We Can Defend Ourselves
An Interview with Nina Scholz on the Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co campaign in Berlin
Nina Scholz is a journalist who works for Deutschlandradio, taz, Freitag, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Analyse & Kritik, and more, with a focus on the digital economy, labor struggles, and leftist movements. Her book Nerds, Geeks and Pirates: Digital Natives in Culture and Politics, was published in 2014 by Bertz und Fischer Verlag. She is active in the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen campaign. Jacob Blumenfeld interviewed her in Berlin.
Jacob Blumenfeld (Rail): What do you hope the “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co” campaign accomplishes?
Nina Scholz: First off, I hope we achieve our goal of socializing [vergesellschaften] the apartments of real estate companies that own more than 3,000 flats, and that we do so for far below their market value. Furthermore, these apartments should not be transferred to a municipal housing company, but rather to a non-profit institution under public law, managed by the tenants and local community on a directly democratic basis. The longer we are active, the more we grow, and the more our goal appears achievable!
A large part of our work is not just collecting signatures, but helping tenants to organize themselves. And that is definitely an important goal. After all, about 85 percent of people living here pay rent. We want to show them that there is a hopeful, beautiful alternative to authoritarian, morbid neoliberalism. But there are also more personal goals. I hope that the social left will be more active in people’s lives, and that we no longer just mobilize big events, but actually organize ourselves. Finally, I hope that we will also begin to raise the property question in other areas, for instance, concerning tech companies.
Rail: Why expropriation now? Why haven’t the other strategies—rent freeze, housing occupations, mass protests—stopped the rising rents?
Scholz: I was a tenant of Deutsche Wohnen at Kottbusser Tor up until a year ago. There is a successful tenants’ initiative that has been fighting against them there for a long time. But it was always pretty clear that every victory against these companies is not only hard and exhausting, but that the next time, they will use other tricks to drive up the rent. That is the logic of these companies, they cannot help it. Many of these companies are listed on the stock exchange, which means they have to generate profits—with rents! How else can we fight against this than by taking the apartments away from these companies?
In addition, federal law is on the side of the real estate companies: they can transfer the costs of modernizing apartments almost completely onto the tenants, which then raises the rent so much that the original tenants have to move out, i.e. they are displaced. So far, nobody has protected the tenants and that’s why we are protecting ourselves now.
Rail: Will the expropriation of large real estate companies lower rents and stop gentrification? What about the call to just build more?
Scholz: First of all, expropriating these companies would immediately stop the displacement of people with rather low incomes, often elderly people, from 200,000 apartments. Many of the apartments in Deutsche Wohnen’s portfolio used to be social housing, which the red-red senate [SPD-Die Linke] sold off a few years ago as part of their austerity policy. These tenants often still live in these flats, but will soon be displaced. Hence, this proposal directly helps these people to stay in their familiar surroundings, to stay in their flats instead of being thrown into the street. Just building more apartments does not help against this displacement. These are people who have lived their whole lives in their flat. This is their neighborhood, their community, their home. Why should migrants in Kreuzberg or Neukölln be transplanted to new buildings in Marzahn? That is not an option!
Moreover, expropriation will also help in the long-term against the current spiral of rent increases and displacements. Companies like Deutsche Wohnen not only drive up rents with their methods of displacement, they also take legal action against their tenants.
Expropriation is intended to deter future investors, to show them that they will not make money off our housing! We can defend ourselves—and we won’t stop! This campaign should also encourage people. It’s all quite different than the market apologists claim.
Rail: And why not also build more anyways?
Scholz: According to Wiso:
The argument is wrong because it misjudges the fact that compensation payments are equivalent to credit-financed investments. If the state of Berlin expropriates flats in exchange for compensation payments, which it must and will finance predominantly through loans, then it receives assets, i.e. the apartments, for this money. And these in turn bring income, namely rents. Such compensation payments are therefore comparable to investments—i.e. the (credit-financed) construction of a road or a school by the public sector, the (credit-financed) purchase of a machine by a company or the (credit-financed) purchase of a home by a family. The state could only run into a problem if the values of the homes are significantly lower than the compensation payments. In the end, however, how high the payments would be is an open question that has to be decided politically. The initiative demands that they are below market value, and it makes good arguments for that. Berlin’s Senate administration has also noted ways of keeping the compensation payments below market value. But there is also another point: the state will recover the compensation payments—from its tenants. This also applies to the interest that Berlin has to pay for the loans to be taken out. Yet, since the aim of the referendum is rightly to lower rents, the possibilities for apportioning rent are not unlimited. Nevertheless, the actual costs that Berlin incurs in the medium and long term are far lower than the sums it pays for compensation.
Rail: How can we confront the enormous power of private capital over property? What happens when the same companies just go to other cities?
Scholz: I don’t think we should think about this from the point of view of companies, but from the point of view of people: companies try to make profits. This is not limited to Berlin, they do this wherever they can, wherever you let them. Instead, I see a political spark jumping around. The people in Berlin struggled together against the planned Google Campus, having learned from activists in San Francisco who campaigned against the Google Bus. Now, we have helped people in Queens, New York to prevent an Amazon Headquarters from coming there. Berliners learn from people in Barcelona and so on and so on. Everywhere people are showing that these seemingly overpowering companies are vulnerable—and maybe even beatable! It’s a great feeling!
Rail: Some people blame tourists for the rising rents and gentrification of Berlin. Do you agree?
Scholz: Tourism industry yes, tourists less. The tourism industry also fuels gentrification. Scarce living space is rented to tourists and neighborhoods are getting more expensive. Shops that people require for their everyday needs are disappearing from their neighborhoods, which are now serving large companies, like Booking.com, Airbnb, and so on. People don’t matter much. In Kreuzberg, the incomes of workers have fallen, and the rents have risen. The number of miserable jobs is also rising, in hostels, at Ryanair, etc. This is a completely new battlefield, but Kreuzberg initiatives like the Kiezkommune are adapting very well. For example, they recently prevented a planned 10-storey hostel (at Skalitzer/Mariannenstraße) with the “NoHostel36 Initiative,” and they will do even more!
Rail: Berlin blocked google, and now wants to expropriate. Is the city turning socialist or what?
Scholz: The movement is growing, motivation is growing. Even the smallest victories give hope. I sense a lot of solidarity, new alliances, new strength, all of which feels extremely good. I have never had so much fun with my political work, because we are all there for each other, across districts, East and West, between milieus that had nothing to do with each other before, old and young. But we are still very far from socialism. I am not at all happy with the current Senate, but I believe that, at least within the Left Party and perhaps even with a few Greens, there is an effort to rectify the mistakes made in the past—and to reshape the city more socially. Nevertheless, urban policy is still extremely investor-friendly, and not particularly democratic. There are hardly any means of enforcing new regulations, such as the law banning holiday flats. The city relies on the aggressive tourism industry and start-up economy, both of which contribute to displacement. Occupied houses are immediately and often brutally vacated. Even on the verge of the big rent demo again, there are daily forced evictions. Municipal housing companies and social housing are still not socially reformed. There are neo-Nazi attacks, which the Berlin police covered up or worse. And furthermore: we could also recommunalize the city without the referendum, if we really wanted to! But we at least have this: tangible hope for a better life! And an idea of what it could be like when capitalism is defeated. And that is more than we have had in the last years and decades. Now we have to fight on, but I’m glad!