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Ulrike Hamann and Alex Demirović on the nuts and bolts of socialized housing and beyond

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The success of Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen (DWE) represents a stunning victory for progressive forces in Berlin, and inspired housing activists around the world. But passing the referendum is just the beginning. What would socialization look like? How could it be implemented and managed? Moritz Wanke of LuXemburg magazine spoke with Ulrike Hamann and Alex Demirović about these and other questions.

MW: Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen (DWE) achieved a clear victory in the recent referendum. Should the results actually be implemented, however, what would that actually look like? How would the expropriated properties be managed, for example?

AD: New committees need to be created for this purpose among both housing blocks and neighbourhoods, as well as committees with a broader remit. It is important that tenants actually become involved with decision-making and deal with questions that have, until now, seldom been raised in discussions around this issue — for example, how buildings should be maintained, or how green spaces are to be looked after.

This will require the establishing of suitable processes, which is easier said than done, since there are very few precedents for this approach. Beyond tenant participation, another important aspect will be the connection between any given building or neighbourhood and the communities that surround them: can revenue be generated that would fund the building of further housing, for example? How will it be decided who is allowed to use commercial spaces? If hundreds of thousands of residential properties are socialized, it is crucial to avoid an “island for the privileged” being created in the process.

Ulrike Hamann is a culture studies scholar who has long been engaged in research concerning the subjects of migration and refugees, housing, and social cohesion at the Humboldt University, Berlin. Active in the renters’ rights movement for ten years, she is a co-founder of the Kotti & Co initiative and helped initiate the Berliner Mietenvolksentscheid, a referendum on affordable housing. Since 2020, she has been a board member of the Berlin institution for housing provision Wohnraumversorgung Berlin (WVB) – Anstalt öffentlichen Rechts.

Alex Demirović is a philosopher and social scientist. He has lectured at a number of universities, including in Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, serves on the board of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and a fellow of its Institute for Critical Social Analysis.

This article first appeared in LuXemburg. Translated by Ryan Eyers and Sonja Hornung for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

UH: I think it is important to recognize that socialization does not simply mean nationalization. We need to think about the organizational form that would govern these properties. Currently, the initiative is proposing the founding of a public institution that would manage the expropriated properties. Depending on its design, this outcome would be much closer to a process of nationalization/state-based public ownership.

We could also consider whether a foundation established under public law would be a more suitable option or whether we could make use of the established legal structure for housing cooperatives (Genossenschaftsgesetz). In this respect it is worth taking a look at examples outside of Germany or at historical precedents to find helpful points of reference (see Buckmiller in this publication).

What can we learn from previous attempts to strengthen tenant participation in state-owned housing associations?

UH: The state-owned housing associations currently take the legal form of either a publicly listed company or limited-liability company. This has an impact on the Berlin senate’s ability to control them, as it is unable to have any direct influence on the housing associations’ everyday operations. In addition, these legal forms also place great constraints on participative management. We painfully experienced this first-hand in the most recent legislative period.

How so?

UH: When housing legislation was last up for amendment,[1] there was disagreement over the role of Mieterbeiräte (tenants’ councils for a housing association’s holdings in any specific area). These are different from renters’ organizations (Mieterräte), which operate at the level of the entire association, and are voluntarily active in representing the interests of tenants within the framework of a given housing association.

Mieterrat members are elected from holdings of 300 dwellings and above, in some cases representing tenants from over 2500 dwellings. The disagreement concerned whether these tenants’ councils should be mentioned in the legislation as a form of tenant participation. The state-owned housing associations argued that participative management is incompatible with the legislation that governs publicly listed companies or limited liability companies, is solely established within industrial relations law, and thus only applicable to the participation of workers in the management of the enterprise that employs them.

The responsibility for the management of a company, they argued, may not be held by positions that are voluntarily held. A legal opinion provided by the Senate Department for Development, Building and Housing aligned with this view, which meant that this attempt to amend the legislation ended in failure, an outcome that left both the Mieterbeiräte and the Mieterräte very unhappy. In order to overcome these restrictions concerning political control and co-determination, the initiators of the housing referendum sought to change the legal form of the state-owned housing associations to that of an Anstalt öffentlichen Rechts (an institution established under public law).

AD: In such a structure, tenants would be represented on relevant decision-making committees, albeit alongside numerous other interested parties such as churches, political parties, football clubs, or kindergartens.

