Is democracy failing Berliners over controversial housing referendum? (2023)

A year ago today, Berliners voted in ahistoric referendum that proposed one of Europe's most radical solutions to soaring rents.

Asked whether they backedseizing property from so-called mega landlords, voters in the German capital screamed a resounding "yes".

The referendum passed by59% to 41%.

But a year on and despite a strong democratic mandate, there's little sign that thereferendum victory will garner concrete results.

Berlin’s housing crisis

While a public referendum on expropriating swathes of privately-owned apartments would be aunique solution, Berlin’s housing crisis represents a common challenge facing cities.

Global housingprices have risen at the fastest rate in 40 years, while a recent study of 200 cities around the worlddetermined 90% of them to be unaffordable to live in.

Even in this painfully-pricey context, Berlin’s housing crisis is especially acute.

“Rents have risen here much faster than elsewhere,"Wibke Werner, director of the Berlin Tenant’s Union (BMV), told Euronews.

"Sure, compared to other major cities, Berlin mayhave started at a more affordable level, but we also have particularly low incomes here.”

In recent years, Berlin has consistently registered some of the fastest-rising housing prices in theworld.

Though still relatively low compared to other European cities such as London or Paris,rents in Berlin doubled from 2009 to 2019 and haven’t stopped climbing.

With roughly 85% of Berliners renting their apartments, nearly the whole city has felt the squeeze ofa housing market increasingly dominated by speculation.

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And for those who can afford the rents, the suffocatingly-tight rental market means it’s nearlyimpossible to find apartments regardless of price. Vacant apartments and rooms in shared flats getflooded with hundreds of applications shortly after being posted.

“It’s dramatic,” said Werner. “Students moving to Berlin often need months before they can find aroom or an apartment. That means bouncing around on couches, staying in hostels, or jumping fromshort-term sublet to sublet.”

“On the other hand, when young families have a child or two and no longer fit in their apartments, itcan be extremely difficult to find a bigger place. And if they can find something, it’s often soexpensive that they just stay in their old apartment,” she continued.

Is democracy failing Berliners over controversial housing referendum? (1)

A radical response

A palpable sense of desperation among Berlin renters helped ignite a headline-grabbing response: areferendum to expropriate the apartments of private landlords holding more than 3,000 units and toincorporate them into the city’s social housing stock.

Crafted by the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen campaign -- named after the city’s largest corporatelandlord -- the referendum calls for socialising more than 240,000 apartments.

While Berlin’s crushinghousing costs are an ever-present topic in both the news and conversation, the referendum passingby such a large margin took many by surprise.

“I think the [ruling coalition] is on thin ice here. We got more votes than the whole coalitioncombined,” Chris Koth, an organiser at Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen, told Euronews.

“I think they know if they don’t come up with a magic solution to the housing problem, they’re goingto be in trouble.”

The campaign, which received nearly 50,000 more votes than the collective total of the ruling SPD,Greens, and Left Party, has accused the government of dragging its feet in implementing thereferendum.

For many housing activists, the frustration is rooted in the failure of past attempts to curb Berlin’shousing costs. A rent cap was controversially deemed unconstitutional by the federal constitutionalcourt and overturned in 2021. Many renters were forced to pay back to landlords the savings they had made while the rent cap was in place.

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Recent attempts by the Berlin government to encourage corporate landlords to voluntarily lowerrents have also failed. Expropriating so-called mega landlords is seen by many as a desperate last-ditch attempt to reduce speculation, enshrine housing as a public good, and keep housing costsmanageable.

For Werner, expropriating corporate-owned housing would only be part of a broader solution toBerlin’s housing crisis.

“I will admit that socialising housing won’t expand the city’s housing stock. Expropriation doesn’tcreate new housing. You also need to build, and not the profit-focused construction we typicallysee,” she said.

Is democracy failing Berliners over controversial housing referendum? (2)

One piece of the housing puzzle

Roughly 90,000 of Berlin’s 1.9 million apartments are designated as public housing. The socialhousing stock has dwindled in recent years, as most of the city’s public housing has a 30-year bondbefore entering the private market.

For years, more apartments have fallen out of public hands than new social housing has beendeveloped. Though the city government has committed to building 5,000 new units of publichousing a year, zero applications to build public housing have gone through so far in 2022.

Berlin is also drastically behind plans to build 200,000 units of housing in general within the next 10years.

Those less enthusiastic about expropriating existing housing frequently argue that increasingthe supply of housing -- whether it's subsidised or private -- will help dampen prices. Either way, there is littlebuilding that is getting done.

“Many politicians have argued that we just need to build, build, build to produce more housing andsolve the issue. But this ignored the fact that building is really quite expensive, even before the crisiswith inflation, and the war in Ukraine, so it’s not that simple to just build that much,” said Koth.

Stall tactics or due diligence?

Shortly after the referendum succeeded last year, an organiser with Expropriate Deutsche Wohnentold Euronews that the campaign now had to “turn up the pressure” to ensure the election resultswere enforced. This is proving at least as fierce a battle as getting the referendum passed in the firstplace.

Given that Berlin’s mayor, the SPD’s Franziska Giffey, spoke out clearly against expropriation beforethe election, campaign organisers didn’t expect the implementation of the referendum -- which is technicallynon-binding -- to be a walk in the park.

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In March, the city established a 13-person "expert commission" charged with assessing the legality ofthe draft law proposed by the campaign over the course of a year. Koth and other activists see thisas opponents within the government buying time.

“Obviously we were against the commission. Because it’s a way for the Berlin Senate, or at least theSocial Democrats and Green Party, to put the referendum on hold so they don’t have to do it,” Kothtold Euronews.

