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The Berlin referendum to expropriate big landlords shows how to organize majorities

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Author

Martin Neise,

Collecting signatures for Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen in Berlin. Photo: Max Rabus/DWE

Last month’s successful referendum to “expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.” marks a milestone for the tenants’ movement—in Berlin and beyond. For the first time in German post-war history, a majority voted in favour of socializing large real estate companies to combat displacement and housing shortages. The referendum instructs the Berlin Senate to “initiate all measures” to bring about the socialization of real estate companies that own 3,000 rental apartments or more in the city. This Enteignung, German for “expropriation”, applies to around 240,000 of the 1.5 million rental apartments in Berlin and thus covers a considerable portion of the city’s housing market.

Martin Neise works on political education for Die Linke. He was a candidate for parliament in Berlin-Mitte in the 2021 elections.

Translation by Loren Balhorn.

Berlin offered a unique point of departure for the referendum. The housing situation in Berlin is a concern for the entire city, as even middle-class residents feel the strain of high rents and fear being pushed out of their neighbourhoods. On average, Berliners spend about 40 percent of their income on rent. At the same time, Berlin is home to a number of political players who have gained a great deal of experience and expertise in rental issues through their many years of work: from traditional institutions like the Berlin Tenants’ Association to initiatives like Bizim Kiez or the veterans from the squatter scene of the 1970s and 1980s, the city is home to a network of actors who are deeply rooted in Berlin’s civil society. The campaign and the referendum made it possible to bring these many actors—who are well-networked but often fight on different fronts—together to work towards a common goal. In this way, the tenants’ movement was able to develop new strength and, after years of being on the defensive, to go on the offensive once again.

The Pillars of Success

Three components distinguished the campaign from the beginning and set it apart from other left-wing struggles: firstly, a determined orientation towards the middle of society, secondly, a legally sound “plan to win”, and thirdly, a professionalism that allowed the campaign to be prepared for the other side’s attacks at all times.

1) Targeting the Middle of Society

Hundreds of thousands of Berliners are under existential pressure as a result of the situation on the Berlin housing market. This not only affects the poor, but also people with middle-class incomes. Around half of Berliners qualify for a so-called “housing entitlement certificate” granting them access to a flat with subsidized rent. Changes in ownership, costly modernizations, and exorbitant asking prices have soured many Berliners’ attitudes towards the free housing market. The campaign therefore targeted its messaging at all of Berlin’s renters and not only individual groups excluded from the majority, as left-wing campaigns tend to do. Instead, the specific plights of marginalized groups were embedded in the larger issue of affordable rents, allowing people of different backgrounds and status positions to see their situation reflected in the campaign.

The campaign therefore not only defended the welfare of tenants affected by major real estate companies such as Deutsche Wohnen or Akelius, but also repeatedly emphasized that the expropriation of for-profit housing companies would benefit all Berlin renters. It was to their advantage that the starting point of the struggle for cheap rents was a very concrete emergency. The juxtaposition of “Berliners against real estate sharks” was linked to widespread experiences, which were thus easy to communicate. This critique of capitalism was not an abstract lecture hall exercise, but linked to an everyday consciousness that, even without the theory of surplus value, understood that one person’s rent is another person’s profit.

2) Plan to Win

The decision made by the people who got “Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen” off the ground to rely on a referendum proved to be a slam-dunk. On the one hand, this step made it possible to pursue a concrete, legal path to curb Berlin’s spiralling rent prices, while on the other hand, it allowed broad swathes of the population to identify with the project. Traditional instruments of movement work—such as direct action or civil disobedience—allow small groups to draw attention to their concerns, but these instruments are rarely suited to winning over majorities for radical and far-reaching policy proposals.

By focusing on the referendum, the campaign also sparked the interest of people outside the city’s left-wing subculture. As a result, hundreds of people from different walks of life could be won over to participate. After all, it takes less effort and expense to collect signatures and go to the ballot box than to enter into a long-running legal dispute with a private landlord together with your neighbours (as important and indispensable as that work is).

The focus on winning a referendum also forced the activists to step out of their traditional milieus and neighbourhoods and address all of the people of Berlin. Whereas most social movements in Berlin remain spatially and habitually restricted to their traditional neighbourhood stomping grounds, efforts were made very early on to broaden the campaign, as evidenced by actions in places like Marzahn-Hellersdorf and other districts outside the S-Bahn ring that separates the suburbs from the inner core. The initiative’s activists were willing to go into the kinds of neighbourhoods and housing blocks in Berlin that are oftentimes criminally neglected by the Left.

In short, they didn’t just want to be right or stand up for the right cause. They wanted to win.

3) Political and Legal Professionalism

It also paid off that the campaign began its political and legal work on socialization early on. This contributed to the fact that even middle-class layers of the population grew increasingly sympathetic to the referendum. The focus on “expropriation” alone probably would not have led to majority backing for the referendum without being linked to a robust policy formulation.

Particularly remarkable was how the campaign utilized all of the resources and networks at its disposal. Over its many years of work, the Berlin tenants’ movement has accumulated a very high level of expertise on issues of rent policy. Now other actors were brought to the table. The initiative commissioned legal opinions from constitutional lawyers and conducted in-depth research on its opponents. A concept for how to finance socialization was developed at an early stage. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation supported the initiative with policy papers and studies, and the party Die Linke also contributed its resources and skills where they were requested and needed.

