Interview by Michel Jungwirth and Daniel Gutiérrez. Interviewees: Hannes and Jan, AG Starthilfe.


October 9, 2019

First off: What is Deutsche Wohnen? And why do you want to expropriate it?

HDeutsche Wohnen is not a housing company. It’s a financial instrument. It is involved in housing because of the lucrativity. It’s not involved in housing because its looking to give quality housing to people. And that’s a big problem.

Originally established by Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Wohnen bought great swathes of property, especially in Berlin. They own roughly 160,000 flats in Germany, making them the second biggest property owner in the market, and own around 110,000 flats in Berlin alone.

A great deal of these flats were previously under public ownership and were acquired through privatization initiatives, especially those in Berlin in the mid-2000s. But they also came to own a great deal of apartments through the privatization of Deutsche Bahn, the previously state owned rail company, that owned a lot of housing for its workers that was recently privatized.

These two pools are the major sources of the properties they own in Berlin.

Deutsche Wohnen is highly aggressive. It’s strategy is primarily composed of the deployment of three primary tactics:

  1. They save costs in housing. Typically, when these housing projects were publicly owned, every building had its own janitor who lived in the project with their partner. So if there was a problem with, say, the plumbing, they could immediately go to the janitor who would immediately fix it. These janitors were the first to go through outsourcing processes. Aside from this, due to profit-seeking inventives, they wait as long as possible to repair or upgrade facilities. Everything from garbage collection, repairs, etc. This effectively made public housing rubbish. Under German law, if something is broken (say, a window) the landlord has to fix it. In order to postpone the cost, they postpone servicing. Everyone that lives under Deutsche Wohnen knows how it is just to get a hold of the right office to fix the problem, let alone that office picking up the phone.

  2. The second mechanism occurs through “modernization” initiatives which tenants have to pay. So the first thing Deutsche Wohnen does upon acquiring a property is begin modernization procedures, allowing them to raise rents, because they know they’ll get their return on investment. This has lead to massive rent hikes that range between 40 and 60 percent, effectively forcing many to move out of their homes.

  3. The third mechanism is not proven because its illegal, but they mess with the nebenkosten (the costs associated to utilities). This price is adjusted on a yearly basis and tacked on to monthly rents. It’s not proven, but since they outsource all their costs, the nebenkosten measurement is also outsourced. What’s more, its outsourced to subsidiary companies of Deutsche Wohnen itself. We suspect that the cost is artificially inflated as a way to raise rent – simultaneously saving on the cost of the measurement and raising profit. Vonovia [Germany’s largest real estate company] was taken to court multiple times over such practices.

These three practices form the core of their market strategy and has become the general practice of their home ownership. This allows them to increase profits and makes them a big hit on the stock exchange [this was the case until June 6, when investors reacted to news of the City freezing rents due to grassroots pressure].

JImportant to note that BlackRock, Inc. [an American investment management corporation] and a Norweigan pension fund are the biggest shareholders of Deutsche Wohnen. Deutsche Wohnen refuses to accept [to link their rents to] the main regulatory rent index, called the Mietspiegel.

Context: How did we get to the point that expropriation is on the table. There weren’t tens of thousands of people fighting for this four years ago, but here we are…

JBerlin is a tenant city. 85 percent of the population are tenants. Of course, what got us to the point where we are today is attributed to the effects of a long process of financialization and privatization. And this started when Social Democrats [SPD] and Die Linke [then PDS - Party for Democratic Socialism – which was itself the left-wing remnant of the left-wing of the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party] privatized large portions of social housing in 2004 – following on neoliberalization programs in the 1990s already. Since 2004, the development of a housing crisis commences.

At that point, protests primarily revolved around [large commercial re-development] megaprojects like Mediaspree , and the like. Despite the fact that Berlin has a long history of tenant struggles, the new cycle around tenant issues didn’t become an issue until later and its connected to the financial crisis of 2007/2008.

HIn the context of market turbulence, after 2008, Berlin’s real-estate was targeted as a relatively safe harbor for capital investment. Compared to other major metropolises, Berlin was a cheap city. The investment into the recently privatized housing sectors helped spur the rent spike.

