Berlin Housing Referendum: How Did it Happen and What’s Next?

german flag in front of parliament building in Berlin
Sibéal Devilly initials

22nd of October 2021


The non-binding referendum held in Berlin has sparked hope for the future of renters in more cities than just the German capital. The referendum, which called for the expropriation of giant property landlords (vulture funds) campaigned for throughout the COVID-19 crisis, received enormous support. Receiving a total of 346,000 signatures, campaigners comfortably cleared the threshold of 175,000 needed to secure the referendum being held. The public desire for the referendum comes after Berlin rents have increased 45% in the last five years.


In Berlin, where 86% of residents are renters, the prohibitive rent prices, and a failed attempt at rent control have led people to try and make the government change housing policy. While the referendum is non-binding, meaning the government does not have to follow through on the motion, there is now significant public pressure for a policy change. The referendum calls for the property to be bought back by the state and used as public housing from companies that own over 3000 rental properties. The hope is that 240,000 apartments will be returned to state control, since the sale of public housing during an economic downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s.


The inspiration the referendum holds for Berliners and non-Berliners alike is already apparent, even throughout the campaign many people living in other regions of Germany travelled to the capital city to take part in gaining signatures. The 56% of ‘yes’ votes (to 39% ‘no’) in the referendum outnumbers the votes any German party received in their federal election of the same day as the referendum, signaling that this is a motion that crosscuts political persuasion or party lines, an issue which impacts so many residents of Berlin, that party loyalty doesn’t appear to have been a major player in the passing of the motion.


The reclaiming of property for public use and provision of publicly owned housing would mark a shift away from market-based solutions to market-created problems

If Yes campaigners and voters are successful, this could mean a significant shift in the growing neoliberal norm of vulture funds and corporate real estate companies running rental markets in large cities throughout the world. The shift would set an EU precedent that has the potential to undermine many of the excuses provided by the government of Ireland when it comes to vulture funds here. The reclaiming of property for public use and provision of publicly owned housing would mark a shift away from market-based solutions to market-created problems such as prohibitive rents and build-to-rent developments in Dublin.


The referendum was held with the vote being based around expropriating property held by private companies (vulture funds) which own over 3000 properties. The motion rests on the the government buying back these properties and renting them to the public, in a move to reduce rent profiteering by property giants and re-socialise Berlin housing.


What next?


Campaigners have already drawn up suggested legislative documentation to back up their success in the referendum, using the same-day federal election to bolster their position as new parties look to create a viable coalition.


As for outside Berlin, renters around the world are looking on in hopeful admiration, waiting to see whether the newly elected officials of the region will set a fresh example of housing in the 21st century. In Ireland, where a referendum on the right to housing has been promised by the government, and where the most severe housing crisis, paired with the highest rents are preventing people from moving out of home, or in many cases, attending college, the German grassroots campaign serves as a case study to examine and replicate among ‘Generation Rent’, ‘Generation Locked-Out’ and ‘No Keys No Degrees’ campaigners. The form of the vote by referendum is particularly important in Ireland, where constitutional change is required to tip the scales of favour from protection for landlords, to the provision of housing for the people


Featured photo by Ingo Joseph


This article was supported by: STAND Business and Politics Editor Sean


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