Expropriating Berlin

An Interview with Oskar Stolz

A powerful tenant movement in Berlin triggered a referendum to expropriate the city’s landlords. This is how they did it.

In Germany, political polarization has drastically increased in recent years. The right-wing nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has surged alarmingly in regional elections over the last year, while the traditional parties of the center, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) have seen declining support and internal disarray. Formed in 2007, the Left Party (Die Linke) has held onto its seats in the national parliament (Bundestag), with varying results regionally. Over the last two years, however, the Berlin left has successfully oriented the political discourse around a refreshingly visionary left-wing agenda: expropriation of the major corporate landlords. An ascendant tenant movement took the city by storm in the spring and summer of 2019, triggering a referendum on the question of taking back housing into the public hands. Meanwhile, polls show more people support expropriation than oppose it. Although the referendum is currently under legal review to determine whether expropriation is compatible with Germany’s constitution, most evidence shows that it is.

Sean Larson of Rampant sat down with Left Party and marx21 member Oskar Stolz to learn how such a spectacular movement came into being, what organizing really looked like on the ground, and what organizers in the US should know in order to replicate their success.

SL: Can you give us a little background on the expropriation movement? Why now, what provoked the movement?

OS: After the financial crisis of 2008–9, low interest rates made Berlin real estate a very attractive investment, prompting international corporations and hedge funds to scoop up public property in Berlin. The words of a banker during the 2008 crisis have always stood out to me: “I invest in raw materials in Mongolia, or real estate in Berlin.” Then there were two steps by which they started to raise the rents. Because this was public housing, there is a form of rent control for a period of about ten years after the buildings are purchased, but after that the investors are able to raise the rent up to the average market value. That’s the first phase.

The second phase involved energy renovations, i.e. they renovate the apartments and claim to make them “climate-friendly.” That basically means they slap on really poor-quality thermal insulation on the buildings. But the kicker is that they can then pass all of the costs on to the tenants—that was approved as law by a coalition of the SPD and the Greens! This allows them to raise the rents up to eleven percent per year. That means if someone invests a million euros, they can pass on 111,000 euros per year onto the tenants, and then after nine years they get the full amount back and the rents remain at the same increased level, they aren’t reduced again. By doing this they also make the property even more valuable, it’s completely shameless. And the best part is, all the tenants report that their heating costs have barely dropped. So, the whole thing is just a giant swindle.

What has the reaction been like on the ground and what does the movement look like?

In Berlin there is a very vital, very healthy tenant movement. For example, we have large demonstrations every year, one of the big two tenant alliances is called Rental Madness. Rental Madness encompasses around 150 initiatives, all doing organizing like we have been doing in the neighborhood of Gropiusstadt, but across the whole city. Many of them are organized by the Left Party, but not all of them. There are tenants, there are leftists, and there are just people who feel taken advantage of who are involved. The organizing and public discussion lasted three quarters of the last year, and so far this has resulted in the passage of a law in Berlin called the “rent freeze,” which says that rents cannot be increased for five years. That came about because this strong extra-parliamentary movement really exerted a lot of pressure. And that is what forced the parliament to finally react.

You organize with the Neukölln district of the Left Party. What was your initial motivation for going to Gropiusstadt to organize there?

Take a look at this map of election results in the district.

Map of 2017 national Bundestag election results in Berlin.

You can see on the map here, in the red circle, is north Neukölln. We (the Left Party) are pretty well anchored in the north. In this case pink is the left, red is the SPD, blue is the AfD, and black is of course the CDU. In north Neukölln, which is in West Berlin, the Left Party achieved probably the best results in the entire West of Germany during the last elections, polling somewhere between thirty and thirty-eight percent there. And then further south, on the border with Brandenburg, is Gropiusstadt. Nearly 38,000 people live in Gropiusstadt in 18,500 apartments. There is a red patch and then all around it is black (CDU) because those are single-family homes. That means there are no prefabs, no large apartments in the surrounding areas, but Gropiusstadt is essentially 38,000 proletarians. Ninety percent of that is social housing, cheaply constructed buildings made from precast concrete slabs (“prefabs”). They were built in the mid-1960s and the neighborhood is actually a traditional Social Democratic stronghold. They also do quite well at the polls today, and the neighborhood has been fought over by many parties: the SPD, the CDU, the AfD, and of course, we the Left Party are trying to build up there.

