Berlin Voters Want to Expropriate 240,000 Apartments

A potentially watershed vote in the German capital.

2 minute read

September 30, 2021, 6:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


A.Savin / Wikimedia Commons

Berlin voters last weekend approved a nonbinding referendum that urges the city to buy hundreds of thousands of apartments from large real estate companies—a massive response to the financialization of the housing market that could inspire similar responses around the continent and perhaps in the United States.

"On Sunday, voters in the German capital backed a nonbinding referendum that called on the local government to buy hundreds of thousands of housing units from large property companies in the latest bid to control Berlin’s spiraling rent," reports Adam Taylor.

"An estimated 240,000 apartments, about 10 percent of the city’s housing stock, would end up in public hands if the radical proposal is carried out," adds Taylor.

The referendum received 56 percent of the vote, sending a strong message about how the city's residents think about the state of the housing market. Still, the potential of the vote to achieve change is still largely speculative. "The referendum has no legal power," for example, and a previous attempt to counter rising rent in Berlin—by capping housing prices—was overturned by Germany’s top court in April

If the referendum produces the results sought by voters, "this unorthodox approach to municipal housing could reverberate far outside the German capital," according to sources cited by Taylor.

Alexander Vasudevan, an associate professor in human geography at the University of Oxford, wrote for The Guardian earlier this week that the vote could be a catalyst for municipal housing movements all over Europe. As noted by Taylor, rent is lower in Berlin than many other major cities around the world. "Renting a two-bedroom apartment in Berlin cost less than a third of what a similar apartment in Hong Kong or San Francisco would cost, Deutsche Bank has estimated, and half of a similar apartment in Paris or London."

Still, rents are rising in Berlin, threatening the quality of life benefits of accessible housing in Berlin, and some of the primary appeal of the city to many residents.

"In a city where roughly 85 percent of residents rent rather than own, the rental market has been squeezed the hardest, with rents increasing by 42 percent over the past five years — the most of any German city, Berliner Zeitung reported this year."

The news follows less than a month after several large cities in The Netherlands expressed the desire to take advantage of recent legal changes to crackdown on large private real estate investors.

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