Berlin’s Rental Revolution

By Adam Peggs

Berlin’s growing campaign against ‘corporate landlords’ could well be an indicator of how housing policy here in the UK could be developed and pushed leftward. Dubbed a ‘rental revolution’ by Philip Oltermann in the Guardian last month, the campaign aims to transfer some 250,000 properties into the public sector to serve as social housing. Headed by the campaign group ‘Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co’, set up in 2018 to ‘protest the power of Deutsche Wohnen, Berlin’s biggest landlord’, German activists are seeking to hold a referendum on banning any rental company owning more than 3000 properties from operating in the capital. Polling so far looks promising, with a poll from February indicating some 44% of Berliners back the campaign with only 39% rejecting the idea of turning the properties into social housing.

Labour’s 2017 programme, For The Many, Not The Few set out plans for the biggest social housing programme for a generation, increased security for renters, a suspension of Thatcher’s pernicious right-to-buy and controls on rent rises. Though I don’t quite share the assessment of Owen Hatherley, who in an essay for New Socialist, characterised this approach as consisting of ‘mildness’ I do share the same hope for something more transformational as well as optimism that the left can successfully demand more. Recent shifts in Labour policy to supporting bold systemic reforms of company ownership and ownership in the financial sector have been received well. With Britain gripped by the worst housing crisis in decades, there is every reason to believe the same logic could be applied to housing.

Since the 2017 election, there has been a steady but relatively slow advance within Labour on the area of housing. At conference in 2017 the party unveiled plans to prevent what Dawn Foster described as ‘stealth gentrification’ by giving tenants a guaranteed right to return to an estate which undergoes regeneration and for regeneration to only be permissible if approved by a majority vote from residents. Alongside this, Labour’s pledges on rent regulation were beefed up to include devolving power to cities to impose their own rent controls – going beyond the proposals made back in 2017. Last year we saw some further development, with plans unveiled at party conference for a tax on second homes and support for unionising renters.

However, what remains missing is a big, decisive pledge for mass public housing. One that promises a future in which high-quality social housing really is built en masse and made available to all renters. A departure from housing as the personal asset of a landlord to housing as a public good. Instead we’ve been left with the presumption that most of the population should either be renting from a landlord or paying a mortgage for their own home.

While the policy being fought for in Berlin may not be as effective in the UK (few landlords own large volumes of properties), the idea of an insurgent campaign to ban ‘Mega-Landlords’ is surely worth learning from – especially at a time when British politics is at a crossroads. London could do with its own campaign to transfer existing homes into social housing stock or at least to do the same with the masses of empty properties in the capital. Encouraging the transfer of homes from big landlords to the public sector or to housing co-operatives would serve as a clear statement in favour of treating housing as a necessity and a social asset. Likewise, the same logic could be extended to the construction industry rather than leaving the business of actually building homes to extractive firms seeking to make money from social housing.

With house prices and the cost of renting drastically outpacing rises in wages, the UK’s housing market looks more tilted against working class people than ever. Homelessness is at such high levels it now seems a quintessential part of our society. Right-to-buy has delivered a generation of private landlords charging twice as much as equivalent social housing, whilst offering tenants less security and little peace of mind. Now is a time where we should expect not just to break with the housing model of the past but to fundamentally re-write the rules.

With the possibility that Corbynsceptics may again spend their summer pushing to oust the leadership, primarily over the EU again, members should be ready to push for a slew of transformational policies regardless of what lays ahead. Momentum’s recent announcement that they will be pushing for Labour to adopt new left-wing policies, including a shorter working week and scrapping detention centres, was well-received – the same would likely be true for housing.