Today, thousands of residents of Berlin took to the streets to express their anger over increasing rents and to demand the expropriation of over 200,000 apartments that are sold off to big private landlords, which they accuse of changing the character of the city.
The activists have begun collecting signatures for a ballot proposal that would demand that the city take back properties from any landlord that owns over 3,000 apartments. Some polls suggest that such a measure could pass, urging the city to consider spending billions of euros acquiring privatised housing back.
The protestors marched through the city centre under a giant model shark with banners read “against rent sharks and speculators.”
In an interview with Reuters television, Rouzbeh Taheri, one of the organisers of the protest, stated: “We have had very bad experiences with these property companies for years, and we know that they answer to their shareholders and not to tenants. We don’t want them in our city any more.”
For decades after the unification in 1990, Berlin became a magnet for musicians, students, and artists who are drawn by housing that was far cheaper as compared to other the major cities of Europe. Approximately 85 percent of Berliners rent their homes rather than own them.
However, according to a study conducted by immowelt.de., an online housing portal, with an influx of some 40,000 people per year in the last decade, the rents have more than doubled since 2008. The city is no longer a bargain for newcomers, and many of its longer-term residents claim that they are struggling.
Among the properties that have already been sold off to the private sector are several of the large landmark Communist-era housing projects that were built as showpieces under former East Germany. Most of them have been acquired in recent years by the largest landlord in the city with approximately 115,000 flats, Deutsche Wohnen.
The campaigners call their movement “expropriate Deutsche Wohnen.” They have six months to gather 20,000 signatures and until February 2020 to collect another 170,000 to force a referendum. A February poll revealed that 44 percent of Berliners support renationalising flats, while 39 percent are against it.
Deutsche Wohnen and some other landlords say that the spectre of expropriation could only worsen the problem by hindering new construction. Michael Zahn, the Chief Executive of Deutsche Wohnen, stated: “Expropriation brings no relief for the drastically tight housing market in the capital.”
The Senate of Berlin estimates the cost of buying back the properties at up to 36 billion euros ($41 billion). The Social Democrats who lead the coalition that governs the city claim that such funds would be better spent building housing instead of re-nationalising it. They instead are in proposing for a five-year rent freeze.
In an interview with Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Andrea Nahles, the national leader of the Social Democrat, stated: “I understand the anger against property firms that want to squeeze every cent out of renters. But expropriation takes years and doesn’t create a single apartment.”