Berlin Backs Referendum to Seize Properties From Mega Landlords

Up to 240,000 properties could be expropriated from landlords, after voters overwhelmingly backed a nonbinding referendum aimed at tackling the housing crisis in Germany's capital.
September 27, 2021, 10:41am
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Campaigners set off flares at a results party in Berlin to celebrate as early results suggest a strong lead for 'yes' in the referendum. Photos: Ruby Lott-Lavigna.

BERLIN – Voters have overwhelmingly backed a radical proposal to take properties away from some of Berlin’s biggest landlords and put them into public ownership.

Just over 56 percent of people voted in favour of a referendum calling on authorities in the German capital to expropriate flats and apartments from all landlords who own more than 3,000 properties. In total 1,749,923 valid votes were cast, with 1,034,709 votes in favour of the referendum’s motion, and 715,214 cast against.

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Although the referendum is non-binding, it creates huge pressure on the state legislature in Berlin to act.

Campaign group Deutsche Wohnen and Co Enteignen, which helped organise the referendum, said it could lead to up to 240,000 apartments being bought off mega landlords, which represents around 15 percent of Berlin’s total housing stock.

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Campaigners from Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen celebrate a projected win in Berlin on Sunday night.

Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen hopes the socialisation of the housing stock will provide lower rents and reduce the monopolisation of the housing market in the city, which has seen rents rise by around 30 percent since 2015. 

Campaigners, many of whom have been working on the movement for years, were cheering and hugging at a result party as the early polls suggested a strong lead on Sunday night. “It’s a very emotional night,” Leonard Haas, a campaigner from the Kreuzberg local group told VICE World News. “It’s just fucking amazing. I would have never believed the result would be so clear.”

The referendum was able to take place after Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen took advantage of a mechanism in German law, which allows certain topics to go to a referendum if a group can collect 175,000 signatures from city residents. In June, campaigners announced they had collected 343,000 signatures on the housing referendum, which received a boost when a city-wide rent cap was overturned in April.  

The next stage for the campaign is likely to be the German High Court, where landlord organisations are expected to claim that the expropriation of properties would violate German constitutional law – something Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen disputes. 

“Together we moved the city and shook up politics – that's what we're celebrating today,” Joanna Kusiak, a spokesperson for Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen said. “Thousands have become active with us. We are anchored with our structures in each district. We faced powerful opponents: inside and won. We're not going away anytime soon.”

The referendum took place against the backdrop of a dramatic federal election as Germans decided who would replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor after 16 years in office. The centre-left SDP has emerged as the largest party, overtaking Merkel’s CDU and the CSU. The SDP’s Olaf Scholz will now attempt to form a coalition government with the Greens and liberals to become the next Chancellor of Germany. 

“Regardless of its composition, the future government coalition will have to implement the socialisation of housing corporations,” said Kusiak. “The demand for socialisation unites far more voices behind it than any party. We Berliners have decided: Nobody is allowed to speculate with our apartments.”