Interview - "It was right to pull the emergency brake"

Ms. Gennburg, how do you rate the judgment of the Constitutional Court?

This is a moderately severe earthquake that initially takes place on a social level - with social hardships that have to be cushioned, especially in the pandemic, and which we as the left-wing government naturally have to and want to face. But also on the level of democracy theory. You have to put it this way: The Constitutional Court simply shot the lid off us. We could not have expected it in this way. One would have thought that the first Senate of the Constitutional Court would give a verdict on individual parts of the rent cover. The fact that instead the second Senate declares the nullity in this severity with a view to formal jurisdiction alone does not match how quickly the judgment was now announced and pronounced. It was decided without a hearing - and apparently without considering the practical consequences.

So you are surprised that the rent cover has been removed?

Yes, that it is completely cleared away. And the harshness with which it happens. This decision could have been made more mildly and more realistically, for example by not referring to the last few months but only to the future.

Photo: rico_prauss

Katalin Gennburg has been sitting for LINKE in the Berlin House of Representatives since 2016. In the parliamentary group she is the spokesperson for urban development, tourism and smart cities

However, the Berlin state government is now also being criticized. There is talk of a debacle. How is it one?

The debacle is above all a social one. In the midst of the pandemic, we are confronted with the fact that the social rent regulation has been shot away and we now have to quickly cushion the social hardship. Politically we stand by what we have done. There were and are good reasons to introduce the rent cap. It was fought for on the street. One thinks of the two big referendums with which the movement fought for urban and rent-political space. Or the dispute with Deutsche Wohnen, which freezes tenants in winter, but increases rents at the same time. Against this background of large institutional investors driving up rents, it was clear to us to implement this act of self-defense. The fact that the CDU and FDP have filed this lawsuit should definitely be taken into account when deciding on the election on September 26th. For us, the question now arises as to which national competencies we will continue to develop in terms of a social housing supply policy. And of course it is now also a matter of continuing to support the referendum “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen!”.

The rent cap was a prestige project. There was also a lot of recognition from civil society for this. That it was collected must also hurt.

I was at the demo yesterday with about 20.000 people. In the middle of a pandemic, they organized themselves against rent increases in less than 24 hours. They are a symbol of a nationwide movement for a social turnaround, which consists of tenant initiatives from all over Germany. In this respect, the verdict is sure to be very painful for many people. The rent cap was not just a prestige project for left-wing government participation, but actually a centerpiece for a political turnaround. A left turn in all of politics - away from the pure exploitation logic and profit orientation that politics has had under control for many years.

The taz there was talk of "enduring hammers". How difficult is it personally?

As a politician, I am part of very broad alliances that have worked together to ensure that this rent cap is now in place. It was a collective process. I cannot say that there is now malice attached to specific actors. It was an emotional blow for me to see so many people at the demonstration who were directly affected by it that they will now have to pay back rents. Nevertheless, it was absolutely right to pull the emergency brake against the rent madness, and it is also right now to continue to fight for socialization. I think more people see it that way than some would like to realize.

What are the concrete consequences for people?

Very many are confronted with potential back payments. It is important for them to contact the tenant advice centers in the districts, but also the tenants' association or the Berlin tenant community. The fates are as different as the strategies of the landlords to circumvent the rent cap for the shadow rents. You first have to see which landlords will actually make additional claims. Individual housing corporations have already announced that they will not do that, others want to do it and thus invite all the more to their own socialization. All of this will only be sorted out in the next few days. However, people have been promoting rent strikes in recent years. I suppose they will see a tremendous boost.

Social hardships have to be dealt with, you said. What exactly will the state government do there?

An aid fund is now being discussed. However, one day after the decision is made, it is not yet the time to present the solution. For the state-owned housing associations, which have a very large housing stock in Berlin, the rent cap should also continue to apply, this must now be clarified.

With this ruling, the federal government is given a lot of responsibility with regard to affordable housing. What can you do now at state level?

Rent regulation will definitely be the big topic of the federal elections. At the state level, we are already designating many milieu protection areas, social and communal housing construction has already been massively pushed in recent years and needs to be even more. We want to confiscate vacancies in order to avert homelessness and to ensure a register of rents and apartments for transparency on the real estate market. We have also made pre-purchases and remunicipalisation of apartment buildings and real estate a priority in Berlin in the coalition. That will now become even more important, even if it certainly means some dispute with the SPD. We need a lot more leeway to finance advance purchases - and we actually need broader alliances for socialization.

The rent cover was a result of the pressure of the road. Such a kickback can infuriate or paralyze a movement. What do you think how it will go on?

A big slogan of the protests in Greece during the financial crisis was "The fear is on the other side now". Yesterday, at the demonstration against the verdict, an important, strengthening momentum was felt: This is about common struggles. They can also help to send fear to the other side, to turn something paralyzing into something activating. The tenants in Berlin immediately set in motion, and with the referendum “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen!” There is a clear next milestone. This judgment will give a massive boost to the desire to socialize speculated living space.

There was also an “expert opinion battle” on the subject of expropriation. But as a leftist you want to take the risk?

Naturally. We have a very clear compass that we use to orient ourselves. We want to build a non-profit housing sector. You have to overcome a lot of resistance that has grown over decades. It takes a lot of staying power and a lot of strength. It was always clear to us that socialization, alongside the rent cap, is another important step on the way to a strong non-profit housing sector. The failure of the rent cap before the Federal Constitutional Court is a major setback, especially for the social situation of the tenants, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the petition for expropriation. On the contrary: the reports that we requested for the plebiscite last year were always very clear, while the question of competence regarding the rent cap was a bit more controversial - even if there were many indications that the authority to regulate public rent law rests with the state.

There is also an election in Berlin in autumn. Rents and affordable housing are a central issue for the Left Party. Is that now burned for the House of Representatives elections?

No, left politics is always open-sighted politics. The ruling from Karlsruhe does not change the basic orientation of our rental policy by a millimeter. It's about social re-regulation. The rent question is the social question and a class conflict. Even more so now. That's why it will the remain a political question for the autumn.

And that will continue to get caught? Aren't you concerned that voters will lose hope that your goals will be achieved?

It will now be a matter of communicating that it must go on of course and that we have very powerful opponents. But I think the FDP and CDU have done themselves a disservice with their lawsuit because they have rekindled the rent issue. The rent cap was not just a prestige project by parties, but was won by tenants. You asked the social question about living and asked for action. We are committed to these demands and we will implement them in Parliament. If there are severe setbacks - like the one caused by the judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court - then we will also consider together with the people who have demanded how to proceed and will stand by their side.