Tenant Rights and Landlord Power in Germany

Frankfurt         Spending some time walking around Rodelheim, a working-class neighborhood in Frankfurt, with tenant activists was an on the ground master’s course in tenant rights and landlord power in Germany.  The area is not gentrified exactly, but it is easy to see new developments coming in that could tip the scales dramatically.

Having just looked at renovictions and demovictions in British Columbia, I was full of questions as we walked passed numbers renovation projects in 4 and 5 story apartment buildings.  75% of Germans are tenants, so in areas like Rodelheim a single-family house is an unknown quantity and even the smallest houses are two and four family operations.  Demovictions, where properties are demolished and tenants evicted are rare here, I was told.  When we saw something coming up from the ground as new construction, it was after an old building had essentially collapsed and become inhabitable.

Renovictions were more commons, but there was a very different, very German twist.  The rehabs were ostensibly being done on older post-war buildings to make them greener and more environmentally sound, essentially creating an air zone to insulate the buildings better along with other upgrades.


Tenants were not exactly evicted.  In fact, tenants have permanent security of tenure in Germany.  There are no leases.  Once a tenant is in the flat, they can stay forever except for certain conditions like repeated nonpayment or engaging in criminal activity on the property.  The tenant almost gains an entitlement to the apartment.  Landlords, through their real estate owners’ association, have managed to take advantage of these tenants’ right in a costly way.  The modernization law allows them the option, which most gleefully exercise, of passing on the cost of the renovations with an increase in the rent to pay for the work over a period of years.  Every three years, landlords already have the right to exercise an option to raise the rent by up to 15%.  They can add on this modernization charte as well.  Because of this law within ten years most tenants will have collectively paid for the renovations.  Within twenty years, as these excess payments accumulate, the landlord will do even better since they can simply bank those increased rents.

The building where I’m staying in a spare room is a good example.  There are renovations ongoing on the outside cladding as well as on the elevators and so forth.  Some 40%, if I heard right, of the tenants have already left in anticipation of being assessed the increased cost of the renovations.  They were not evicted, but they read the writing, literally, on their walls.

The tenants have not been able to stop the rent increases that are coming, even though this big tower block is owned by a scientific foundation.  They have won noise abatement breaks in the construction of a half hour early in the day and in the afternoon and an hour around midday.  That is an unusual, but significant victory that may prevent the noise from chasing some tenants away, although the renovation pass-through to the tenants may be more effective in gentrifying the building.


ACORN Tenants Taking Charge, Running for Seats on the Board in France

Grenoble         Every four years social housing tenants in France have the opportunity to run for seats on the board of their city’s housing authority.  Admittedly, the seats allotted for tenant representation are a minority of the board positions, because in France, as elsewhere, a voice for tenants is preferable to allowing real power for tenants.  From conversations with organizers, leaders, and members of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, in Grenoble and the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, that may be about to change.  Members of the Alliance have put forth slates of candidates in three different housing districts, two in Grenoble and one in Paris and have begun to campaign in earnest.

In various meetings throughout the week the plan has shaped up.  In Grenoble where the voting pool is 17000 families, we have been wrestling with the mechanics of the election.  There is a voting period of roughly two weeks in which tenants have to return mail ballots to be counted in the election.  A list of tenants is available as well as a map of all buildings in the system, but the exact time of their availability is still uncertain, making it difficult to make a comprehensive week-by-week plan.  Nonetheless, Alliance candidates have an advantage simply because they are running as a team, backed by the organization, and in some cases partnered with a local union as well, but that advantage only works if we are all able to come to consensus on a plan and then do the hard work of campaigning for the almost eight weeks until the voting closes in December.

After conference calls throughout the week, I attended a meeting of the candidates, organizers, and key organizing committee members in a common space meeting room in one of the housing projects of Grenoble Habitat, where over potato chips and apple juice the plans were being hashed out.  Like all campaigns and organizing the focus was first on lists and building an organizing committee.  Regardless of when – or if – a list is supplied by the housing authority, the key first topic on the agenda of the meeting was how to use the list we have and how to build it larger in advance of the election.  In the smaller election, we have 800 names and in the larger one we have closer to 1500.  There was agreement that the committee would divide up the list, report on daily progress, and commit individually to spending 10 hours on the phones to contact all 2300 names in order to reach 800 to 1000.  The objective was to use the calls to identify building representatives as organizing committee members in as many buildings as possible.  Those campaign representatives would commit to circulating the literature, building a list of building tenants, joining the candidates in doorknocking in their building, and organizing a building wide meeting to meet the candidates between now and the election.

The literature drop would be in the following week, and staff and the planning committee committed to developing a week-by-week plan until the election to be discussed and decided on at the regular weekly meeting.  There was agreement that the concentration would first be on identifying and turning out our base to vote before trying to expand to buildings in the suburbs and elsewhere that we had not previously organized.  These elections are decided by only one or two thousand votes, so the GOTV and multiple “touches” to make sure the ballots are filled our correctly and mailed is central to victory.

This is the first time the organization has embarked on an election campaign of any kind, so it’s exciting and heady stuff.  The one thing that is certain is that the leadership and organization will be stronger once the votes are counted, win, lose or draw.  The other thing that is clear will be that if the Alliance/ACORN members are elected, change is coming to housing authorities in Grenoble and Aubervilliers as tenants join their voices together to create power on the boards that will not be denied.


Please enjoy Southern State of Mine by Sugarcane Jane.

Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles’ Get as Gone Can Get.

Thanks to KABF.