It’s a really nice neighborhood, actually. It is very green, you have good connections to public transport, there are good shopping facilities, schools, day care centers—everything is right there. If the big corporations weren’t there, it would be really wonderful for so many people.

Gropiusstadt. Photo by Oskar Stolz

In Gropiusstadt there has been a big push to do energy-efficient renovations, which then translate to rent increases of thirty to forty percent, or an increase of between 170 and 250 euros per month [$184–270]. The investors come in and say, I will renovate your house, your prefab, and after that you have to pay 170 euros more or 250 euros more per month. And for many, that means a thirty to forty percent increase in rent, which is pretty brutal. There are a lot of people with an immigrant background, single parents, many pensioners, people with really low-income. So, it is far worse. The second problem is asbestos, which was used in the construction of the buildings there.

What was your approach to tenant organizing going in and how did that play out?

Since December 2018 when we started organizing in Gropiusstadt, we have picked up on a cycle and gone through it several times. The cycle is as follows: when the announcement about the renovations and rent increase comes, in our case at end of November, there is a lot of momentum in launching the organizing. There is one organizing approach where people talk, find out what the concerns are, etc., which can quickly move into the territory of social work. I’m looking for places where there is a collective conflict. In those cases, an entire apartment building, with a hundred tenants, faces the same existential threat from a rent increase. So, in the cycle, there is the moment of launch, then a phase of actions, and then there is a process of generalizing the problem at a higher level than just how it affects an individual. This is perhaps the first political moment: not just “I’m responsible for my own house,” but, “I am also responsible for the neighboring house,” and the development of a tenant movement for all of Gropiusstadt.

We start with classic door-to-door conversations. We walk through the corridors and ring the doorbells. In our case, GropiusWohnen—an investment firm with several thousand apartments—is the target. We go to a door in a building, introduce ourselves as members of the Left Party, invite people to the community center around the corner to organize, help plan actions, etc. Just to briefly note here, there is an autonomist idea that when you start this process, basically all decisions and all planning should be put onto the tenants. I don’t think that would work. We also met as Left Party members and discussed our assessments of the situation. And our role is and was very important. The idea that, once triggered, the whole process runs by itself is an illusion.

One highlight in the first cycle we went through on the Löwensteinring street was an open letter, written by the tenants. In a building with a hundred apartments, ninety-five of which are occupied, eighty-five apartments signed this letter. And the tenants did it themselves, went from door-to-door, collected the signatures, and then we made an inquiry at the Neukölln local parliament. In this picture, you can see us all sitting on the upper balcony of the parliament together.

Tenant activists in the Neukölln local parliament.

Down on the main floor of the parliament, a tenant asked a question and then handed this letter over to the politicians. Even that was already crossing a line into mild civil disobedience because doing that is not allowed, you are actually only allowed to ask one question. Four tenants at the top had our banner and unrolled it when she read the question. It reads “High rents and asbestos are a pile of crap.” As soon as the tenants unfurled the banner, the parliamentary overseer leading the session—a 6’6” CDU politician steeped in parliamentary procedure for decades—immediately rebuked us in a neo-fascist tone: “Roll up that banner immediately or you will be ushered out of the hall!” In response, they quickly rolled up the banner, but then said to themselves no, we didn’t come here for this, and then unfurled the banner again! And that was a real moment of empowerment: this is our room now! All of us got goosebumps. Then we held a spontaneous demonstration, it was one of the best experiences.

The campaign has involved various other things: we held an event and invited a comrade to speak on the subject of asbestos. We attended the big Rental Madness demonstrations too, which is a very important point that I’ll come back to. There was good media coverage of all of this. The topic of asbestos was really important as well. One neighbor had photographic proof that the construction companies handled things catastrophically, breaking the asbestos panels in the apartments and thus releasing all this dust into the air. There were other stories: prefabs like this in front of a kindergarten, Bulgarian workers without protective equipment, all of it really catastrophic.

