Berlin's Renters Are Coming for Mega Landlords

After a landmark rent cap was overturned, leaving renters thousands of euros out of pockets, campaigners are now trying to turn the tables on the city’s biggest landlords.
A man and a woman protest after the german court overrules Berlin's rent cap. Photo: Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images.
A man and a woman protest after the german court overrules Berlin's rent cap. Photo: Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images.

When Anissa Eprinchard heard in April that a ground-breaking rent cap brought in by authorities in Berlin was to be overturned, her stomach sank. The rent cap, introduced in February 2020, was one of the most pioneering housing laws in any major European capital, one of the most radical attempts to curb rent inflation. Eprinchard had already been battling her landlords over dubious contract issues during the four years she had lived in the trendy, overpriced area of Kreuzberg. For six months, from December 2020, she had been able to take advantage of the rent cap. Now, with the rent cap overturned, she would be required to pay back the €4,000 (about £3,400) in rent that she had saved. 

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“It was horrible. Can you imagine €4,000 going out from your account?,” says Eprinchard. “We didn't expect it because everybody was saying, ‘They won't do that during the pandemic. They will postpone it, and even if they rule on it, they will not ask for the payment, because it's a horrible situation right now’.”

“I just cried because of the situation,” she says. “I mean, I'm not crying anymore.”

Instead of giving in, Eprinchard joined a growing campaign of over 100 active organisers, fighting to make Berlin’s housing system fairer. The courts may have overturned the rent cap on constitutional technicalities, but the campaign is fighting for something bigger: a city-wide referendum on the ability for the government to take homes off landlords who own more than 3,000 apartments and turn them into government-owned housing.

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The German capital, once known for its affordable rent, is now facing many of the same forces causing housing problems across Europe. Like many cities across the continent, the financialisation of property – the fact property can act as an investment rather than a home, the selling off of housing stock and lack of effective rent controls – has meant some areas of Berlin have seen rents rise by a third or almost doubled in cost since 2015. For a city where almost 80 percent rent, the effects of this are felt widely. 

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“The idea is actually to expropriate and socialise profit-orientated real estate corporations in the city that have more than 3,000 apartments,” says Thomas McGath, a campaigner involved in the Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen campaign (which roughly translates to expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co., a housing company). “Things like co-ops would be excluded and charity nonprofit organisations. The idea would be to bring all these apartments into essentially a new public housing company that will manage them, communally, with democratic representation from the renters.”

Unlike the rent cap ruling, which fell down when a higher court ruled that local authorities in Berlin weren’t able to override federal law, campaigners believe this policy is fully supported by the constitution. According to Article 15 of Germany’s constitution, “land, natural resources and means of production may… be transferred to public ownership” in exchange for compensation. 

For the referendum to take place in Berlin, the campaign must collect seven percent of the city’s population in signatures, equivalent to 175,000 signatures. All signatures must be legitimate, so from German citizens with residence in Berlin. Currently, McGath says they are on 130,000 signatures and that the campaign received a boost after the overruling on the rent cap.

Why is this so important to Berliners? “I just felt very defeated [when the rent cap was overruled] and upset,” says McGath. “We definitely had this feeling that we had a bit of security and stability for another four years at least, and that people didn't really have to worry about being displaced or kicked out of their housing for quite some time. That was a novel feeling for Berlin because it's gotten really bad in the last ten years or so.”

“There's obviously the rapid increase of rent,” says McGath. “Over the last ten years rent prices for new contracts have doubled. [Also] there's simply not enough [housing] being built. And then on top of that, I think in general, the amount of public housing has decreased and affordable housing has decreased as well.”

If the campaign is successful in securing enough signatures, the referendum will be put to Germans in September, at the same time as the federal elections. McGath, despite previous struggles, is optimistic.

“People are really realising that this is a field of life or industry that touches on so many parts of people's lives, you know? You need good housing to work, to live, to be close to cities,” says McGath. “I think people don't necessarily see housing as a speculative object – it’s a human right. I think we can introduce a radical change and [show] that other alternatives are possible.”