The three governing parties and Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen each drafted three members intothe commission, along with a head selected by the senate. The SPD selecting members that hadpublicly criticised expropriation likely wasn’t reassuring to the campaign, but the rest of the expertsseem to largely be supportive of the initiative.

“I think these are generally just normal political processes. I know [members of the campaign] arefrustrated because they view this as a means of putting on the breaks, but I don’t fully see it thatway. It’s an extremely complex question, and it has to truly be airtight, given past defeats at theconstitutional court,” reflected Werner.

Activists re-find their feet

While the commission embarks on its year-long quest to publish a report about the viability of theproposed expropriation law, the campaign has had to shift gears.

“We are kind of in a phase of finding ourselves again. We don’t have a big, practical thing like beforewhere we were collecting signatures and everyone could get involved,” said Koth.

The initiative’s vibrant campaign was highly visible and electrified the electorate. While they’vepartly retreated from the public eye to apply pressure on members of the city government, they arealso planning to use their organisational network to launch tenant organising campaigns that areindependent of the push for expropriation.

Pressuring the governing coalition is another question. Focus has largely been laid on the base of thethree parties, with some positive results in the campaign’s ledger.

This summer, the SPD’s localannual congress voted in favour of carrying out the referendum, meaning ignoring it would pit Giffeydirectly against her party.

The Left Party, the only party in the coalition to openly support the initiative during the election,could also be put in a difficult position depending on what the commission decides. There was a deepinternal debate about whether or not the party should even join the coalition without a clearpromise from partners to carry out the referendum.

In the end, the Left Party joined, with a commitment from leaders to exit the coalition if the push forexpropriation fails.

“If the referendum gets cut out for good, the party will have a huge internalproblem if they don’t leave the coalition,” said Koth.

Still, they likely had a stronger hand to play during initial coalition talks than they will a couple of yearsinto governing. And not only did the Left join the coalition, but they also gave up the housing ministry, whichthey held in the last coalition, to the SPD.

Is democracy failing Berliners over controversial housing referendum? (3)
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Hoping not to need a Plan B

So far, only one of the commission’s monthly meetings has been public. Getting a read on what toexpect can be quite difficult.

“I think I am probably a bit more optimistic about that than a few other people in our campaign. Iexpect that the majority of the commission will say yeah, it’s complicated, but it’s possible. It will besome kind of shade of grey,” speculated Koth.

Werner has fairly similar expectations.

“I think with the current political constellation in government,it’s going to be quite difficult for the referendum to be fully enacted. I think it will probably comedown to some form of compromise, and then the question is whether or not the initiative canswallow those compromises,” she said.

Regardless of what happens, Werner sees the referendum as having made an importantcontribution to Berlin’s housing politics.

“The referendum brought important impulses to life. Topics like rent, affordability, housing as anexistential right, these are things that now are being discussed in broader society and seen as vitaltopics,” said Werner.

“You can’t get around these things. And I think that’s already a major success. And solutions to theseissues, whatever happens, have to be pushed for.”

Though the referendum’s success brought global attention to Berlin’s radical, innovative approach tothe housing crisis, a mere symbolic victory would likely be deeply unsatisfying to the millions ofBerliners struggling with exploding rents. Especially given the glacial pace at which new socialhousing is being built and the cost of living crisis only exacerbating long-standing issues.

If the commission does squash the referendum, or it is killed during its implementation, the initiativehas few options for formal recourse. One would be to enact another referendum, this time legallybinding (which requires having fully-drafted legislation written before starting the referendumprocess, something Koth claims the campaign did not have the resources for the first time around).

“I wouldn’t want to say it’s Plan B. Because actually, all the voters have already said, ‘yeah, we haveto do this’. And that’s a powerful thing,” he said.

With 59% of Berlin’s voters supporting the referendum, there’s plenty of inherent pressure on localpoliticians to deliver. But the lengthy political battle that’s followed the referendum, and that’s sureto continue regardless of what the commission decides, demonstrates just how complicated andunresponsive democracy can be.

Euronews contacted theBerlin Ministry of Urban Development, Building and Housing to comment on this article, but it had not responded by the time of publication.


What was the result of the Berlin expropriation referendum? ›

The referendum took place on 26 September 2021 alongside the state and federal election. The expropriation proposal passed the legal quorum of 25% of eligible voters, receiving the approval of 57.6% of voters, while 39.8% voted against. The result is non-binding.

Is there a housing crisis in Berlin? ›

The German capital, Berlin, a city once known for its low rent, now faces a housing crisis, driven by a sharp increase in rent prices and unsuccessful policies.

Is there a housing crisis in Germany? ›

"We estimate there were around 280,000 apartment completions in 2022, but only around 240,000 in 2023 and only 214,000 in 2024," Axel Gedaschko, the association's head, told DW by email. In fact, he said, Germany is facing at least 10 years of housing shortages.

What are problems in Berlin? ›

But the reality is that the city is struggling with poverty, unemployment, poor infrastructure, a floundering education system, debt, the refugee crisis and crime. Its chronic problems led national newspaper Die Welt to label it a “failed state” in 2014.

Was the Berlin Wall protest successful? ›

The Berlin Wall: 1961-1989

The construction of the Berlin Wall did stop the flood of refugees from East to West, and it did defuse the crisis over Berlin.

What were the main results of the Berlin Crisis? ›

The Berlin Crisis of 1948–1949 solidified the division of Europe. Shortly before the end of the blockade, the Western Allies created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Two weeks after the end of the blockade, the state of West Germany was established, soon followed by the creation of East Germany.


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