Above Photo: Ian Clotworthy.
At the end of May 2021, I found myself behind a table in Tempelhof Field, Berlin’s largest public park, helping children print dandelions alongside the slogan Wir Bleiben Alle (We’re all staying) in multiple languages onto bright yellow paper. In the windswept park, papers blew away like dandelion seeds, crashing into the tables behind me where others were screen printing and spray painting Enteignen! (Expropriate!) onto T-shirts and purple and yellow flags. Nearby, speakers from diverse migrant movements gave multilingual testimonies interspersed with upbeat music and dance from social movements around the world.
This joyous rally was organized by Right to the City for All, a working group of English-speaking migrants within the tenants’ movement Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen (Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. or DWE). DWE campaigns to expropriate housing stock from major landlords and place it directly in the hands of renters. Building on the momentum of diverse tenants’ movements, the campaign’s recent historic victory has sent shock waves through Europe. After years of struggle, a citizens’ referendum was held on September 26, 2021 to expropriate housing from any private landlord owning over 3,000 units. Despite the fact that almost a quarter of Berliner’s were rendered ineligible to vote due to housing and citizenship status, the referendum passed with 59.1% — a greater percentage of votes than any one political party received in the concurrent elections. The campaign’s victory means the seizure of over 240,000 apartments of which just one company alone, Deutsche Wohnen, owns over one hundred thousand.
Tempelhof Field was a symbolic location for the rally. Tempelhof only exists today because of another historic referendum, secured in May, 2014 through years of grassroots organizing. The decisive outcome of the housing referendum is a testament to the tireless grassroots campaign in which diverse tenants’ initiatives converged to fight for a common goal. But back in May, after a long winter of organizing against powerful adversaries during a pandemic, this result was far from certain.
It remains unclear whether the referendum’s mandate will be implemented by a bureaucratic regime still very much beholden to corporate interests and the real estate lobby – as well as how Berliners will respond to the current government’s foot dragging. To achieve livable housing for all, here in Europe, we need to go beyond thinking in Eurocentric terms of property and rights. We must understand such policy battles are tied to much deeper struggles over land and belonging.
Who does the city belong to?
Across Europe, affordable housing is being pushed farther and farther out of reach. Homes are increasingly owned not by the people who live in them, but by companies who rent them out for profit. Housing is no longer treated as a public good, but as a commodity and vehicle for wealth and investment.
In Berlin, which currently boasts some of the fastest-rising housing prices in the world, the situation is particularly extreme. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1992, private investors flocked to the city to capitalize on the state-supported financialization of the housing market. As of today, more than a quarter of Berlin’s roughly two million apartments are owned by private companies. According to researcher Christoph Trautvetter, more than half of the city is owned by fewer than one thousand multimillionaires.
Berlin is a city of renters. In a market characterized by extreme precarity, an epidemic of evictions, and an acute affordable housing crisis, 85% of us rent our homes, spending an average of 46% of our income. Since 2009, rents in the city have doubled — a process in line with the doubling of apartments acquired by massive property investor groups. A recent study by Humboldt University found that one out of every four moves in the city is a direct result of displacement. This untenable situation has given rise to the popular rallying cry of wem gehört die Stadt? (Who does the city belong to?), picked up by tenants’ movements like DWE as a clear indictment of private investors and the real estate lobby.
After achieving the historic referendum victory, DWE have sought to challenge the private ownership model by proposing the establishment of a public agency called Anstalt des öffentlichen Rechts (AöR). The AöR would have no profit motive and be legally required to carry out its mandate for the benefit of all Berliners. Furthermore, decisions within the AöR would be carried out not by state representatives, but by decentralized decision-making structures at city, district, neighborhood, and building levels. This proposal has the potential to radically change how thousands of Berliners relate to their home and their neighborhoods. But to truly address the roots of this manufactured crisis, we must dig even more deeply.
Today, the city is once again papered in yellow and purple posters reading “59.1%: Volksentscheid jetzt umsetzen! (59.1%: Implement the referendum now!) as the campaign pressures the newly elected coalition government to implement the referendum’s mandate. DWE have prepared for this moment having already drafted a socialization law which would immediately implement the referendum results. They are adamant that although their hard-won victory is not legally binding, it is indeed so politically*.* But with the new government not entirely supportive, the process will entail further constitutional challenges and a final decision resting with the Senate. In the face of a powerful onslaught to maintain housing as a commodity, pressuring politicians to execute the referendum results will not be enough.
