What Can Chicago Learn From Rent Control Movements In Berlin?
Chicago voters took steps this spring toward rent control, but any such policies would first require the state legislature to repeal a statewide ban on the practice.
Voters in six Chicago wards chose aldermen who identify as democratic socialists — and they generally believe in rent control. Additionally, voters in specific precincts approved a nonbinding referendum on rent control by more than 70%.
Chicago isn’t the only city facing a push for rent control.
In Berlin, Germany, thousands of residents joined a “March Against Rent Sharks and Speculators” in the city’s Alexanderplatz square this month to demand action on rising rents. The campaign has been taking advantage of a little-used regulatory framework to pre-empt sales and buy up private housing. More recently, Berlin’s Senate has been taking similar action since January.
The campaign, however, is calling for more aggressive measures to address rent prices. Residents have started collecting signatures for a proposal that would require the city to buy out properties from any landlord who owns more than 3,000 apartments, and thereby expropriate more than 200,000 housing units from Berlin’s largest private landlords.
New York-based German journalist Lukas Hermsmeier, who has reported on housing and German politics for The Nation, The New York Times and Der Tagesspiegel, joined Worldview to unpack housing politics in Berlin and discuss what Chicago and other U.S. cities can learn from them. Here are some interview highlights.
On the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co. Movement
Lukas Hermsmeier: They founded this initiative last year in the spring, and it’s a coalition of activists, organizers and tenants’ rights groups who came together to build this network over the past year. But it was also a hustle to bring everyone behind this radical word, “expropriation.” It can scare off private owners, as well as tenants who are not sure what is going to happen with their apartments after expropriation.
So it was an effort to convince the affected people to get behind this. And its lead organizer, Rouzbeh Tahiri, does a great job of explaining this initiative and putting it into the public discourse. German newspapers and talk shows are full of debates around housing, gentrification and expropriation, and that’s quite remarkable.
Certainly they’re winning already with … putting [it] into the mainstream discourse. Rouzbeh told me that just a few years ago he wouldn’t have thought this possible, so their current success is already an achievement.
Earlier this year the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel came out with this number of 55% of Berliners in favor of expropriation. Other polls are less enthusiastic. But what’s certain is that a majority of Berliners are frustrated with the way the Berlin government has dealt with housing issues and rising rents in the past. So there’s a openness towards radical measures like maybe there has never been before.
On what expropriation would look like
Hermsmeier: No one can answer what would actually happen if this referendum would be successful and how the government would respond, because it may be a long legal process. Since they have more than 100,000 apartments in Berlin, Deutsche Wohnen will certainly not give up easily; this will be a question of years and long court battles.
I’m not a legal expert, so I can’t really speak about the chances of winning or losing these fights in the courts, but Deutsche Wohnen has been really successful in the past because the city government has allowed it to treat Berlin as their market. So they aren’t going to give up.
On rent control
Hermsmeier: Germany and several other countries have introduced rent control laws. But what’s important to keep in mind is that a rent control measure or bill is one thing. The other is to check how often the landlords actually do what these laws are saying, if at all.
In German law, there are several loopholes and exceptions: Rent control doesn’t apply for new buildings, and if there are renovations the landlords can raise rents, for example. So laws are a step in the right direction, but the issues are larger: There’s this whole debate about who “owns” a building, who gets to decide where new developments are happening and who owns the city.
On the links between American and German rent control movements
Hermsmeier: In New York, where I live, the protest last spring against the proposed Amazon headquarters in Queens was remarkable. It was a thing Berlin activists looked up to and were impressed by.
I remember going to a November meeting for the New York activists — they didn’t really expect to stop this whole project, but they thought maybe they could make it a better deal that would contribute less to gentrification. And three months later they stopped this whole thing; Amazon pulled out and the activists won.
I think it showed several things: one, that it’s always worth it to try, to push radical measures. And two, that every success around rent control is only based around mobilizing and long-term grassroots organizing; it’s not enough to rely on politicians. In the case of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke of synergies between the housing projects and Amazon. These are myths and liberal promises that are not being kept.
So people are starting to realize that they can’t rely on politicians, and they have to get active themselves.
On how the conversation may have improved lives for renters in Berlin
Hermsmeier: I think renters’ lives have improved, not because Deutsche Wohnen feels pressure necessarily, but, to put it in a bigger context, it’s the achievement of activism and organizing that put pressure on the Berlin government. That the Berlin government has already bought back apartments, passed rent control laws and are trying to protect certain neighborhoods is a result of activism.
So even if this initiative isn’t ultimately successful in technical terms, it will already have been successful in terms of shifting mainstream discourse. People are already talking about this issue in ways they haven’t before.