The referendum campaign showed what the broad Left is capable of when it works together towards a shared goal. The cooperation between different progressive actors, whether institutional or non-institutional, was an important factor in the referendum’s success.

Professional Messaging

It became clear early on that the campaign wanted to build a stringent public image for its project and deliberately avoid the conventional aesthetics of left-wing groups. This could already be seen in the choice of colours and the design of the campaign, which made it interesting and relatable beyond the existing far-left scene. The activists also demonstrated a high degree of discipline in terms of their messaging and avoided overloading their public relations strategy with too many secondary issues.

Over the course of the campaign, the public faces in the media changed again and again. Although some saw this as a weakness—after all, what movement can do without charismatic figureheads?—the approach ultimately worked to the initiative’s advantage. In this way, the powerful opposing side consisting of real estate corporations and neoliberal media could not hit the campaign as a whole by focusing on taking down specific individuals. In addition, the human side of the housing crisis in Berlin was communicated via videos with affected tenants on social media.

In general, the major players in the campaign demonstrated a solid understanding of the power of images. No newspaper article or news report on the topic could do without the well-staged actions of the campaign: purple and yellow jackets, smoke flares, seas of flags, a campaign bus, and a queer cheerleading team transported positive images even to people who are usually sceptical of left-wing campaigns. What tenant in Spandau or Tempelhof could be afraid of expropriators like these? Instead, the campaign conveyed a joyful spirit and a desire for a just city for all. People were not too subtle to “dive” into mass culture, as evidenced by neighbourhood festivals outside the S-Bahn ring or actions in front of football stadiums.

One important factor in the campaign’s public relations work tends to be overlooked: alongside the pretence to fight for affordable rents and push demands for a new path in housing policy, a “conservative” element also flowed into the campaign. The slogan Damit Berlin dein Zuhause bleibt (“So that Berlin remains your home”), which could be seen on many posters and in the campaign’s broader messaging, also drew on the widespread feeling among Berliners that they are losing their established neighbourhood structures and everything they love about the city. This preservationist element contributed to the campaign’s powerful impact deep into liberal circles.

Through the aforementioned political and legal work, it was possible to anticipate and refute the opposing side’s points of attack at an early stage. That said, it is also the case that the opposing side’s campaign never really got off the ground to begin with. Apart from warning letters sent by housing cooperatives to tenants, the economic and media power of the real estate lobby never really had an impact. The bottom line is that the expropriation campaign was always on the offensive and dominated the rent policy debate in the city.

Unanswered Questions

Since the vote, a number of op-eds have appeared about how the referendum campaign has given countless people in Berlin a sense of self-empowerment. This is certainly true for the perhaps 2,000 activists who worked for a long time to achieve this victory. Whether this applies to the broad mass of the city’s tenants to the same extent, however, is another question. Perhaps for many it was simply the right issue at the right time, and they wanted to help the campaign achieve a breakthrough in the vote that occurred on the same day as the federal and state elections. It remains to be seen whether the campaign will lead to deeper roots in the neighbourhoods and milieus over the long term.

In terms of party politics, we also have to take up the question of why the overwhelming electoral majority for an ultimately democratic socialist policy did not translate into a better election result for Die Linke. After all, Die Linke was the only party that openly and consistently supported socialization and also the only force in parliament that actually wants to implement the referendum—in the end, however, less than a quarter of the voters who supported the referendum also voted for Die Linke.

That said, it’s safe to assume that more considerations than just determined support for a referendum enter into the decision of which party to vote for. This suggests that leftists should be careful not to overestimate the importance of social movements when it comes to winning in the electoral arena (and thus obtaining state power).

Conclusion

The “Deutsche Wohnen and Co. enteignen” campaign managed to build up a large group of activists over the years, to unite Berlin’s tenants’ movement, and win a large majority for the socialization of real estate companies. The campaign relied on broad participation, but was also prepared to work and communicate stringently and uniformly—in short: professionally.

But anyone who thought the battle was over was mistaken. The referendum was a so-called Beschlussvolksentscheid, which calls on the Berlin Senate and thus the governing parties to draft a law on socialization. Legally, the incoming Senate is not bound by the result of the referendum. So far, Die Linke is the only party in the Berlin House of Deputies that supports the socialization of large real estate companies. The Social Democrats (SPD), led by Franziska Giffey, have already spoken out against expropriation in advance, and the Greens continue to maintain a low profile on the question.

Therefore, it is now crucial that the campaign quickly change its modus operandi in order to put pressure on the Green and SPD deputies. This is not an easy task. But whatever means the campaign will adopt in the future, its creativity, political experience, and last but not least the overwhelming democratic mandate of more than one million “Yes” votes are reason enough to be optimistic about the future.

We will find out in the years to come whether the issue of socialization also resonates in other regions of the country. What is certain, however, is that the three essential building blocks for success—targeting the broad middle of society, a plan to win, and precise political work—show the way forward for movements and progressive actors across Germany—and a path to win majorities for left-wing politics.