Since the start of the “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.” campaign, opponents of the plan have sought to discredit the socialization of housing stock. They have characterized it as unserious and legally unfeasible, sometimes suggesting that astronomical compensation figures will come into play. The report issued by the Berlin Senate’s expert commission has made it strikingly clear that these arguments against the plan are unfounded. Germany’s Basic Law is very clear on this point: socialization is feasible. It is a possibility allowed by the Basic Law, and an expression of its authors’ desire to give legislative authorities leeway to shape the economic system beyond the constitution’s own stipulations. Now it is up to Berlin’s state-level governing coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) to implement the referendum’s result as quickly as possible.
Franziska Drohsel is an attorney and former research assistant at Humboldt University in Berlin. She was the national chairperson of the Social Democratic youth organization, the Young Socialists (Jusos), from 2007 to 2010 and is a board member at the Institut Solidarische Moderne.
The “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.” initiative has had an impact on the political agenda in Berlin since its inception in 2018. A strong tenants’ movement has developed in recent years in response to perpetually rising rents, gentrification, and the financialization of housing. This movement has given rise to the demand to socialize the holdings of commercial housing companies that own over 3,000 dwellings. The idea is to transfer that housing stock to a public institution that would manage it as a public enterprise with democratic participation from city residents, tenants, and staff. The first step was to collect enough signatures for a ballot measure. The second was to carry out the referendum, which took place on 26 September 2021 and won the approval of 59.1 percent of Berlin’s electorate. Under a coalition of the SPD, Die Linke, and the Greens, the state senate spent a few months wrestling with how to implement the result before finally agreeing to set up an expert commission.
In June 2023, the commission published its final report, titled “Vergesellschaftung großer Wohnungsunternehmen” (Socializing Large Housing Companies). After the heated debates of the last four years over the legal admissibility of this proposal, the significance of the report cannot be overstated. Despite all internal differences, the thirteen-member commission led by former Federal Minister of Justice Herta Däubler-Gmelin (SPD) emphasized that socializing large housing stocks, even below market value, is legally feasible. In light of this finding, the political debate is definitively resolved.
Special votes are yet to be held on individual issues, but the commission has evidently managed to agree, with a substantial majority, on the essential outcome. It has made clear that it sees various possible ways to enact the expropriation. It is now up to legislators to make some decisions, including whether an appropriateness test is necessary, how and in what amount the owners are to be compensated, and whether the 3,000-unit limit is to be retained, or if a different criterion should be established to distinguish between who can or cannot be expropriated.