In response, we set up an emergency phone line and made everyone in the building aware of it, and then had two trained tenants who, if they got a call about an asbestos situation, immediately called the police, for example, and that would force construction to stop. And that actually led the construction companies to change and start to thoroughly clean out the asbestos.

Gropiusstadt demonstration outside a prefab building.

As a first step after the renovation, we held a rally. It was one of the best rallies I’ve ever attended. At the rally, one of the speakers was a blind neighbor who is active in a homeless initiative and gave a speech about refugees. His speech moved people, he got standing ovations. So, when you talk about left-wing populism, that was left-wing populism, it was terrific. And so was the whole rally. We had a lot of tenants speak and tell their stories.

Meanwhile, we have done this cycle in five to six buildings. Over the course of that process, we managed to found an umbrella organization—the so-called Tenants Roundtable, or Gropius Tenants Roundtable—which is a regular meeting with neighbors, where we all have something to eat and a political discussion. Last summer between fifty and seventy tenants met once a month to plan together.

Gropiusstadt tenants meeting.

These meetings illustrate a good point about politics. At one of them we had one of the leaders of the other major citywide tenant coalitions, “Expropriate DW & Co,” speaking. Typically, if you were to say the word “expropriate” in West Berlin, people would run for the door. The cool thing is that through the process just described, we created a space where fifty tenants could come to understand expropriation as something like socialization, taking property back into the hands of the tenants, and support it.

And afterwards we go into planning: who collects how many signatures in their building. We would hand out the signature lists, sometimes using a buddy system—I went with a tenant, Gabi, to her massive building with two hundred apartments, we made plans to meet up on two weekends and we rang doorbells to ask—no joke—if the neighbors would sign on demanding the expropriation of their own building.

We have also faced some political challenges. Sometimes we would encounter racism among some of the tenant organizers, but more so among the other neighbors. There is also some prejudice against people who depend on welfare—“Welfare recipients get everything paid for anyway,” or “if the rent goes up then the state pays for them.”—Or worse, there are the Nazis, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).

An NPD poster in Gropiusstadt is covered by a Rental Madness poster.

And then there is the big question: how to move from the anxiety of being personally affected as a tenant to becoming active in “politics.” We have now gone through a similar process in about six buildings, where we help tenants organize themselves to protest against it. Then, we try to transfer that momentum to the “Gropiusstadt Tenant Group.” With the prep team, we organize a meeting about once a month and invite everyone. Last year we managed to significantly reduce the rent burden of several buildings with energy renovations. In the process, we went through an active confrontation with the AfD and its racism, and we built an organization that is more expansive than a single apartment building.

What is the state of the expropriation referendum now?

The “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.” referendum, which would expropriate the corporate landlords and secure those buildings for the public, is still ongoing. There are disputes in the parliament because they are currently investigating whether such a thing is legally permissible. As you can see on the homepage, we delivered the requisite 77,000 signatures to trigger a referendum over 300 days ago, and since then we have been waiting for the parliament to give the official approval. The fact they have delayed this long is, of course, outrageous, and more than anything can be chalked up to the SPD. But the issue is not settled, it’s still up in the air and there is still movement, so to speak. More and more politicians in Berlin have come out for the so-called “right of first purchase.” The right of first purchase means that when a building is set to be sold to an investor, the ward or district has the right to step in and buy it first, if it so wishes. And that’s been spreading, there’s a strong trend in favor of it. So, many of the districts buy a lot of apartments in order to take them off the market. This is not expropriation, but moves a little bit in that direction.

Of course the big corporations mount massive campaigns against the rent freeze, and that is also being brought before the courts. We’ll see if the rent freeze can hold up there or if it will be scrapped by the courts. If it remains, the rent freeze is the biggest reform I have ever experienced in politics. It will be a massive material gain for the working class.

In the US right now, there is a lot of discussion of rent strikes. Has that been a tactic used by the Berlin tenant movement in these campaigns?