JOf course, the privatization of public housing enacted by the SPD and Die Linke [PDS] Berlin government exists within the broader context of the triumph of neoliberalization in Germany that was heralded by the SPD-Green federal coalition government, headed by Gerhard Schröder in 1998. The SPD-Green government, which had come in to power in ‘98, had already liberalized the housing market allowing its securitization. This occurred alongside the implementation of other neoliberal cuts and reforms that the SPD and the Greens spearheaded.

HIt was a neoliberal zeitgeist at that time. And PDS fell in line. But back then, a housing-crisis did not exist. You could easily find a flat. This condition actually facilitated the implementation of neoliberal reforms because there were no objections.

JIt’s also important to note that it was the first time the PDS was in government since the fall of the wall. The former government was a CDU-SPD coalition and they fell apart as a result of a housing scandal over banks (“Bankenskandal”). It was a real-estate scandal. They (PDS) became part of the Berlin government, together with SPD, replacing CDU. They carried the weight of the scandal because it was the price they had to pay to become part of the Berlin government. They always had a reputation of being DDR Socialists. To counter that they took on the responsibility of the “Bankenskandal” as well.
Handling the “Bankenskandal” resulted in financial loss and debt for Berlin which made the privatizations seem necessary.

HEven in 2011, the Berlin Minister of Housing refused to admit to the actuality of a housing crisis. This was the party-line of the Social Democrats. “There’s no problem, there’s no problem – there’s plenty of housing to go around.” But for those living the neoliberalization, the reality was completely and obviously different. There was a feelable drift between what the politicians at the helm of government were saying and what tenants were actually experiencing.

I moved here from a rural part of the country – like many people do – in order to attend university. It was 2002 and it was easy to find a decent and attractive apartment at the city center. Today, its completely different. For every flat open to rent, there are dozens, hundreds of people lined up to take it. The rent has doubled across the city over the last decade, but along particular and popular neighborhoods you’ll find the rent has gone up even higher. This is a housing crisis that isn’t located just to the city center, but across the entire city itself – spreading beyond the city-state itself into Brandenburg and the surrounding towns and cities.

Berlin is not a rich city. Unemployment is still quite high, many of the jobs that exist certainly qualify as precarious, well-paid industrial jobs are few – all of this combines to form a situation in which the cost of the rent is increasingly incongruent with the incomes of the inhabitants – meaning that the “middle-classes” are increasingly affected themselves.

JA large section of the population hands over more than 40 percent of its income to rent, simultaneously pushing people either out of the city or into homelessness. I’m forty, I was born in Berlin, and never in my life have seen such destitution.

HThis even leads to inter-generational problems. Youth increasingly are either forced to live with their parents longer or are forced to move back in. Its not at all uncommon to find three generations living in a single flat. The conditions are more reminiscent to the 19th century than the 21st.

The broad affect of the housing crisis across multiple social sectors explains why so many want the situation to change.

So how did the Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen (Deutsche Wohnen Expropriation) campaign start? From our talks with other housing organizers, there appears to have been multiple starting points – from singular tenant initiatives to broader referendum initiatives to discussions in radical left organizations – that all seemed to converge and build up to this moment.

HThe idea of expropriation and the Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen campaign in particular is not new. It’s a couple of years old. Kotti and Co. – a tenant initiative which was formed seven years ago [and organizes tenants around the famous Kottbusser Tor housing] – had a leaflet in 2016 that demanded the expropriation of Deutsche Wohnen. We had protests for a couple of years, but it didn’t work out. To be honest, nobody reacted to it. No leftist group. No other tenant initiatives.

One important factor in the build-up to the Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen campaign was the Otto Suhr Initiative . The Otto Suhr Siedlung is a housing project in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg next to the Kotti and Co. housing project. Three years ago Kotti and Co. were informed about a coming “modernization” initiative that financial companies use as a mechanism to raise rents.

