More than one million Berliners — almost 60 percent — voted in favour of the referendum to expropriate large real estate companies. Nobody could have foreseen this outcome when the campaign began. How did a left-wing slogan ultimately come to enjoy such universal appeal and support? Rhonda Koch and Hannah Schurian spoke with Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen activists Jenny Stupka and Nina Scholz to learn more about how they accomplished the seemingly impossible.
Nina Scholz is actively involved in the Starthilfe working group of the Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen initiative and works as a journalist reporting on tech companies and labour and rental struggles.
Jenny Stupka is a spokesperson for Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen and is a part of the initiative’s publicity working group. She is from Berlin and is writing her PhD on the critique of property.
This article first appeared in LuXemburg. Translated for Gegensatz Translation Collective by Hunter Bolin and Louise Pain.
Wasn’t it risky to include the word “expropriate” in the very title of the campaign?
NS: We spent a great deal of time discussing this term, including with tenants who had strong reservations about it. But it soon became clear to us that it was the best term for us to use. If you start talking about “socialization” or “recommunalization”, nobody understands what you mean.
JS: At first, I was also concerned that the term might serve more as a discursive provocation than as an actually attainable goal. But when we went door to door to discuss the initiative with people, we found that the term was generally well received. It strikes a chord with people’s sense of outrage. Oftentimes you can talk to those who have reservations about the term and hopefully get them to feel more comfortable with it.
How did you manage to use such a stigmatized term in a positive way?
JS: What’s important is the narrative we communicate, rather than the term itself. What we’ve done is offer a plausible explanation to a sense of frustration held by many people. Most people understand that large real estate companies make the problem worse by profiting from expensive rents. We have to respond to this by standing together as a strong collective; as a “we”. We as tenants and as the urban community want to be able to determine our own living conditions. And we can only solve the problem by working together to change property relations.
NS: The other decisive factor was feasibility. We didn’t set out to launch a theoretical debate about expropriation. The majority of Berliners are in a precarious position and want quick solutions. The referendum offered a lever for implementing these solutions. Socialization is enshrined in the German Basic Law, it’s just that the paragraph has never been applied.
Does Berlin’s location lend it any advantages for a campaign such as this?
JS: Definitely. Berlin really is the renter city par excellence — almost 85 percent of its residents live in rental properties. The housing crisis drastically worsened in such a short period of time that even the middle class was impacted.
NS: You need a social basis to make such a radical demand. Berlin has a lively tenant’s movement, and the dynamic force of our campaign is closely linked to this. This movement first made its presence felt with the big rent demonstration in 2018, but has since come to include countless tenants’ initiatives, not to mention the protest against the court ruling to overturn the Berlin rent cap.
JS: These struggles generated a wealth of experience, all of which was important for this campaign. For example, the knowledge of how to build your own structures and systematically organize people. It’s also important to know what skills you still need and have to acquire.
What was different here compared to previous rent struggles?
NS: The fact that the big real estate companies were the target. By 2017, Deutsche Wohnen (DW) had become the most unpopular landlord in the city. DW tenants from all over Berlin started to network, and because the companies in question are so huge, this process brought together a very diverse group of people.
When the expropriation campaign began in the winter of 2017/18, we were working within the Starthilfe working group to draw up a balance sheet from previous campaigns and referendums. One of the major shortcomings of these was the fact that they were carried out almost exclusively by activists in the inner-city districts, and as a result the tenants themselves were effectively excluded. We wanted to change that.
How did you try to do that?
NS: The Starthilfe working group was established with the explicit goal of networking DW tenants and providing practical support to tenants. The rent referendum taught us that tenants and their problems often get lost when a campaign really starts to pick up speed. To prevent this, we made sure the working group had one foot in the tenant’s movement and the other in the campaign.
You were in the Starthilfe working group yourself. Did you manage to achieve your goal?
NS: At first we mainly helped tenants organize themselves and were not particularly active in the campaign. When we did get involved, it unfortunately prevented us from being as present with regard to the rent struggles. It was incredibly difficult to establish a direct relationship between these concrete struggles and the expropriation campaign. The process was more indirect.
The expropriation campaign gained momentum from the struggles of the DW tenants, and from the fact that the SPD — in an attempt to make concessions to the tenants — purchased 20,000 dilapidated apartments. At any rate, it was definitely more complicated than we had anticipated.
Does that mean that your plan failed and the campaign took on a life of its own?
