Since the 90’s, a slogan of“poor but sexy” has been used as a facade to attract youthful and party hungry tourists to Berlin. But in recent years, the city has been engaged in a deeply unsexy affair with multi-billionaires, the real estate market, and the decay of social protection policies which will keep most of us poor (at least we are still sexy?). Historically, Berlin has been a city of renters, built on the backs of many low-income migrants who came to the city due to its welcoming social politics, affordable housing (until 1988 there was even a not-for-profit housing law), squats or community housing projects, the city’s status as a queer haven, vibrant cultural scene, lofty green areas, and the promise of a less commodified life.
After years of disenfranchising local inhabitants, with soaring rents, flatlining incomes and amidst a pandemic that deeply hurt the working class, including many migrants and cultural producers, the city has clapped back with an astounding feat against the real estate behemoths. Housing rights initiative Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen has managed to collect 359,063 signatures in favour of the socialisation of around 250,000 housing units, making it Berlin’s most signed ballot campaign ever. Following four months of signature collection during a severe lockdown, the campaign’s focus is now aimed at the referendum on September 26th, the same day as the German federal election. This referendum will decide if Berlin will buy those units from the biggest housing companies such as Deutsche Wohnen, Vonovia, and any other corporations owning more than 3000 apartments. These apartments will be owned not by the state, but by a new publicly owned Anstalt öffentlichen Rechts (AöR) to be democratically organised, in the way that the well known public service companies BVG and BSR are managed.
However, the celebratory mood that caught on among housing activists after they reached their goal of collecting enough signatures has been cut short in the face of a serious democratic obstacle. Despite vastly surpassing the minimum signatures necessary for the referendum, 32.7% were considered invalid, the great majority due to the lack of German citizenship. It is estimated that between 20-25% of the people living in Berlin do not have the right to vote, regardless of the fact that it’s these people, migrants and people with migration backgrounds, who create the public image of Berlin as being a vibrant, welcoming, and diverse city. This is where the migrant-majority task-force Right to the City steps in, seeking to scandalise this blatant lack of democracy that excludes almost a quarter of Berlin’s inhabitants from participating in this referendum.
All too often, migrants as well as queer folks are seen as gentrifiers and thus labeled as the problem. It is fundamental to acknowledge that migration and gentrification are integral dynamics of a city, but the trouble arises from how a city chooses to gentrify. Public life and diversity of expression is repressed under the excuse of a ‘higher quality of life’. Crackdowns on squats, housing projects, sex workers, junkies and homeless people becoming increasingly common, while racial profiling by police and authorities is normalised. Local restaurants and businesses are squeezed out and replaced with soulless chains or over-priced fine-dining. Permits become necessary to play live music, sell food on the street, or paint murals. Smoking weed, laying naked in the sun or cruising in the bushes is no longer tolerated. Every aspect of public life becomes sanitized and commodified, where an elite few can relish the services of the city and others get pushed to the margins, evicted and criminalised. How a city punishes certain forms of urban and social life is a choice, and choosing not to interfere with rampant, exploitative free-market capitalism is also a choice. Over the years, we’ve witnessed the sale of a huge portion of Berlin’s social and state-owned housing, resulting in ever more evictions, inflated rents, and fewer affordable apartments available.
It is important to accurately name the problem: It is not migrants causing the housing crisis, but privatisation and financialisation of the housing market. The housing crisis is inflicted on us by real-estate speculation and greedy corporations who value profit over people. Unfortunately, capitalism turns something that ought to be a human right — our homes — into profits for offshore shareholders.
Just over ten years ago, a single person with a low income would have been able to afford a small apartment with two bedrooms. Today, the same amount would barely pay for a bedroom in a shared flat. In 2018, property prices increased by 18 per cent making it the sharpest rise in the world. This drastic inflation of housing prices coupled with an increasing amount of precarious work in a flourishing gig-economy full of “bullshit” jobs, as the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber famously put it, creates the perfect storm for a housing crisis. It’s maddening to note that the success of many of Berlin’s “booming tech-sector” start-ups rely on exploitative working conditions and a lack of worker protection (think: Gorillas).
