1. Governance
February 28, 2019updated 04 Aug 2023 8:49am

What Germany’s renters union can teach its radical British counterparts

Berlin is the only capital in the EU whose residents’ incomes are low enough to be a drag on average national income. But this will not be apparent to the ordinary visitor. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs are thronged with young people apparently rich in disposable income. The cause? Cheap rent.

A reasonably spacious two bed in Prenzlauer Berg costs around £800 a month – about half the price of a similar apartment in London. The political power that German renters wield is partly due to their diversity; white collar workers are as likely to rent as manual workers. People of all backgrounds have skin in the game.  

Another reason for low rents is the powerful German tenants’ unions of the Deutsche Mieterbund – an umbrella association which represents a total of 3 million German renters. The Berliner Mieterverein (Berlin Renters’ Union, or BMV) is the largest association, counting 170,000 members. The union advocates for private tenants but also maintains an interest in social housing.

The BMV has mounted legal challenges in a climate of rising rents. It has campaigned successfully for Berlin’s city council to exercise its right, when apartment buildings come on the market, to match private offers and take them into municipal ownership. Its size and influence must seem a distant dream to Britons engaged in tenants struggles.

Several upstart organisations have sought to replicate the BMV’s success. Acorn, which counts branches across the UK, has instigated high-profile direct action campaigns against unscrupulous letting agents, bad landlords, and banks which discriminate against those on benefits. As Acorn’s national organiser Nick Ballard puts it, the union has a broader purpose that intersects with other political struggles. Their inaugural branch in Bristol, for example, successfully campaigned against the city overturning £8.5 million pounds in planned cuts to council tax benefit.

The radicalism of Acorn and other British tenants unions, such as the London Renters’ Union, is to be expected; Britain’s housing crisis is severe and its political landscape is heavily skewed in favour of landlords. Wibker Werner, from the Berlin union, cautions that her organisation does not succeed because it is particularly radical, but because it has strong relationships with major German parties.

Acorn’s recruitment strategies embody its radicalism and desire to mobilise mostly working-class tenants. They differ markedly from those of its German counterpart. The BMV’s turnover is only about 5 per cent each year, and its numbers are sustained mostly through advertising. Acorn, on the other hand, favours a door-knocking strategy.

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While building a membership through door knocking is arduous – political parties attract few recruits this way – the tactic seems to work. Ballard estimates that Acorn has attracted 70% of its membership in this way. The remainder, Ballard believes, join Acorn after hearing about its protests.

Comparisons between renters unions and trade unions are often warranted. A trade union knows that once they achieve a certain level of membership in a workplace they are entitled to recognition, and that the weight of their numbers enables them to threaten bosses with industrial action. The difficulty for renters’ unions is these tactics are not easy to replicate.

In the property market there is no equivalent of Companies House – one can’t reverse-search property ownership by landlord and recruit that landlord’s tenants to a union. Indeed, allowing the land registry to be searched according to property ownership, as one can in certain circumstances do in Germany, would be a sensible demand of tenants’ unions, and a presumably cheap innovation for any government wishing to support them.

Since 2018, Labour Party policy has been for the state to finance British tenants’ unions. Werner cannot imagine the BMV accepting state funding – she says the organisation’s reliance on membership dues is the key to its cherished independence. Ballard is also wary; Acorn’s decision would depend on “what strings were attached”. Given Ballard’s reticence, it might be wiser to spend the money on other measures to empower tenants and let unions grow organically.

Those measures could include encouraging longer tenancies and introducing automatic voter registration. Britain’s large turnout gap between tenants and homeowners can be explained by the frequency with which tenants move home and by non-automatic voter registration. Would-be voters fall off the rolls, political parties find it harder to maintain useful data on tenants’ political priorities and voting intentions, and transient populations care less about choosing their local representatives.

In Germany, renters move far less often, and voter registration is near automatic – this may explain the smaller turnout gap and the consequent respect with which governments treat tenants.

One might think that Acorn stands to learn more from bigger players like the Deutsche Mieterbund. But given the union’s rapidly growing membership, success in a difficult political environment, and radical, creative tactics, the Berlin renters’ union could also learn a lot from its radical British counterpart.  

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