There is a bit of a West Berlin tradition and a scene, shaped largely by anarchists, of direct action and squatting buildings. We did have a strategy meeting where we discussed rent strikes as a future possibility, a goal we would like to strive toward. But up to this point we have not tried it, because in Berlin if the tenant doesn’t pay the rent they can be immediately evicted, there is no drawn-out process. So, you have to really make sure that everyone is participating, or at least eighty percent. We’re not quite that far along. We have had lots of success so far even without rent strikes. Rent strikes are a good project and certainly after the third beer we’ll start dreaming about that happening here, but we’re not quite that far along.

Can you say more about this tension between the self-activity of tenants and the contributions of the Left Party organizers who don’t live in the buildings? You mentioned there is a kind of ultra-left conception that once the fuse is lit, everything then flows by itself. Of course, that’s not very plausible, but there has to be some relationship between the tenants and the organizers, right?

We’re about five or six comrades. You don’t need ten, you certainly don’t need twenty people. You need a core that is committed. Then of course we have the peculiarity that we have the Left Party. We have a division of labor with a political party. That is to say, we do organizing and build movements from below, build relationships with people, which is connected with what was at that time a newly founded grassroots organizational effort of the Left Party, also in Gropiusstadt. All of that is in turn connected to the meetings that we organized in the same community building where the meetings of the rent movement take place, and so on. And all of that is within the context of something like Berlin state politics, and Bundestag elections, posters, discussion events—it all produces a left-wing social narrative.

But, ultimately, we’re five or six people. And I think it is just incredibly naive to dismiss the practical experience and knowledge we bring with us. Many of us have been politically active for ten years. We know how to do a demonstration, we know how to run a meeting. Quite banal stuff. And something that is very important: we have a different relationship with politicians. When the district housing secretary comes to Gropiusstadt, he meets with the tenants, doesn’t make any huge mistakes or do stupid things, and in the end, he says, “You know what? I’ll take care of it.” At that point it is very likely that a lot of people will accept that from him and say, “ok, now he will address the problem. He has earned a chance.” And I know that’s bullshit. I know he won’t do anything. And for me to hold back my experience, my assessment and say “learn for yourself” will just lead to frustration and worse results.

At the same time, of course, there are points where the main difference is whether you yourself are affected. For us organizers, that means, for example, we never speak to the press. If there is a request from the newspaper or when the television comes, it is tenants to the front. But it also has an impact on setting priorities and strategy. For example, one time in a discussion with the active tenants, I made a case that the biggest issue for the building as a whole was the money and the rent increase. But Karl, an active tenant, came back and made a very compelling case for prioritizing the asbestos problem, saying “Oskar, I’d gladly exchange apartments. You don’t live here and I am afraid for my life.” Well, of course, Karl is right. At that moment everyone in the meeting became convinced that asbestos was really a ticking time bomb threatening the lives of the people living there.

A meeting of the Gropius Tenants Roundtable.

That’s why I think this relationship between the organizers and the tenants, it’s just a thing that you have to keep balancing. When to bring in your experience and opinions, as well as your theoretical knowledge or assessments of something like the state, and when you hold back. So, Karl can then say, “but I think people in the building see it differently.”

This summer we took another step. Usually we always prepared the meetings alone, and now, after a year of work, we have a preparatory group that is mostly made up of tenants, but we also always take part. It is a good step.

You mentioned one of the challenges during this campaign was racism among some of the tenants. Can you say more about that?

When we would have formal meetings, whether in the buildings or in the Tenant Group, if you have such an organized space, then racism was never really an issue, because we were essentially able to clearly frame the space as left. That meant tenants, even if they were thinking it, would try not to be offensive in a space like this.

Racism became a real issue in the moments when we mobilized to our rallies, and where it wasn’t the activists that we were talking to, but their neighbors. In those cases, sometimes you would hear stuff like, “The best month of the year is August because all the Turks are back in Anatolia.” And with the same people I or someone else would have a conversation for three or five minutes about how this shit corporation is the entire problem here—and everyone nods. Then after five minutes, “The refugees get everything. We didn’t get anything out of it.” At certain points I could clearly feel how this anti-establishment mood developed over the past ten years. When you think back to the banking crisis, when you think of the heyday of Oskar Lafontaine [the politician who founded the Left Party in 2007] when they were demanding the expropriation of BMW, of big corporations, of banks—today there is almost no real connection with a left-wing anti-establishment position. And all this frustration grows into another, right-wing position. That doesn’t explain all of it, but it was an important part that was palpable.

