Like many cities around the world Berlin’s housing crisis is only getting worse. Instead of sitting idly by and watching their city become a place only for the landed gentry, Berliners decided to organize and do something. A referendum took place over this past weekend (as part of the federal election) asked Berliners if the city should take over the housing units owned by mega landlords who own more than 3,000 properties.
The city would acquire any unity about that number and make it social housing. 56% of voters made it clear: they want more public housing by taking it away from corporations only interested in profits. Housing is a human right.
Whatever happens next in Berlin it’s clear people are sick that something as necessary as housing is treated like any other commodity.
The referendum was able to take place after Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen took advantage of a mechanism in German law, which allows certain topics to go to a referendum if a group can collect 175,000 signatures from city residents. In June, campaigners announced they had collected 343,000 signatures on the housing referendum, which received a boost when a city-wide rent cap was overturned in April.
â€œTogether we moved the city and shook up politics â€“ that’s what we’re celebrating today,â€ Joanna Kusiak, a spokesperson for Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen said. â€œThousands have become active with us. We are anchored with our structures in each district. We faced powerful opponents: inside and won. We’re not going away anytime soon.â€
Berlin wants to support its local businesses by banning cars, and historically this has worked well for other cities. Cities the world over are converting streets built for cars into places that people can enjoy to help their local economies. Berlin joins in on this people-friendly trend and the results already look friendly. The city wants to go a step further and use some of the land cars suck up for relaxing areas for people – why park a car where you can just have a park?
This summer, the German capital has announced plans to pedestrianize some vital central streets starting in October. One experiment will ban cars from the main section of Friedrichstrasse, a long, store-filled thoroughfare that, before World War II, was considered the cityâ€™s main shopping street. Another will test daily closures on Tauentzienstrasse, another key retail street, with a view toward going permanently car-free in 2020.
If you’re like me and was born in the 80s then you’ve lived through a time in which housing policies have been gutted and basically no new public housing has been built. That’s at least 30 years of neglect by politicians and society to literally build for the future; and the future is here. The people of Berlin got tired of a lack of action and have seized the moment to fight back against predatory landowners to ensure that the next generation won’t suffer through such rent-seeking behaviour. Berlin has decided to buy housing (which was organically public housing and privatized in the 90s/00s) to ensure that the people of Berlin aren’t getting ripped off by speculators and greed.
Remarkably, the cityâ€™s government has agreed. This month, Berlinâ€™s senate said it would step in andÂ buy three buildings, amounting to 316 apartments. Meanwhile, the local borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg would buy a fourth building containing 80 apartments, meaning the majority of flats for sale will be converted to public ownership.
The authorities could do this through an existing law thatÂ allows them a right of first refusalÂ over buildings for sale in areas that are undergoing steep rent rises. The law hasnâ€™t yet been applied on this scale, and even though the city and borough will ultimately recoup the costs from rent, the buyout will require an investment ofÂ up to â‚¬100 million.
Thatâ€™s already a major investmentâ€”but why stop there? The overwhelming majority of units that Deutsche Wohnen owns today in Berlin used to be public housing, and were sold off by the state over the past few decades. As galloping rents make daily life increasingly difficult, many Berliners are starting to regret such a shift. Sure enough, Berlin Mayor Michael MÃ¼ller promised last month to buy backÂ 50,000 of Deutsche Wohnenâ€™s unitsÂ for the city, along lines not yet fully clarified. Rentersâ€™ associations want to extend this proposal to all landlords with more than 3,000 apartments in the city, a wish that led to their referendum plan.
The Berlin Wall marked a negative time in recent history in which two sides couldn’t communicate well and severed a country, and families, in two. During the Cold War people risked their lives tring to escape to West Germany from the oppressive East. The tearing down of the wall was a true turning point in modern history and it’s great to celebrate years of peace in Germany since its collapse.
As always, the Berlin Wall represents the inability to have meaningful conversations within our civilization. Let’s hope that no more walls between peoples get built.
The recoherence of Berlin over that later period is a testament to how far the country has come. Differences between the old east and west halves remain, some subtle (in the east street lights are yellow and the traffic-light man wears a hat, in the west they are white and he is bare-headed) and others more fundamental (Ossis support Union and are more likely to vote for the political extremes, Wessis cheer on Hertha Berlin and tend to vote centrist). But generally, to quote Brandt, â€œwhat belongs together grows togetherâ€. Central Berlin has been rebuilt, new east-west transport arteries like the cathedral-like Hauptbahnhof are open and others are under construction. Peter Schneider, a veteran chronicler of the city, writes: â€œThe fall of the Wall and the reunification of Berlinâ€™s two halves have sped up the cityâ€™s pulse, injecting new life energy. Itâ€™s as if the city had won back a temporal dimension that, during the years of the Wall, seemed to have disappeared from West Berlin and was merely alleged to exist in East Berlin: the futureâ€.
To be sure, the past is visible too. Berlin epitomises the German knack for sensitively accommodating the scars of history. Parts of the wall have been preserved as memorials and much of the route is now traced by cobble stones which disappear under buildings built in the old death stripâ€”The Economistâ€™s premises in Berlin among themâ€”and re-emerge on the other side. In a plot once bordered by the wall a block from the Reichstag, to which the Bundestag moved from Bonn in 1999, sits the Holocaust memorial, an undulating 5-acre sea of tombstone-like concrete slabs. When, last month, a local historian discovered a forgotten stretch of the wall in the woods by a suburban train line, it was a rare sight: an unarchived, uncurated piece of the cityâ€™s 20th century traumas.
Berlin continues to impress environmentalists around the globe with the city’s efforts to adjust to the reality of the 21st century. Last year Berlin got attention for being a “sponge city” and this year will see the start of a bike lane network that rivals other cities. With car traffic snarling nearly every city on the planet most are turning to bike lanes to alleviate some of the pressure on roads, and Berlin is no exception.
By 2025, the city will also create 100,000 new bike parking spots, some of them in three multi-floor parking garages located at key commuter hubs. Meanwhile, the cityâ€™s existing bike-lane networkâ€”already extensive, but not always well segregated from car trafficâ€”will be more rigorously protected by bollards. This more modest network of roadside lanes (as opposed to long-discussed specially constructed superhighways) will also be expanded to cover one-third of all city streets, a considerable expansion on its current total of 18 percent. Viewed from cities where itâ€™s a struggle to introduce even basic bike infrastructure, Berlinâ€™s plans seem inspiring, even utopian.