UH: Exactly; these committees would thus actually be representative of the community, which is a more difficult task than it might seem. Thus far, DWE has almost exclusively focused on tenant participation, with other community groups playing relatively minor roles. Should this be how the management of socialized properties ends up functioning, then they would in essence be nothing more than housing co-operatives, in which it is largely the interests of the current tenants that are taken into account. Consequently, conflicts would likely arise that already recur in pre-existing co-operatives: should surplus funds be invested in renovations or used to reduce rents? These are the questions that we need to ask ourselves.

How would that be possible?

UH: We have seen how important the legal construction of the organization of the property can be for these questions. A glance into the history books shows that the Yugoslavian model provides some interesting lessons. Rather than being considered a commodity, housing was understood as a human right. This model also recognized community ownership of housing, not only state ownership.

Any given enterprise’s capital was managed by its employees as an investment fund. Within these enterprises, “construction brigades” were formed. These built housing for all employees, with the end result being socialized residential property. Such elements — a non-capitalist legal form, the idea of an investment fund whose decision-making process is governed by a committee that reflects the wider community — appear to be very important aspects to me. The managing of investment can take place at the local level — meaning in Berlin at the district level — or otherwise in committees that reflect the city’s make-up in a different manner.

AD: Your reference to Yugoslavia is interesting, but this model cannot be directly applied to our situation. There are good reasons for keeping housing separate from the workplace. Similar experiments, in which waged employees are housed in company-owned properties, have been tried repeatedly here in Germany as well, such as by the railway or the postal service. The danger here is that this also means that when workers strike or protest, their homes and therefore their entire existences are placed in jeopardy.

UH: Yes, that’s true, but in these instances the decision as to what happens with a given residential property could not be made solely by those who live in it nor by a private owner, nor by the state for that matter. This is a very important aspect to consider if we are going to seriously contemplate the notion of socialization. Different kinds of committees are needed, ones which we will need to develop ourselves, as they will not be provided to us by existing organizational forms.

AD: These committees would decide whether rents would be reduced, or whether surplus funds should be generated and invested in making a property more energy-efficient, for example. This leads us to a whole host of other issues to consider, such as climate change.

UH: Indeed, and this is a problem that already exists, as existing housing stock is supposed to be climate neutral by 2030. And we have seen that this can quickly lead to conflicting objectives: on the one hand, we want tenants to participate in decisions around modernization, and on the other we want to achieve our climate targets. These are not always compatible.

AD: These sorts of discussions could also potentially go in an entirely different direction, along the lines of “Why should housing be built for refugees using our rent money”? It’s a matter of striking a balance. Tenants must on the one hand understand that yes, it is their home, and that they are jointly responsible for it and play an active part in its upkeep. On the other hand, they must also learn to tackle overarching issues and consider alternative perspectives.  

So, tenants would deal with repairs? Would these no longer be carried out by tradespeople in future?

AD: Well, tradespeople would be among the tenants of socialized properties. The interesting question is how they would be incorporated into a property’s management, and whether they could also pass on their skills: from plumbing repairs, to taking care of a crack in the stairwell, cleaning the courtyard, tending to the gardens, or making sure the playground is in good working order.

People need to be willing to understand themselves as part of a communal process. I am interested in the question of how this sense of responsibility arises, whether for one’s own space or for a shared space. Socialization does not mean that this responsibility is outsourced, but rather that individuals become collective property owners. This also means developing a sense of responsibility for the property that they become communal owners of. In certain circumstances there must also be the possibility for people to be able to say that they no longer wish to live with those they currently share a space with, without entailing that they will no longer have access to housing. For me, these are all questions closely connected to the issue of socialization. They do not all need to be addressed at once, but in future they will be framed quite differently to today.

UH: Taken as a whole, this is the challenge: how can as many people as possible take on responsibility for the shared project that is housing, and more specifically housing provision? You need an awareness of both.

This was a central question for the “Re-communalization Plus” project at Kottbusser Tor.[2] This project showed that a willingness to really invest time and take on responsibility first emerges at the local level when there is actually something tangible to get involved in and to decide on. Which takes us back to the Yugoslavian model I mentioned earlier. Here, decentralized management did work for a while, at least.

Despite this, however, there is still the problem of potential overexertion on the part of tenants. Some people would almost certainly invest more time in a given project if they were afforded more decision-making power, but the rest would seemingly be happier to have nothing to do with it whatsoever.

AD: A lot of people need to be fully employed, meaning that they can’t devote much time to the organization of such processes. We also need to call for additional changes, such as a shortening of the working week, that would enable people to meaningfully participate in the management of commonly-held property. On the whole, I am of the opinion that these activities should be considered socially useful work, meaning that they should be remunerated or even be credited to people’s working time accounts.

