mega landlords

PHOTO: Berlin real estate

A historic vote in Berlin to seize homes from private mega landlords has Kiwi renters wondering if the same could be done here in New Zealand.

While there is scepticism from both the left and right, a new community grassroots effort hopes to change that.

In September, 56 percent of Berliners voted in favour of the local state government forcibly acquiring any rental property owned by a company with more than 3000 of them on its books – totalling about 243,000 belonging to 12 companies all-up.

While the referendum was non-binding, new Mayor Franziska Giffey said she would honour the results and draw up legislation to get the ball rolling – even though in her view, it won’t “help to create even a single new apartment or solve the big question of affordable housing”.

While home ownership rates have been falling in New Zealand for three decades, we have nowhere near the proportion of households renting as Berlin, where it’s over 80 percent. Faced with growing discontent over rising rents, in January 2020 the city enacted strict rent controls on properties built before 2014.

But this was overturned by the courts in April 2021, and tenants were suddenly faced not just with massive hikes but also potentially having to reimburse landlords who had to drop rents to comply with the “unconstitutional” legislation.

By then, activists in the city had already begun collecting signatures for a referendum on the expropriation of properties owned by mega-landlords – any with more than 3000 on their books.

The campaign was named after Deutsche Wohnen, a corporate landlord with more than 110,000 apartments. Also in the activists’ sights was Vonovia, which is in the process of buying Deutsche Wohnen – which would give it 550,000 properties across Germany and more than 150,000 in Berlin, leaving about 7 percent of households in the city renting from a single landlord.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the soaring living costs of tenants, in Berlin on September 11.
Demonstrators take part in a protest against the soaring living costs of tenants, in Berlin on September 11. Photo credit: Getty Images

The cost of expropriating all the homes covered in the referendum has been estimated at between €7 billion and €36 billion (NZ$11.7 billion to NZ$60 billion).

Before the rent control law, Berlin’s rents had doubled in a decade. New Zealand’s median has gone up 60 percent since 2011, rising at a fairly consistent rate regardless of what else has been happening in the property market. Auckland prices are comparable to Berlin’s, if not a little more expensive.

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