Residents in Berlin, fed up with increasingly high rents, have secured a referendum on housing that could have reverberations across Europe.

Housing activists want voters to support their push to expropriate more than 200,000 housing units from the city’s largest landlords and transfer them to public ownership. The referendum takes place Sunday, along with Berlin’s state elections and Germany’s federal election. But the vote is non-binding and even if it succeeds will face fierce opposition. 

Jonas Becker is the spokesperson for Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen, the group behind the referendum, and is also a renter. 

Here is part of Becker’s conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off: 

How often does the cost of rent come up in conversation among people who live in Berlin?

Almost always. 

It’s really the most important topic, especially nowadays when we have the state election coming up and our referendum.

Is it hard to find a place to rent or is it the affordability question that’s really at issue?

It’s a mixture of both … but an apartment that you can afford — where you don’t have to pay too much of your income — that is almost incredibly hard to find in Berlin.

Jonas Becker is the spokesperson for the group, Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen. They’re asking voters in a referendum on Sunday to expropriate housing units of the city’s biggest landlords. (Submitted by Jonas Becker)

Is that across the board? Is it low-income people? How far does it go into your society that you have to pay a very large part of your income in rent?

That’s really a problem that also affects the middle class incomes, not only low or medium income households. 

But you also have families sometimes where both parents work and get a decent wage, or a medium income wage, who don’t find affordable housing in the city and that is really a problem that concerns everyone in Berlin.

And so what is this referendum asking voters to consider?

More than 80 per cent of Berliners are tenants and the rents have doubled in the last 10 to 15 years. So that is really a very important topic.

We want to really get to the root of the problem, which is from our perspective, that corporate landlords take the rent in order to make profits and are responsible for the increasing rents.

That’s why we want to expropriate corporate landlords who have more than 3,000 apartments in the city, in order to lower rents and in order for the apartments to be publicly administered.

From our perspective, the rent should not go into the dividends for shareholders, but rather into either lower rents, or into the buildings​​​​​​.- Jonas Becker

Activists, people campaigning to get affordable housing everywhere, including in cities in Canada, are often calling for exactly this … that big companies that make a lot of money off of rent and pay it to their shareholders, they protest against that. But how difficult was it to actually get this onto a referendum?

It was very difficult because Germany has, for obvious historical reasons, very high legal barriers for direct democracy. So that’s why we had to enter three different phases in which we had to collect signatures in order to get our referendum validated.

Now we are on to our referendum and that took us over two years. So it’s a lot of effort that we’ve put into it. And it shows that it really is a very important question for most Berliners.

Because it is an issue for a city that was once divided between two political systems, right? To actually ask that your city socialize your housing. Take from the rich and give to the poor. Is that controversial in Berlin?

It sounds controversial and it sometimes is. But most of the time we can very plausibly argue that what we want to achieve was just the normal status in the whole western Europe and even West Germany throughout the 60s and 70s, where a large amount of buildings were publicly administered, which were not profit-driven or like handled by corporations.

So it doesn’t really have anything to do with the two political systems that were, for a long time, part of our city in Berlin. But it is rather a question of affordable housing and the development that for many people poses a real problem and a threat.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the soaring living costs of tenants. (Paul Zinken/AFP/Getty)

Are there particular big mega landlords that you’re pursuing in this? Are there particular ones that are actually named in this referendum?

Yeah, I mean, the name of our initiative is Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen, which means that Deutsche Wohnen obviously is one of the corporate landlords we want to expropriate. 

Others are, for example, Vonovia and … Akelius, that are really companies from not only within Germany, but also from Europe and other parts of the globe who we see as the main problem because they only want to engage on the real estate market in order to make profits. 

This company, Akelius, which is based in Stockholm, owns a lot of properties in Montreal and Toronto, so I’m sure people are quite interested in what you’re saying. But what your issue is that these companies, that a lot of them are owned by hedge funds … corporations that are paying dividends to shareholders and so they have a vested interest in keeping the rents quite high. 

Exactly. That is the root of our problem. We don’t have a problem with the companies itself, but it’s rather the necessity for those companies in the system in which they are acting that they have to raise rents in order to make profits, in order to give dividends to their shareholders. 

From our perspective, the rent should not go into the dividends for shareholders, but rather into either lower rents, or into the buildings, or into buying and building new buildings. 

What might the cost of this referendum that was passed, what might it actually be for Berlin?

We are relying on Article 15 of the German constitution. And in Article 14 it is stated that the compensation sum, that we would have to pay to the corporate landlords in order to get the apartments, must be balanced between the interests of the public and the corporations. 

The Senate stated that the 39 billion euros, which is the market value of the apartments, is the upper maximum of this balance and, obviously, zero euros would be the opposite. So in order to really find a balance, it must be somewhere in between. And that’s why we say it should be around 13 or 11 billion euros, because that would be a balance between the interests of the corporations and of the public.

A demonstrator wears a face protection mask reading “Yes! Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen” as she takes part in a protest against the soaring living costs of tenants, in Berlin. Deutsche Wohnen is one of the city’s biggest landlords. (Paul Zinken/AFP/Getty Images)

The opponents are saying that even if you’re successful in this referendum, that it’s unconstitutional, on that you’re going to have all kinds of legal challenges and political chaos. How do you respond to that?

We’ve already had a very long and intense process of legal explanations for our referendum, when the Senate had to validate our referendum, and it did so. 

We are relying on the constitution. And most of the legal experts we have consulted say that Article 15 of the German constitution, which we rely on and has never been triggered before, exactly wants to provide the possibility of socialization. And that is the exact nature of our referendum. 

So that’s why it’s not really fair of people to call that unconstitutional, because it is the nature of this constitution’s article.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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