While Berlin remains far cheaper than cities like London or New York, its attractive position as capital of Europe’s largest economy and center of countercultural cool has fueled rampant gentrification over the past decade, with rents nearly doubling in a period when wages rose just 34 percent. Despite broad public support for state action to rein in housing costs, most local leaders are vocally opposed, or at least mum, about the specifics of the campaign’s dramatic proposal to socialize roughly 240,000 apartments owned by companies holding 3,000 units or more. Invoking a never-before-used eminent domain clause in German Basic Law, Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen (DW Enteignen) doesn’t shy away from picking ideological battles, starting with its name. Rather than limit its aims to “affordability,” the campaign cuts deeper in its critique of the private housing market itself. As residents featured in one recent ad proclaimed: “Our neighborhood isn’t a financial product.”
In the now-trendy neighborhood Friedrichshain, this idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Bisected by the imposing Karl-Marx-Allee, all housing in the East German district was, not long ago, socialized. Residents of the historically working-class area, with its unornamented apartment blocks and yellow trams, are being priced out by successive waves of newcomers. “All of us have been affected by gentrification,” says lifelong resident Ronja Sorg—who pays three times what her mother does for an apartment a fraction of the size. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, West German money flooded into the neighborhood, buying up property that had been publicly owned under communism. Now, with Berlin emerging as a booming tech hub, international capital has followed. To Sorg, the capital influx is a “slap in the face” to her neighborhood, where wages are still far below those in Western Germany. “People in East Berlin are very frustrated by it.”
To win on Sunday, however, DW Enteignen needs to build a coalition that extends beyond old bastions of the Left Party (Die Linke) like Friedrichshain. Working groups and campaign events take place in Turkish, Arabic, and English. Activists have organized bike demonstrations, techno floats, even a flotilla of boats on the Spree. At an underground queer party last week, a newly formed DW Enteignen cheerleading team, decked out in yellow-and-purple skirts and matching pompoms, invaded the dance-floor, leading party-goers in choreographed “Enteignen!” (Expropriate!) chants. Mateo Argerich, one of the organizers of the cheer squad, thinks of the performance as “a perfect bridge between the campaign and the public.” For activists, the “sassy chants are an outlet and way to renew energy,” while the “tremendous boost of positivity” offered by the team “helps us tell our message in an alluring way.” Since formation, the group has been performing nearly every day at events around the city.
Like many people living in Berlin, Argerich can’t even vote in the referendum. More than 22 percent of Berlin’s adult residents do not have a German passport, disqualifying them from the election. As the city swells with immigrants from both inside and outside of the EU, the majority of people living on some blocks in diverse neighborhoods like Kreuzberg lack political rights. Pedro Marum, who is also disenfranchised, is an organizer for a campaign working group called Right to the City that targets outreach to non-German speakers and migrant communities with the explicit aim to “scandaliz[e] the democratic deficit in the city.” When petitioning for the ballot initiative last spring, the group decided to collect signatures from as many people as possible “no matter whether they were valid or not,” recalls Pedro. “Ultimately, the people who are most affected by the housing crisis are often the people who can’t vote.” Even with noncitizen signatures excluded, DW Enteignen’s petition to prompt the referendum gathered 343,000 signatures by the June 26 deadline—an all-time record.
In contrast to the staid national campaign, DW Enteignen’s grassroots organizers intersperse sharp humor with ideology in their creative strategies to reach voters. On the campaign’s Instagram account, one recent post features a “bullshit bingo” of frequent counterarguments to the proposal, and another a TikTok post of a girl running away from the statement “When someone says: the market will take care of it,” with Mitski’s “Nobody” playing in the background.
While the playful organizing and communication strategy aims to expand the measure’s appeal, DW Enteignen’s perceived ties to hardcore Old Left activists remains a liability. Last year, the center-right CDU even went so far as to file a request with the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, charging that the movement is controlled by non-democratic radicals. While Interior Secretary Torsten Akmann, a member of the SPD, confirmed that the government has “no knowledge that the initiative ‘expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co’ can be largely controlled by left-wing extremists,” the reputation has been hard to shake. In the activist Marum’s eyes, foregrounding the word “expropriate” was a “strategic mishap” that has made it more difficult to talk to voters about the merits of the idea. “It doesn’t give much space for nuanced debate.”
Despite collaborating two years ago to pass the far-reaching “Mietendeckel”(rent cap) law that froze rents for five years, Berlin’s ruling “red-red-green” coalition of the Left Party, Social Democrats (SPD), and Greens is bitterly split over the upcoming referendum. The subsequent repeal of the Mietendeckel law by Germany’s Constitutional Court in April immediately hiked rents by hundreds of euros for many low-income residents—a setback that served both to catalyze the current referendum movement, and spook local policy-makers against bending the local housing market too far. “For me, the subject of expropriation is already a red line” said Franziska Giffey, the SPD candidate for Berlin mayor at a recent Forum hosted by DW Enteignen. “I don’t want to live in a city that sends the signal: This is where expropriation is taking place.”
The ascendent Green Party has tried to stake out some middle ground, calling not for a cap but an “umbrella” of new protections over vast swaths of privately held buildings in negotiation with major real estate companies like Deutsche Wohnen. Bettina Jarasch, the Green candidate expected to win the mayoralty, has said she will personally support the referendum, but called the actual expropriation of apartments under her leadership an “ultima ratio.” “If we can create affordable housing in this way, we don’t need socialization.”
Yet “socialization” is precisely what DW Enteignen wants. That’s stated clearly on its website and even in its name. At a time when housing advocates across the Atlantic concentrate on increasing the supply of affordable units, the DW Enteignen campaign subverts this supply-side logic, focusing instead on community control. While seizing 200,000 of the 1.5 million rental apartments in Berlin is far from a panacea to the city’s housing woes, activists hope the vote this Sunday not only prompts immediate action to lower housing costs but also invites people here and abroad to imagine de-commodifying housing as politically possible and popular.