UH: We discussed this issue with the various tenants’ councils and associations. Mieterräte function differently to Mieterbeiräte in that they operate across an entire housing association’s holdings, rather than within a specific district. Their members are elected and they have a place on the housing associations’ supervisory boards.

In our discussions we spoke about whether the Mieterräte should also be closely embedded — alongside the Mieterbeiräte — in their given neighbourhoods. This could entail the need to be democratically approved by the local constituency in order to adequately represent local interests. precisely this suggestion was rejected by the Mieterräte on the grounds that a person could perhaps be active on one committee, but not on two. These sorts of issues would also need to be re-addressed within a socialization framework.

AD: Yes, that would be too much for one person to manage. One can safely assume that only a small proportion of people will actively participate in such processes — those who are interested in them or believe them to be important. This would potentially lead to new kinds of conflict, which would in turn require new mechanisms of control to avoid favouritism or the development of privileged classes within specific buildings or housing complexes.

UH: I think that we should discuss issues surrounding participation and management separately. To return to the concrete example of tradespeople, the question is: would the decision as to which tradespeople are engaged to fix a given problem be made on a local, neighbourhood, or district level, or across an entire housing association?  

Or which criteria would be used to allocate housing, for instance?

UH: Yes, and then we find ourselves faced with the same issues that crop up in co-operatives, such as when residents request that their children be given apartments in the same building. In contrast to this, state-owned housing associations have certain politically determined quotas, such as that which stipulates that 63 percent of apartments that become vacant must be allocated to people on low incomes who have an eligibility certificate for public housing, or Wohnberechtigungsschein (WBS). There may be people who live in these buildings, however, who say that while they agree with the quota in principle, they also want to bring a family that they know into the building.

Or the issue arises that specific societal groups are systematically excluded when the subject of occupancy is discussed or decided upon in person. What is necessary is a procedure through which these processes are politically discussed and decision-making criteria are communally determined. This is further complicated if we wish to make housing allocation free of discrimination, which would require a transparent allocation process within the housing association, that includes anonymized application procedures.

AD: This presents a further difference to the Yugoslavian model or to employer-managed accommodation, in which the residential population has a very homogenous character. In such examples, it was simply colleagues and their families living together. This made the process of allocation straightforward.

UH: Rental criteria need to be clarified in a centralized way — not necessarily Berlin-wide, but on the municipal level. In Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, for example, there is scarcely any affordable housing left. That means that a 100 percent WBS quota for newly vacant apartments should be introduced there. This would mean, however, that families who wish to move but whose income may, over time, exceed the WBS-threshold may not be able to find an apartment in their own neighbourhood. And thus we already find ourselves dealing with another dilemma.

AD: There is another interesting point to bring up with respect to allocation: do we want to support specific migrant networks? This would almost certainly rapidly spark debates around segregation and the ethnic and cultural make-up of neighbourhoods. On the other hand, such constellations constitute very important support networks that we do not want to artificially destroy. Mainstream society doesn’t seem to be spending much time contemplating these issues at present.

UH: Yes, as things stand these discussions are led by the housing associations, who say: “We want a lowered WBS-quota, because we want “stable neighbourhoods”, as if people on higher incomes would “stabilize” neighbourhoods and vice versa. At the same time, it is those on low incomes who need the state-owned housing associations the most. These are societal debates that also have an influence on the future of our cities and our ability to live together, and it is therefore important to incorporate further perspectives beyond those of the people who run companies and manage properties.

AD: This is a crucial aspect of new democracy. We are not used to seeing issues of housing, allocation, and property management as part of an everyday democratic decision-making process. As you said at the beginning, it is not sufficient to simply talk about socialization, but rather to think about what would result from that process, because it comprises an entirely different conception of democracy.  

UH: These are certainly not questions that are going to go away in a hurry…it would be great if people were more open to these questions and more interested in the topic of communal ownership. It’s the only way we will be able to reach the goal of a new shared responsibility for a democratic and socially-oriented conception of housing provision.


[1] The Wohnraumversorgungsgesetz (Housing Provision Act) is the result of the Berlin rent referendum of 2016. It regulates the social orientation of state-owned housing associations and mandated the introduction of tenants’ councils that represent tenants’ interests in the organizational structures of these enterprises. They occupy a position on the associations‘ supervisory boards.

[2]

The model project has incorporated calls by tenant initiative Kotti & Co for the recommunalization of social housing to be combined with greater participative rights. In the studies that accompanied the project, tenants’ willingness to participate was evaluated, experimenting with a range of different participative formats conceptualized specifically for different population groups. The results of the different phases of the study can be found at kottbussertor.org.