Berlin voters back call for property expropriation

Berlin updates

Berliners have backed a campaign calling for the city to expropriate apartments owned by corporate landlords, with 56 per cent of voters saying yes to the initiative in a referendum on Sunday.

The vote reflects growing frustration in the German capital over property speculation and skyrocketing rents, which have made Berlin increasingly unaffordable for many residents.

The referendum measure required a simple yes majority from at least a quarter of eligible voters to pass. But the result is not legally binding and Berlin’s municipal government, elected on Sunday, will have to decide how it wants to proceed.

Taking up the expropriation measure would throw Berlin into uncharted legal waters because it draws on a part of the German constitution never used before. It would almost certainly be challenged and end up in Germany’s highest court.

But not acting on the measure would be politically difficult.

“More people voted for our initiative than any single party in Berlin. We got support from every part of Berlin, and across the political spectrum,” said Joanna Kusiak, an activist for the initiative, which calls itself “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co”, because it primarily affects Berlin’s largest landlord, DW.

The campaigners are aiming to target property owners with 3,000 units or more — effectively, corporate landlords, who they accuse of squeezing out lower-income tenants.

A smaller corporate landlord, the Swedish company Akelius, announced it was selling more than 14,000 apartments in Berlin on Sunday, the day of the referendum, although it was not immediately clear if it was in response to the campaign.

“I think the corporate landlords should be nervous,” said Kusiak.

Shareholders did not appear to heed the warning. On Monday, a majority of DW’s shares were taken over by Vonovia, creating one of Europe’s largest real estate companies, pushing its shares up 4.4 per cent.

Vonovia boss Rolf Buch argued that expropriation would not address the root of the housing problem: the need for more apartments to be built.

“Expropriations do not solve the many challenges on the Berlin housing market,” he said.

Fraziska Giffey, who led Berlin’s Social Democrats to a slim victory in the city in Sunday’s municipal election, reiterated her opposition to the property initiative but said the draft laws proposed by campaigners would be checked for their legality.

“If it is not constitutional, then we cannot do it,” she said on Monday.

Kusiak said seven independent legal opinions had already been issued confirming the proposal was legally possible.

She said campaigners would be upping their public pressure to promote their proposed draft laws for expropriation.

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