we do not think that expropriation is possible in legal terms,” the statement continued. “And even if it was, the costs for that endeavour would mean a collapse for the budget of the state of Berlin.”

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Campaigners celebrate on the night of the referendum in Berlin after positive early results. Photo: Ramin Rahman

There are a few possible issues with implementing the referendum as highlighted by opponents like Deutsche Wohnen. It argues that it would not be constitutional, although this is disputed heavily: Bayram, who happens to be a former lawyer, said it has been approved by the Federal Constitutional court and is supported by Article 14 of the German constitution, which says expropriation is permissible for the public good. She conceded, however, that, “Everybody thinks it will go to the high court.” There’s also the issue of cost: if the properties are bought back at market value, it could be incredibly expensive. However, it’s not unprecedented for the city government to buy property off commercial landlords. Indeed, this month, the city negotiated to buy 14,750 apartments for €2.46 billion (about £2.1 billion) from Deutsche Wohnen and Vonovia, the two largest corporate landlords, some suspect to take the wind out of the sails of the referendum. Then finally there’s the political aspect: what happens next will also depend on the new configuration of Berlin’s politics once the dust has settled from the election. 

Whether or not the referendum definitively achieves its goal of seizing flats of mega landlords, it has certainly forced an important agenda. “Before, housing companies ignored us and laughed at us,” Katrin Schmidberger, a local Berlin Green candidate said. “Now, they talk to us.” 

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The rest of Europe – both tenants and landlords – are watching carefully to see if similar solutions could be implemented in cities also facing housing crises. “What a victory like this might do is shift the goalposts and create more space for generating alternative modes of housing delivery, ones that are actually executed by the state rather than by private companies,” Dr Alexander Vasudevan, associate professor of human geography at the University of Oxford and author of The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting, said. “That could be a profound catalyst for something new.” 

Berlin’s housing situation has never been perfect, but tenants rights have always been at the core of the city due to the high proportion of rents. This may be one of the reason’s this referendum is taking place in Germany, as opposed to say the UK or France, which,  – ignoring the fact there isn’t the same legal mechanism – suffer from worse situations. “Berlin is the city of renters and has been historically,” says Vasudevan. “It is a city organised around housing struggles. It's part of the DNA of the city.”

How ever the referendum pans out in the coming days and months, it is an impressive feat by a truly grassroots campaign proving that the city doesn’t want to sit back while market forces wreak havoc and force the most vulnerable  – migrants, the working class, and many non-German residents who weren’t able to vote – out. At the very least the successful referendum campaign will provide something not many people fighting for housing rights have: hope.

When campaigners realised they had likely won on the night of the referendum, it wasn’t just hope causing them to cheer, hug, and occasionally kiss. There was a strong sense of euphoria and relief that years of work had paid off, not to mention that their fight to save their city might have succeeded. 

It’s around 10PM when I found Haas with tears in his eyes. “I was fucking anxious about losing,” he said, hugging me. “I thought we might win but I never thought it would be this good. It feels fucking amazing.”

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Campaigners from Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen hug in celebration after the results filter through. Photo: Ramin Rahman

Ramin Rahman is a freelance photographer formerly based in Afghanistan, now based in Germany. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.