NS: I wouldn’t say that. We were able to apply a lot of our experience from the rent struggles to the campaign. We knew what the problems were in the big housing complexes and made sure that organizing methods were implemented there. Many hundreds of people went door to door for the first time, starting up conversations with members of the general public on the topic of organizing. We didn’t just collect signatures, we invited people to join our efforts and built up a network of contacts.
Would you say that organizing was the decisive factor for the campaign’s success?
NS: Going door to door was certainly one of the most consequential moves we decided to make during the last election phase — specifically, going to the outer suburbs and speaking with residents there. That meant telling our activists: you have to step outside your comfort zone. This was not easy to implement during the campaign.
NS: Many people thought this approach would divide the work up into too many small parts, and as such would be too complicated and time-consuming. It was also difficult to imagine how to measure the success of this approach. Many didn’t even notice that our campaign was still unknown in a number of suburbs, since we were present on every corner in the city centre.
How did you try to communicate your demand in a way that people could relate to it?
JS: The exciting thing about the referendum was that we had to find a way to win majority support. The conversations we had on the streets and at people’s front doors helped us to hone our communication skills in our media and public relations work.
For example, we got used to hearing the most common objections — “the only thing that will help is building more housing” and “the houses will fall apart like they did in the GDR” — and learned how to respond to them. We had a meticulous analysis of the housing crisis, and were proposing a solution that was feasible. And we communicated it from our own perspective, from the perspective of the tenants — and with all of the expertise that we had acquired ourselves along the way.
I guess you could say that all of these conversations have ultimately made us into better leftists. We also discovered that not only the SPD and Green Party base, but even 20 percent of CDU voters are open to hearing our perspective. The rental crisis affects them too. We wanted our campaign to be accessible and attractive for these people as well. That was the whole idea behind the slogan “So that Berlin remains our home”, which might seem conservative at first glance. But something must change radically if Berlin is to remain the city we know and love.
Was it a campaign for “the middle”, as Martin Neise writes?
NS: It’s a campaign for all of us, for the 85 percent of Berlin residents who are tenants. The campaign’s strength comes from the fact that it is composed of many different kinds of people. The “middle” sounds like a fiction to me, so I don’t really know how to work with a term like that. The struggle is about us tenants sticking together against our landlords, no matter how different we might be.
How do you address such a diverse group of people?
JS: You have to make use of several different channels, from social media to door-to-door conversations. We had a tabloid newspaper that was a hit with lot of the older people in Marzahn. We also had posters in Arabic that were hung around Hellersdorf. Some people really didn’t like this, but it triggered important conversations. We had to use a variety of approaches to be able to reach so many people. We wanted to reach the majority, not just the middle.
Regardless, was there a central message in your public relations work?
JS: The message was simple: “Join us! The only way we can do this is together.” And that worked. Our numbers grew and grew. People with different kinds of expertise joined us and set different priorities. While we presented ourselves to the outside world as a politically homogenous front, internally our approach was one of decentralization. We put together a toolbox with our logo, our typefaces, our material. That way people could use these things to design whatever they wanted. That’s how things that we never would have expected ended up happening.
How do you maintain a sense of coherence despite all of this? Do you have criteria for the content that gets produced?
JS: The most important guideline was that we speak for ourselves, as tenants. We are the experts on the rent crisis. The exact coordination processes differ every time, and are sometimes even chaotic. But we always try to clarify what we send out collectively, in our meetings, in the neighbourhood teams, or in our four-eyes principle for social media posts.
NS: You have to get rid of the temptation to control everything that happens. The more you want to be involved, the less you can oversee. Together we created an initiative that has thousands of people involved. That was the recipe for success.
Some people have criticized the campaign for ultimately being too activist in nature, for not being inviting for people who are not radical leftists.
NS: Personally, I have never been part of a left-wing campaign in which so many different people were actively involved. Of course, some social groups are underrepresented. But we have tried to counteract this at every step. We have created different ways for people to participate. We organized open meetings. We have been active in the suburbs, we have thrown street parties, we have been to football games.
We need to consolidate and deepen these relationships, since there wasn’t always time for that. I’m looking forward to continuing to work on these aspects.
Do you see any ways that you could make the campaign even better, even more inclusive?
Jenny: For me, diversity is not about making sure that everything we do always appeals to everyone, whether that means queer cheerleading or pronoun rounds. It’s about figuring out how we can connect with tenants’ initiatives in a sustainable way. Our last action, which was initiated by DW tenants themselves, took place two years ago. People set up camping chairs and a cake buffet in front of the DW headquarters in Wilmersdorf, and we supported them with our infrastructure. We should pick up where we left off, at the latest when the expert commission set up by the Senate fails to make any progress. Then we will once again have to find new, joint forms of action.