Something amazing is happening in Berlin. Next month, Berliners will vote in a referendum to force Germany's largest publicly traded landlords to sell 240,000 homes to the state, whereupon those homes will become publicly owned housing.
Berlin is a rarity: a semi-autonomous city whose history is overshadowed by a half-century of heavy public spending (in the west) as part of a program to prove that capitalism was a system of shared prosperity.
The system tolerates private or commercially operated housing, but only to the extent that this serves the goal of sheltering Berliners so they can make the city live - operate its businesses, serve its people, and enjoy its amenities.
For decades, heavy regulation and publicly operated housing made being a Berlin landlord into a safe, low-return operation. Most people rented, protected from rent shocks and poor maintenance by a vigorous enforcement apparatus.
Creeping deregulation and vast sums sloshing around the world of the ultrawealthy and the investment firms that serve them has changed all that. Today, Berlin's housing market looks like most cities': a skyline of safe deposit boxes in the sky.
Today, a home in Berlin exists to provide speculative returns (from resale) or income without work (rent). If it also provides a place for Berliners to work, live, raise a family and serve out their retirement, that's nice, but it's hardly essential.
Rents in Berlin have risen by *43% over the past five years.*
Who raised the rents? Giant, multinational corporations seeking maximum returns for their distant shareholders, at the literal and figurative expense of the people of Berlin.
In an eyeblink, EUR40b worth of Berlin's housing stock has been turned into a publicly traded asset. That's more than all the institutionally owned housing in Amsterdam and London *combined*.
There's $5b more about to pour into Germany's housing market, thanks to pensions and other big institutionals seeking predatory extraction, and that's before we get into Real Estate Investment Trusts.
REITs are *private* equity, and they're a devastatingly effective tool for money-laundering. REITs are typically backed by anonymous shell companies from financial secrecy havens and onshore-offshore zones like Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming.
REITs are a major force behind the global housing price emergency. The REITs scooping up German homes aren't just the ones owned by Russian oligarchs - there's also a ton of money from other EU countries, notably Spain and Ireland.
REITs represent a loophole to EU tax treaties, allowing Europe's wealthy to reap huge gains in another EU country, while ducking taxes.
Berlin is a weird case. Thanks to a combination of norms and regulations, it escaped the slow transformation of its built environment from a means to serve the city into a means to serve absentee investors. When the change arrived, it arrived in a torrent, too quick to miss.
Berlin is a weird case because its laws allow the public to call a halt to this game and redistribute the tokens.
If Berliners vote Ja in Sept's referendum, the investors will get "fair market value" for these homes, and the city will assume their ownership and management.
It's quite a reminder that Steven Brust was spot on when he said that you can tell the left from the right by asking "What's more important: property rights or human rights?" The left's answer is "human rights." The right's answer is "Property rights *are* human rights."
Meanwhile, in America...
The American legend of class mobility had two paths: wage gains (largely the result of organized labor) and property appreciation (largely the result of public homebuying subsidies).
Both paths had color bars, but of the two, housing was the most racially segregated path to prosperity. Redlining and other predatory practices meant that the American journey from renter to owner was primarily a white journey.
White families accumulated wealth through their family homes, and Reagan convinced them to shut down the wage-gain path, with racist dogwhistles.
Now, 40 years on, the joke's on them - their kids are going to be renters because they have to liquidate the family home to pay for care, retirement and education - the systems that collapsed when organized labor was no longer there to defend them.
As Global Financial Integrity report in "Acres of Money Laundering: Why US Real Estate is a Kleptocrat’s Dream," "the U.S remains the only G7 country that does not require real estate professionals to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations"
The US also lacks pesky corporate transparency laws that would unmask the beneficial owners of US homes, malls and office-towers, which is why "82% of US cases involved the use of a legal entity to mask ownership."
Property speculation isn't just for major metros. As On The Media reports, there's an epidemic of speculation and eviction in distressed American rustbelt towns, the places where Black people found middle-class prosperity after the Great Migrations.
These cities - gutted by financialization and the offshoring of manufacturing - are now distressed assets. Everyone who could leave them has. The left-behinds have no way to go and are hostage to whatever predatory practices the wealthy and their funds can conceive of.
Property speculation would never be a stable means to broad prosperity.
As Elizabeth Magie taught us when she created The Landlord's Game in 1902, property is a winner-take-all game that eventually gathers all the assets into a few extractive hands.
(An unscrupulous salesman named Charles Darrow stole Magie's game and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1935, who rebranded it Monopoly and sold for decades it without acknowledging Magie's authorship)
They preach about sites like bid4assets.com, where abandoned/uninhabitable homes, odd lots and distressed commercial and retail real-estate lists for as little as $1, and promise shrewd bidding can relieve you from precarity and toil by delivering "passive income."
They're dangling a poor person's version of what a rich person does, leaving out all the graft, self-dealing, financial secrecy, arm-breaking and debt-leveraging that the wealthy use to wring gains from our homes.
This weekend, the Washington Post's Greg Jaffe published a stupendous, closely observed story of the people and places on either side of these trades, using a single block in Peoria, IL as a case-study.
A block on a street in Peoria's south end, West Lincoln Avenue, was once home to 100 people. Today, six people live there, and the majority of homes are uninhabitable, though they are sometimes squatted.
But early this summer, the block was snapped up by bidders from all over America, people who'd never been to Peoria (one new owner called a city official because she said buying a house in "Per-rora" was a "huge misunderstanding").
The houses went for as little as $751, and buyers had no way of knowing if their new "investments" were burned-down husks, crumbling ruins, or, in one case, a tomb for the long-abandoned corpse of an unidentified person.
The speculators who bid on these homes took "investing" courses or heard about the possibilities from friends. They live in US metros where the real-estate bubble has impoverished them by extracting nearly every spare cent for rent.
They don't know what to do, so they're doing this. It's a way to buy a dream. Some of them flip their "investments" to other speculators who also have no idea what to do with the homes of West Lincoln Ave.
Some of the investors are Black, and they speak of the urgency of property ownership that was instilled in them by their elders from childhood, as they watched white families accumulate (ultimately ephemeral) intergenerational wealth through owning their homes.
The people who live on West Lincoln are also Black, and they are several rungs further down the ladder than the investors who are scooping up the homes on their streets.
Jaffe's profile of them reveals their hard work, burdened straits, and dream of a decent life.
There's a kind of tragedy there, when a desperate barber in Salt Lake City dreams of finding security by extracting rent from an even-more-desperate family in Peoria - a zero-sum kind of security that will never materialize in any event.
Because Peoria can't be made valuable by buying and flipping its decaying housing stock.
For Peoria to come back, it needs actual *investment* - in services, productive enterprises, infrastructure maintenance.
Peoria can't rebuild or sustain itself by providing "passive income" to strangers across the nation. Any rent-extraction that distant "investors" manage from Peoria hastens its demise.
Meanwhile, Berliners have a chance to turn the tide - to show speculators the door and reframe housing as a human necessity, not a poker-chip. It's a momentous juncture for a planet where whole cities and even regions are in imminent danger of becoming uninhabitable.
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