Through movements and strikes, people can shift away from racism and toward solidarity.

I, we come from a tradition that has a certain basic conception that in order to change society, people have to take their history into their own hands, socialism is built from below by self-organized workers and through the course of this there is a process of learning and also the possibility of changing one’s ideas for the better. I’m a huge fan of Gramsci’s distinction between implicit and explicit consciousness. He says the implicit consciousness is what is in our practice, our action, and explicit consciousness is what we say, verbalize, and think. In capitalism, the implicit consciousness is: exploitation, alienation, isolation, a lack of solidarity, and experiences of being oppressed and oppressing others. I am convinced that people need coherence, you have to make sense of your world somehow. That means bringing your actions in line with your thoughts, or justifying your experiences with whatever bad ideas are on hand, you can’t just tread water between these two contradictory consciousnesses.

The exciting thing about movements and strikes is that people’s practice begins to change, and then based on those changes, very exciting discussions can develop, and these are the basis upon which we can build this new practice of solidarity, the common struggle—“we can only win if all tenants participate”—and there is a shift away from racism toward solidarity.

What I’ve learned is that nothing happens with the snap of a finger. Instead, you actually need a longer context of common practice and discussion. That’s when you are able to see and create progress.

This brings me to the example, the subject of racism among the active tenants. We had a situation where were protesting in front of a large building, all the tenants came out, the press was invited, we had a banner and we were taking a photo with the press. Then an elected official from the AfD came over and wanted to take a picture with us. And then—no lie, this isn’t some figment of a left-wing fairytale three tenants push him away from the banner, saying: “You are not welcome here, you can’t be part of this.”

Berlin city center. Photo by Oskar Stolz

But the story isn’t over. At the next tenant group meeting, a tenant, another woman, reports and says that she thought it was completely unfair that the AfD was pushed out of the picture. “We still want to have the biggest possible protest here,” she said, “and everyone should be allowed to participate. The AfD is also a democratic party.” And just like that, out of nowhere, we had an hour-long discussion about fascism, racism, and the AfD. Not in a theoretical way like I was talking about a minute ago, but very concretely in response to the practical questions posed by the campaign and the struggle. And about four months later, this same woman came with us to the Rental Madness demo and said, “It was so wonderful to see all these different people represented here, I’ve never experienced anything like it!” She had never had this kind of space to meet and confront others, to be on a demo with immigrants and others, fighting for the same thing. And I think this is a fine example that beautifully confirms Gramsci’s idea, but at the same time it shows that it is not enough just to have a single argument or a single confrontation. Rather that you need to organize with socialists who will also advance this discussion process and stick to it and create the space for the next learning experience.

What is the relationship between the tenant and expropriation movement and the Left Party?

The leadership of the tenant movement consists of these two groups, Rental Madness and Expropriate DW & Co. They are both formally independent of the Left Party, though a lot of the core organizers of both are individual members of the Left Party and the cores both have a relationship with the Party. Actually, every Left Party district in Berlin is a massive participant in these two big campaigns, but the Left Party doesn’t organize these groups.

There is a political conception shared by both reformists and autonomists, which in my opinion is problematic, which is that there is a so-called division of labor between parliament and movement. And that’s why the reformers in parliament say, “Yes, we support that, we think it’s right, but we will use parliamentary means.” The autonomists in the movement then say essentially the same thing: “Even though the Left Party is the best of them, and when we get secret information on the down-low it is always from Left Party elected officials, we’re critical of them and we need a clear separation between movement and party.” And I think that’s wrong. We need broad alliances that also extend beyond the Left Party. To put it starkly, the reformists have an attitude of benevolent indifference: wait and see if there is movement or not, and if there is, they’ll be happy. And the autonomists have an approach of “actually, it’s not that important to me whether the Left Party will even exist in five years.” And we as the Neukölln Left Party or as marx21, we want to combine both. We want to build the Left Party by means of the movement, and we want to be the motor of movements.

Translated from German by Sean Larson.

Oskar Stolz is a member of the Berlin-Neukölln Left Party and the marx21 network, and has been active for many years in various social movements in Germany.