The Real (E)state of City Politics

Berliners will be voting in their city election this coming Sunday. Unfortunately, my registration will be too late for me to vote, but the city is plastered with election posters, so we’re passively participating in this campaign.

And, curiously, there are some issues that are quite similar to Vancouver!

City State Elections

Berlin is one of three city states among the German Länder. The other two, Hamburg and Bremen, have retained their status largely for historical reasons, but in the case of Berlin, it is not only the capital of Germany, but its largest city as well.

With a regional population of 3.5mio Berlin is significantly more populous than Vancouver. It is also geographically larger as there was a policy campaign in 1920 to incorporate then-outlying suburbs into the city proper, so that most of the Berlin population actually lives in the city, though the so-called Speckgürtel (bacon belt), of middle-class and wealthier suburbia has also been growing around the city in the surrounding state of Brandenburg.

As a city state, Berlin’s political structure is much like the other states. There’s a parliament (Abgeordnetenhaus) that elects a Lord Mayor (Regierender Bürgermeister) who essentially is comparable to a Canadian premier, though there is no lieutenant governor or similar, more symbolic head of the state.

Voting also follows the federal model, i.e. Berliners will have two votes, one vote in their riding that elects a representative directly, and a party vote that will be counted toward proportional representation of parties in parliament with a minimum 5% threshold.

Quite different from Vancouver’s weird all-city city council and the separation of administrative and political units like Vancouver and Surrey or Richmond, for example.

Parties in the Election

The biggest question in the country’s public mind seems to be how well the AfD (Alternative for Germany) will do, the right-ish populist movement that started out in opposition to the Greek bailout/Euro, but has morphed into an anti-migration/refugees movement.

Top: Social Democrats – Berlin remains affordable. 100,000 new public apartments. Below: Green Party – Berlin’s most important start-ups: kids.


Locally, that is not a dominant question, though public safety (seemingly inevitably linked to the presence of “foreigners”) does come up. Education also shows up on posters. The competing parties are CDU (centre-right), SPD (social democratic), FDP (liberal), Grüne (green), Linke (left), AfD, Piraten (pirates). And there are a host of other parties. Yesterday, I saw an ad for party for health research. What? Yes, a single-issue party advocating for more publicly-funded health research that is not owned by pharmaceutical companies. I’m not sure what their chances in the election are.

Real Estate and Densification

But, the surprise to me is that real estate is a real issue in Berlin, with similar dynamics to Vancouver.

Today’s Berliner Zeitung (my local, almost-national newspaper of choice) thus had a front page headline this morning, “Müller will Spekulanten abkassieren” (Lord Mayor wants to collect from speculative investors). The article describes the mayor’s efforts to introduce legislation that would levy additional taxes on foreign purchases of real estate, prevent apartments left vacant for speculation, and also go after the sharing economy-inspired operation of quasi hotels in rental apartments. Sound familiar, Vancouverites?

But, Berlin was supposed to be one of the last bastions of affordable living, due to the post-unification glut of housing and the absence of industry and thus employment. Those have been the factors that have fuelled Berlin as a centre of contemporary arts, but also a breeding ground for all kinds of hipsterness. Alas, low rents mean low prices for real estate which attract investors. And thus, Berlin appears to be experiencing a boom in start-ups and all kinds of .coms and at the same time real estate prices and rental rates are rising quickly. Again, sound familiar?

The lamented consequences, rental rates that are unaffordable, a lack of rental units generally, gentrification… This is a transition from the “poor, but sexy” image cultivated by former mayor Wowereit, to “starkes Berlin” (strong Berlin) the slogan of the current Christian-Democrat campaign.

Solutions? As the Berliner  Zeitung writes, “The Social Democrats are proposing counter measures that are similar to other larges cities, like Singapur, Vancouver, and Sydney”. These include additional taxes on purchases and less clear proposals to go after vacancies and AirBnB-hotels.

Chinese investors don’t seem to feature in Berlin in the same way that they do in Vancouver (discussions). In fact, speculative investment seems to be perceived as a corporate activity, investment funds, etc. There does seem to be a significant presence of Russian investors (our neighbourhood, Charlottenburg, had a strong Russian population in the 1920s which seems to have revived, thus leading to the tag, Charlottengrad), but it is not discussed with the same vigour that the Chinese presence in Vancouver’s real estate market is.

Interestingly, densification is also a political issue. At first glance, Berlin seems much more densely populated because of its ubiquitous six-story houses (the Berliner Traufhöhe that was created in the early 1900s has meant that most streets are lined with 22m-high roofs). However, that density is limited to the urban core while most of the surrounding areas are much less densely populated and high rises are rare. The solution that seems to be discussed most is to add stories to existing public housing. There is so much public-owned housing that such additions could have a significant impact on the rental market and they would not require additional real estate costs as the land would already be city-owned.


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