Beyond policy struggle
The Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen campaign has expanded Berlin’s collective imagination about the types of demands that are indeed possible and built local relationships between diverse tenants’ movements. But as is the case in many European contexts, Eurocentric assumptions which construct land as property and belonging in terms of rights to citizenship have usually formed the foundation of these arguments. When we argue that it is our tax dollars which should grant us the right to vote or the right to be here at all, we reproduce capitalist logics and position ourselves as unsatisfied paying consumers, leaving the foundational structures of dispossession untouched.
To really win dignified, stable housing for us all, the momentum of DWE’s victory must take on the critiques of anti-colonial organizers both here and beyond Europe, and be carried out beyond faith in the courts and the ballot box. As Tony Samara, tenant organizer and Director of Land Use and Housing at Oakland’s Urban Habitat, summarizes,
“Yes, we need to fight and win policies, but policy fights are not going to liberate people. Policy fights are one piece of it. But if we’re only in the policy fight world, we’re actually ceding all kinds of power to our opponents because they fight in all ways as well.”
In this regard, European housing movements can learn much from their North American counterparts and especially from Indigenous movements. In Canada, migrant justice group No One Is Illegal goes beyond “demanding citizenship rights for racialized migrants…that would lend false legitimacy to a settler state,” and builds relationships and material solidarities directly between migrants, refugees and Indigenous peoples. Parkdale Organize, a Toronto-based tenants association formed four years prior to fight international housing giant Akelius (who is also one of Berlin’s major landlords), are also thinking expansively about what organizing for dignified housing and self-determination looks like in the context of colonial institutions built explicitly at the expense of certain populations. And artist collectives such as Decolonize This Place, School of Echoes or VALU CO-OP tie tenants movements to wider anti-colonial and anti-state organizing.
Who belongs to the city?
According to many Indigenous worldviews, land is not real estate, or even property, but rather is a system of reciprocal relations and obligations. As Métis and Cree writer and organizer Mike Gouldhawke writes,
“Traditional Cree laws like sihtoskâtowin (coming together in mutual support) and miyo-wîcêhtowin (the intentional cultivation of good relations) stand in stark contrast to this settler system, which is based on private and individualized rights to property and political representation.”
This is a fundamentally different understanding than a Western European conceptualization of land. As political theorist Robert Nichols argues, dispossession presupposes a prior relationship of possession. Through a relational, Indigenous lens, then, dispossession entails
“not only the forcible transfer of property, but [the] transformation into property”.
The Land Back! Movement’s demand for Indigenous land return thus not only shifts the conversation from a question of public ownership versus private ownership, but questions the meaning of property ownership itself.
Anti-colonial arguments raised by the Land Back! movement have powerful implications not only in settler colonial states. Any global movement for housing justice which seeks to be truly liberatory must not gloss over or ignore the implications of ongoing colonization. The imperative for European movements to act in solidarity with Indigenous land return must be based not on liberal notions of charity or allyship, but on our capacities to act as accomplices towards liberation for all.
As Craig Fortier writes, without anti-colonial perspectives,
“the desire to reclaim the commons—even a “global commons”—can be embedded within the logics of Indigenous dispossession and elimination”.
In Europe, our movements must address this tendency head on by understanding that colonization is not a historical event, but an ongoing structure, and by reframing our actions not as an insistence on our right to the city, but as an understanding of our responsibilities and relationships to one another.
In English, the word belonging conveys either property or a relationship. An anti-colonial fight against displacement begins by disentangling the two. What would it mean for us to belong to the city rather than for the city to belong to us? And might changing this framework also change how we organize with our neighbors? Current debates over voter disenfranchisement, temporary rent caps and citizenship rights are too limited. While fighting to improve our material conditions, our imaginations – and our relationships – can and must be more expansive.
Back in May, at Tempelhof Field, I chose the symbol of the dandelion to encourage fellow Berliners to rethink our assumptions bound up with weeds. In her 2017 book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown writes that a dandelion “is a community of healers waiting to spread.” I want Berliners to understand ourselves as tenacious and beautiful, sowing our messy seeds of healing and resistance into every manicured glass and concrete landscape; like the dandelion, impossible to contain and impossible to eradicate.