This housing crisis, only exacerbated by the pandemic, has seen an increase in discrimination, evictions, homelessness. This overwhelmingly affects migrants and queers — in particular trans* people and sex-workers — many of whom have fled their home countries only to find themselves in precarious, dangerous or illegal work, or doing sex-work with no legal protection. Trans* women and trans* sex-workers are particularly vulnerable as there are currently no homeless shelters in Berlin that cater to the needs of trans* people and are frequently rejected by shelters or report having experienced abuse there. In light of this, many trans* sex-workers seek alternative housing in squats, or other illegalised self-organised communities, which have also been under attack with several prominent squats being forcibly evicted during the pandemic, namely Bucht Wagenplatz and Liebig34. Now Potse Drugstore is also facing eviction. Even the ones lucky enough to have a home often have no access to Anmeldung, contracts or protection against eviction. Living under circumstances of precarity and with over-priced housing conveniently keeps the cheap and desperate labor force at bay, too stressed, overworked and under-paid to have the energy for other vital activities — such as political resistance or pleasure.
Over the past months, the LGBTQIA+ sub-task force of Right to the City has been collecting testimonials from people who have been discriminated against based on their gender or sexuality. Many times they have also been discriminated against because of their racial or migrant status. We have found that people suffering in their current living situations are often unable to remove themselves because there are so few affordable alternatives. People have reported suffering discrimination both in housing agencies and with private landlords, and also being victims of homophobic, transphobic, and racist harassment in their own apartments - be it by flatmates or neighbours. Queer people reported having been denied viewings or a room, or have faced expulsion or eviction because of their identity, others reported feeling shame and discomfort in their homes. Others experienced physical or verbal violence in their households. Of the testimonials gathered, several people have been forced to accept living with no Anmeldung or contract, and several more are experiencing houselessness. This is a devastating reminder that no matter how comparatively “queer-friendly” Berlin feels, violence and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people persists.
Last month’s Queer Pride is an apt time to remember that it was trans* sex-workers who were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and we have them to thank for the current LGBTQIA+ rights.
Although our work is far from over, queer rebellion means defying power structures, gender binaries, corporate monopolies, and state violence alike. We must stand both against colonial occupation and against the local evictions that result in the displacement of people and the shattering of communities.
During the pandemic we saw the forcible eviction of housing projects and the overturning of the Mietendeckel, a rental cap affecting 90% of renters positively. Exercising our rights to public space we took to the streets in exasperation, grieving collectively and peacefully, yet we faced violent police repression. The police ostensibly use the excuse of the pandemic (despite the vast majority of people adhering to safety regulations) to suppress dissent, although strangely enough we haven’t witnessed the same violence at anti-mask protests.
It’s the LGBTQIA+ task-force’s aim to make sure that if — or rather when — the DWE referendum succeeds in its goal of socialising over 250,000 apartments in Berlin, a clause will be included in the new law to provide more security against discrimination for LGBTQIA+ and racialised people. Collecting the testimonials is helping to shape what this clause may look like and push to ensure that the most precarious in our society are considered in the future plan for Berlin.
Few campaigns have the opportunity to affect so many lives, but as tenants make up 85% of Berlin’s housing market this referendum has the potential to improve the lives of the majority. If you can vote in the upcoming referendum, please use your voice, not only for yourself, but for all those who are suffering at the hands of greedy landlords and an overreaching police state intent on sanitising the city to aid tech-bro gentrification. Even if it doesn’t affect you directly (which it likely will) it will surely create more affordable living conditions for many migrants, low-income households and precarious workers. If you can’t vote, please spread the word and encourage your German passport holding comrades to vote. If you believe voting is a democratic right, please add your support to the Nicht Ohne Uns campaign.
"Our testimonials and struggles, along with the story of grassroots movements like Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen deserve to be written in history, screened in films, painted in murals and shouted about in rallies!”
If you have suffered housing discrimination because of your gender or sexuality and feel comfortable sharing your written testimonial, we want to hear from you, please get in touch with us at queerDWE@protonmail.com