Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen

Housing in Democratic Control
A citizens' referendum that successfully mobilised support for housing justice in Berlin, advocating for the expropriation of major private housing companies, whose grassroots campaign has sparked public discourse and highlighted the urgent need for affordable, equitable housing solutions


The topic of housing is as emotional as it is concrete, as personal as it is public. Where and how we live occupies a particular place in everyone’s lives. It stands for shelter, for respite, for something that one has agency over. But housing, like most other issues, cannot be separated from economics, from politics, from ideology. To talk about housing also means to talk about land and land use, labour, materials, money. It brings up questions about decision making, planning instruments, distribution of wealth as well as the power to access capital and knowledge. History is littered with accounts that speak of all those aspects, the often-inherent contradictions, and the resulting struggles: the rights to safe, decent, and affordable housing vis-à-vis privately funded housing provision; the commodification and financialisation of housing vis-à-vis housing as a common good; or, abstract planning exercises vis-à-vis the needs, desires, and wishes of those who eventually occupy and live in what’s been planned from above. The discontent about the mismatch between the lack of housing on offer and housing as needed has been growing louder in recent years: who decides about what is being built, who builds, whose plans are executed and why, how much housing do we need and what kind, how to address shortage of housing in some areas and oversupply in others, and – if good housing is connected to social and ecological well-being – how can it be provided for and in the interest of the many, how can housing be mutual, cooperative, non-speculative, otherwise? Issues of housing are deeply intertwined with climate concerns and they cannot be addressed in isolation. The need to establish new social contracts that account for ecological breakdown requires rethinking how people live together, with housing being a central aspect of this reimagined society.


On 26th September 2021 Berliners were asked to cast a vote in a referendum that called for the expropriation and socialisation of for-profit corporate housing companies with a stock of more than 3,000 units each: the likes of Deutsche Wohnen, Vonovia, Akelius, or Heimstaden. In total, this would affect around 240,000 apartments: close to 16%of the city’s housing stock or one in six flats.

“Real estate companies are making fat profits in Berlin with our rising rents. We will not accept this any longer: We want a referendum to socialise over 240,000 flats owned by Deutsche Wohnen, Vonovia, Akelius & Co. Article 15 of the German Constitution makes this possible. With socialisation, we want to take twelve percent of Berlin’s rented flats out of speculation and make affordable rents possible in the long term. No more fat dividends for shareholders that have to be paid out of our rents. No more displacement of people who can no longer afford their flats. We can only end the housing crisis if we manage housing on a non-profit basis again. Support our petition for a referendum and help us save Berlin. Because our city is a city for all!”1“Deutsche Wohnen & Co enteignen!”, Deutsche Wohnen enteignen! <> (Author’s translation) [accessed 4 January 2022].

Having the opportunity to vote on that day on this matter had been no small undertaking. It was the result of more than 3 years of intensive campaigning including the surmounting of numerous legislative hurdles, alleged tactical delays as well as intermittent political blockades. Yet when the votes on election day had been counted, it was clear that the efforts of thousands of volunteer campaigners had not been in vain. Implementing the referendum would mean the transfer of ownership of those aforementioned 240,000 apartments currently owned and managed by a number of large housing corporations to a yet-to-be-established institution that is envisaged as an entity governed under public law for the common good. The day after the election, Joanna Kusiak, one of the spokespersons for the initiative, referred to this outcome as a shake-up of politics2“Expropriation initiative celebrates success: the majority of Berliners vote for socialization”, Deutsche Wohnen enteignen! (27 September 2021) <> [accessed 4 January 2022]. and The Guardian wrote of the successful referendum as a “potential template for Europe”.3Alexander Vasudevan, “Berlin’s Vote to Take Properties from Big Landlords Could Be a Watershed Moment”, The Guardian (29 September 2021), <> [accessed 4 January 2022].

Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen represents a pivotal moment in Berlin’s urban development discourse and a powerful expression of the public’s desire for spatial justice and inclusive urban planning. It is a grassroots movement that seeks to redefine spatial practice, ensuring affordable housing and fostering socially just neighbourhoods. Additionally, it recognises the urgency of climate action, integrating climate conscious strategies into the city’s housing stock. Where the market model is based on short-term exchanges, which are antithetical to the long-term context of ecological crisis, the Berlin referendum foregrounded the role of housing as part of an evolving future. While the government’s response to the referendum remains uncertain,4Steindór Jónsson, ‘Berlin Voted to Socialize Housing. But What Happens Next?’, Refuge, 11 January 2022 <> [accessed 11 July 2023]. the movement has sparked a broader conversation about the intersection of spatial practice, social equity, and climate consciousness in shaping the future of the urban built environment and the need for radical economic changes to address the climate crisis.


External links

Barcelona En Comú—a citizen platform in Barcelona that emerged in response to housing and urban inequality, advocating for participatory democracy, affordable housing, and the right to the city 

Right to the City Movements—initiatives that seek to reclaim urban spaces, fight gentrification, and advocate for equitable access to housing, services, and resources