Berlin, Germany may soon begin freeing renters from the clutches of big landlords, if a new citizen-led proposal is successful.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported on a campaign led by Berlin resident Rouzbeh Taheri, a tenants rights activist organizing to break up big landlords who he says are driving up the cost of living in Germany’s capital. If successful, the initiative would seize properties from landlords that own at least 3,000 apartment units — a process known as expropriation — and rent them out to tenants for a more affordable price.
Last weekend, German publication Berliner Zeitung (Berlin Newspaper in English) reported that Taheri is targeting approximately a dozen commercial landlords — most specifically Deutsche Wohnen, a company that collectively rents out approximately 112,000 apartments within Berlin, and 160,000 apartments throughout Germany. According to Berliner Zeitung, Deutsche Wohnen posted a 2018 profit of €1,900,000,000 euros ($2.12 billion USD).
“We have to put a stop signal against the rent madness,” Taheri told the Zeitung (translated from German) “Housing is a human right…A radical reality of life also demands radical solutions.”
Taheri justified the campaign by citing Articles 14 and 15 of the German Constitution, the former of which lays out governance of property and expropriation, and the latter of which describes the nationalization process. Article 14 states that expropriation of private property “shall only be permissable for the public good,” and “may only be ordered by or pursuant to a law that determines the nature and extent of compensation.”
This means that if Taheri’s petition is passed, Berlin — and possibly German parliament — would have to pass a law laying out the process by which the large commercial landlords would have their properties seized, and how they would be paid for the expropriation.
And it’s likely the initiative would face an uphill legal battle in Germany’s courts. While Article 15 of the German Constitution states that “Land, natural resources and means of production may, for the purpose of nationalisation, be transferred to public ownership or other forms of public enterprise,” the real estate industry’s lawyers would likely dispute that apartment buildings would fall under Article 15’s definition.
Still, Taheri is determined to succeed in his expropriation campaign given the cost of rental housing in Berlin. The Zeitung reported that average rent prices in Berlin have doubled in the last ten years.
“Even with existing rents and purchase prices, there is only one direction: upwards. The level of Munich or Stuttgart has not been reached yet. But in districts like Prenzlauer Berg or Mitte, even normal earners have little chance of affordable housing,” the Zeitung reported.
American renters may start to pursue similar radical solutions, given the ceaseless rise in the cost of rental housing. In San Jose, California, for example, housing is so expensive that teachers in San Jose schools have to commute approximately two hours each way, as they can’t afford to live anywhere close to where they teach.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.