According to law, property owners can spread the cost of the modernization onto the tenants, allowing owners to shift the cost of modernization by means of a levy. After nine years you’ve got your return on your investment, but you’ve also acclimated your tenants to the new cost, allowing an opening to further raise the rent. So they get their investment back, but not only fail to reduce the rent after the investment was paid back, but raise the rent even further. It’s a cash cow.

This became a major and commonplace mechanism that Deutsche Wohnen deployed as a means to raise profits not only in Berlin, but everywhere in Germany.

So we – members of the Right to the City working group of Interventionist Left and those that would go on to found the Jumpstart Working Group (AG Starthilfe) - were informed by Kotti and Co. that this was mechanism was beginning to be deployed at the Otto Suhr Siedlung and so we began a tenant initiative began about three years ago that lead to a success in fighting back against rent.

The point is, however, that while Kotti and Co. and the Otto Suhr Initiative were successful in beating back some of these assaults, the problem remained that these financial companies still owned the housing. We needed to find a new tool to fight these companies, but didn’t know how to move forward.

HConcurrent to this, in 2015, there was a tenant’s referendum that proposed a law to reform public housing toward more non-profit ends because even the public companies were making profit in order to fill city coffers. The referendum was successfully won. On the one hand the 2015 referendum was successful because it pushed the politicians to do something about housing. At the same time, a paragraph in the referendum proposal was discovered to be illegal under EU law, leading to a negotiation that in turn lead to a compromise resulting in a watered-down law.

Nonetheless, what was so important was the experience that the initiative generated. It also made visible how popular the demand for better housing conditions was. And it made visible the need for a public housing apparatus that wasn’t neoliberal, but social. And what we see now is a continuity of the people that worked on that referendum now working on the current referendum to expropriate.

So what we had was a pool of good ideas – referendum work, tenant organization work. And we also had a pool of experienced people who were trained [in these kinds of struggles]. And also a series of connections between political organizations, organic tenant initiatives made up of people that do not see themselves as activists, and people from the first referendum.

A new mixture formed out of these parts.

There’s a saying in German that when there’s a good idea, it’s felt in the air. And it was in the air. We needed something bigger. Tenant organizations are important but they’re not enough. We need a more powerful weapon.

JAnd the people saw that parliamentary process was not enough, that there was a space for a grassroots intervention.

This lead to a new referendum process demanding the expropriation of large property owners that has fundamentally changed the discursive terrain around housing and rent not only in Berlin, but across Germany – getting the attention even of international newspapers. The very question of property is on the table. None of us thought this would be so big so quickly. Our campaign launch saw more than 15,000 people sign the petition to demand expropriation. Day one. That was a morale booster.

And its shifted the entire relations of force. Die Linke and the Greens – parties instrumental in past neoliberalization – have now effectively been forced to support the measure due to grassroots pressure.

HIt’s in an incredible tool that is empowering to the grassroots because of this legal option – and is constitutionally possible – that would give tenants power over property rather than capitalists. This has lead to discussions of what democratization will mean among the grassroots, because for many, its not enough that the state owns it – its a question of what it will mean for the tenants to control it themselves.

Let’s talk about organizing. As in other parts of the global north, in Germany there is a nascent turn away from a transformative approach based on mobilizing, and towards an approach based on organizing. Fundamental to this strategy is systematically organizing social bases the do not identify themselves as activists but come to see themselves as agents. From what we understand, organizing as an approach or strategy has been a key component in this campaign machine, no?

HIt’s critical to understand that Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen campaign is composed of different parts. It’s not only a referendum. That’s one thing we learned from the 2015 referendum: it has to be bigger and better.

We have three major parts.

The first is the referendum, which is a legal measure, that if successful, it becomes a law, making it a powerful instrument.

The second component is the actions, something that we didn’t do much in the past. For example, once a year Deutsche Wohnen has its shareholder summit in Frankfurt – because they are afraid to do it in Berlin. We go there every year and make a big rally. This provided a lot of news coverage for the initiative and was something important for our base. We also have big tenant demonstrations throughout the city and form blocs within the demonstration according to the different owners - Deutsche Wohnen, Vonovia, etc. These are things that the action working group of the Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen campaign concerns itself with.

