Fighting gentrification in Berlin – the experience of Deutsche Wohnen & CO Enteignen

Phil Butland, a member of the Right2TheCity campaign in Berlin, reflects on the historic referendum on expropriating landlords, the efforts by those in power to place obstacles and what lies ahead for the movement

January 04, 2022 by Phil Butland
A protest by members of the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen campaign in October demanding the implementation of the results of the referendum. Photo: DWE

On September 26, 2021, alongside the German national and local elections, citizens of Berlin took part in a referendum. 59.1% – over a million people – voted to expropriate the big landlords. If the result of the referendum is implemented, all flats and houses of companies which own 3,000 or more units will be put into public ownership.

The referendum had been called by “Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen” (DWE, expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co) an initiative which targeted large real estate companies such as Deutsche Wohnen. Thousands of activists were involved, doing everything from signing petitions and attending demonstrations to knocking on people’s doors and joining a cheer leading action group.

The campaign did not come out of nowhere. As in many big cities, housing prices in Berlin have been rising at an extortionate rate. In 2014, a similar referendum prevented houses being built on the grounds of the old Tempelhof airport – now a popular park. Many of the DWE activists had cut their teeth in the 100% Tempelhofer Feld campaign.

In the run up to the referendum, the Berlin government introduced a city-wide rent cap. After pressure from the CDU (conservative) and FDP (liberal) parties, this popular law was deemed unconstitutional by the courts. This decision only strengthened grassroots support for the new referendum.

Who were the actors?

It was important that DWE was a cross-party initiative and involved many people who felt alienated from party politics. All left of center parties supported the referendum, but with different levels of enthusiasm.

Although there was a degree of support from the SPD (social democrat) base, party leader [and the new mayor of Berlin] Franziska Giffey was implacably opposed from the start. The Greens formally supported the referendum, but leading Green politicians insisted that they would only implement it “as a last resort.” Only the left party, die LINKE, wholeheartedly supported the campaign.

But if support was lacking from the main parties, many other organizations were actively involved in the campaign. Most tenants’ organizations and the Berlin branches of many trade unions supported DWE, as could be seen by the flags at the many demonstrations that were organized.

I would like to particularly mention one group. Only German citizens were allowed to vote in the referendum. In a city where nearly a quarter of the inhabitants do not have a German passport, this excluded a significant number of people – nearly a million. And yet throughout the campaign, hundreds of non-Germans were active in the DWE working group Right2TheCity.

I was one of those activists. Although we were unable to vote in the referendum, we were affected by the result – non-Germans already pay disproportionately high rents. We worked tirelessly translating leaflets, mobilizing for demonstrations and making sure that our disenfranchised voices were still heard.

What happens now?

We have now reached a stalemate. Berlin’s rent freeze has been rejected by the courts. The referendum has been passed, but it has not yet been implemented. And the new Berlin government – led by the aforementioned Franziska Giffey – will be very reluctant to displease the real estate lobby, which invests a lot of money in supporting politicians and political parties.

On the same day as the referendum, there were elections in Berlin. The result of post-election talks means that the city will continue to be ruled by the SPD, Greens and LINKE, but with die LINKE much weaker than before. Under the previous administration, the housing senator was a LINKE councilor – now it will be someone from the SPD.

Instead of promising to implement the referendum, the new coalition announced that it would set up a “commission of experts” to look at the feasibility of expropriation. This commission will take months to set up, and then has a year to make a recommendation. The government has the option of rejecting any recommendation and doing whatever it wants.

This is a clear attempt to demobilize the campaign. The referendum was able to win because of a couple of years of nearly constant activity. We are now expected to wait at least 18 months to see what happens next. Giffey and her supporters hope that this will be enough time for us to become demoralized and leave the streets so that she can implement a shoddy compromise with no serious opposition.

How can we win?

This was the background to a vote in mid-December among LINKE party members about whether the party should join the ruling coalition. I voted “No”, as did every active member of my local branch in the working class district of Wedding. And yet we were in the clear minority, as 75% of the party members who voted chose to join the government.

I think this is a serious mistake. If necessary, the SPD and Greens can rely on the support of right wing parties to push through policies which protest Big Real Estate. But, as part of the ruling coalition, die LINKE will now discourage independent activity, saying that change can be implemented in parliamentary debates. This will demobilize the mass movement.

The recent history of the rent cap has also shown that we cannot rely on the courts. There may be occasions when using the courts is necessary to build other movements, but they are not our territory. Courts largely exist to protect property, and cannot be relied upon to oppose the big real estate companies.

The key to our success is to maintain Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen as a mass movement on the streets and in the estates. Ten years and more of struggles against gentrification and for fair rents have strengthened our networks.  Without a clear focus in the near future, it will be difficult to maintain the current level of activity – but we have certainly not lost yet.

Right2TheCity is also now working with other migrant groups to demand voting rights for people who pay rents and taxes, but are unable to vote in most referendums and elections. The DWE campaign has taught us that when we unite, we are strong. La lotta continua.

Phil Butland is an active member of the Right2TheCity campaign. He is also the speaker of the LINKE Berlin Internationals and the commissioning editor of website.