The third part – the most important, in my opinion, and it’s about organizing – is our AG Starthilfe, which means “jump start,” like a car, in English.

JWe already highlighted that there was a great deal of experience that was accumulated over the various struggles within the field of housing. People who were involved in these initiatives had the idea to make a systematic effort to help housing initiatives get off the ground.

Everyone had the same problem at the beginning. You can identify and help out others in order to bypass those problems and develop a good strategy and a good start.

HAll the tenants from all over Berlin have problems with the same shit that we outlined out at the beginning. Many of them try to form initiatives. Often its single individuals. But there’s always this problem in starting things. How do you start something? So we said, we have to transmit our experiences to these people so that they can organize themselves against Deutsche Wohnen.

The referendum is important. Its a powerful tool. But it will help us in the future – months, maybe even years from now. Maybe we win, but what about now? Tenants are facing issues now. Its not enough for them to get Deutsche Wohnen in public hands years from now when they have to leave their homes.

This is why we have Starthilfe. The major thing we wrote a brochure on our experiences, and we give it to tenant initiatives. Of course that’s not enough. So we also provide a ton of workshops. For example, “How to Get in Touch with your Neighbors.” That’s one.

Workshops are always on a Saturday. It’s a whole day. We provide food. And we invite single tenants who want to fight against Deutsche Wohnen, but also newly built initiatives that already exist, or anyone else who is interested.

It works great specifically because we reach the actually affected bases. When we’re organizing, and having one-on-ones with tenants, or doing doorknocking, that’s when we invite them to come to the workshops.

Key to the training is providing workshops on making good meetings. Everyone knows this is difficult. We also provide trainings on organizing actions and another on PR – how to talk to politicians, how to talk to the press.

JIn this way, we help people with their immediate existential threats, rather than have them passively wait for something in the future.

Now someone told me about a “blitz” technique. Tell me about this.

HWhen there’s new initiatives, we got a handful - maybe one or two - of people that are lonely and lacking confidence. Being the “jump start” working group, we make blitzes [door knocking campaigns that form around specific housing structures that serve as a form of inquiry and mapping].

We tell them if they can get together five or ten people, we’ll bring at least ten of ours. Then we do door knocking, we invite people to the first tenant meeting. In a recent case, out of 1,000 residents, 250 people showed up to the first meeting following the blitz. We supported the meeting, helped set it up, and helped them make a power map of the whole project, identifying connections and charting a structure-building processes for the entire housing project.

JIt’s an incredible experience of solidarity. Without such a tool, its easy for people to be overwhelmed by the organizing processes. But just this small measure of solidarity has powerful effects.

HFor every blitz we call upon members from our “jump starter pool” – a pool of more than 80 volunteers, mostly students, who are called upon to participate in these blitzes. Every blitz is roughly four hours. Hour one: training messaging. Then we blitz two hours. Then we do a debrief for an hour.

Our hope is that by constantly doing blitzes, that the pool members begin to do these on their own. This is actually a new technique that we borrowed from the trade union movement that, in fact, got it from the American unions.

It’s interesting though, because when we talk to people from other contexts, they all focus on the referendum. And I’m not denying its importance. But the most important thing is base-building. It’s not the referendum – it’s the last 10 or 15 years of many, many people. That’s the reason why the impact is so high.


Jumpstart can be contacted at: [email protected]


authors

Daniel Gutiérrez (@_dierrez_)

Daniel Gutiérrez is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Freie Univeristät. His research focuses on the composition of student struggles following the financial crisis of 2008. Since 2015, he has been organizing with Solidarity City Berlin, a migrant’s right to the city organization and is a founding member of the Berlin movement school, Werkstatt für Bewegungsbildung.

Michel Jungwirth

Michel Jungwirth studied Political Science at the University of Vienna. He lives and oganizes in Berlin around issues of migrant and refugee solidarity. He is also part of Solidarity City Berlin and a founding member of the Berlin movement school, Werkstatt für Bewegungsbildung.