The old Wombat’s City Hostel stands next to Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Mitte — directly opposite the old Exberliner office, actually. The white building with 80 rooms has been standing empty for almost three years.
On April 30, half a dozen activists decided to do something about that. The initiative “Hotels to Housing” squatted the building and demanded that it be turned into a shelter for refugees.
Starting at 10am, banners were hung out the window: “Turn vacancies into accommodations.” Up to 70 people gathered on the street outside. By the early afternoon, Berlin police forced their way inside and detained everyone for trespassing.
Police might claim they were only enforcing the law. But what does Berlin and German law actually have to say about this occupation?
Since 2014, Berlin has had a Zweckentfremdungsgesetz (roughly: a law on misappropriation) making it illegal to leave residential space empty for more than three months. Lawyers could debate whether this would apply to a former hostel, but it’s obvious that the building’s owners are violating the spirit of the law.
Yet there is no enforcement mechanism. The district councils are supposed to kick in the doors of empty apartments and rent them out at market rates, while sending the profits to the owners (despite their illegal activity). But the districts almost never do that — they claim they have no resources. As a result, when the rent cap was still in effect, realty speculators would go on TV to declare, without a hint of shame, that they were refusing to rent out apartments, i.e. that they were deliberately breaking the law. Not a single one of them ended up in prison.
The squatters were trying to enforce the law. The police were guaranteeing that the building’s owners could break the law without consequence.
In the case of Wombat’s, the squatters were trying to enforce the law. When the police intervened, they were guaranteeing that the building’s owners could continue to break the law without consequence.
But there’s more. Why was the old Wombat’s City Hostel abandoned? The owners, who run different hostels around Europe, said their Berlin location was consistently profitable.
Back in 2015, the 35 employees at this hostel founded a Betriebsrat or works council. This was an attempt to push back against bad working conditions, such as double shifts. The following year, they won a union contract including higher wages. This was (as far as anyone could remember) the first hostel in Germany with a works council and a union contract.
From the very first day, the owners made clear that they saw their employees claiming their basic legal rights as a “breach of trust.” Over the following years, there were countless reports of threats and bullying by managers — including a penis spray-painted on the street that said “Fuck U Betriebsrat!” Cleaning personnel were being outsourced and thus divided from their co-workers. In responce, the workers held many protests (which is how I got to know this very determined and international workforce).
In 2019, Wombat’s management announced they were closing the Berlin location, due to “open hostility inside and outside the hostel.” In other words, they were explicitly retaliating against workers for getting organized. This is illegal in Germany — heck, it’s even illegal in the United States. Workers councils enjoy such protections that their elected members cannot be fired — obstructing the work of a Betriebsrat is a felony that can be punished by up to a year in prison. Closing a branch of a company for electing a council is about as illegal as it gets.
Here, however, the owners used a dumb legal loophole. They said that Wombat’s Berlin was a separate company that just happened to have the same name and the same owners as the Wombat’s chain. Accordingly, no one was getting fired — the company was simply dissolving. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but this obviously goes against the most basic ideas of German labour laws. There were even rumours that they planned to reopen the hostel with a new workforce — the sign is still there, after all — but the pandemic got in the way.
Over the years, the police could have intervened to protect workers’ legal rights. Did they? No — they were always on the side of law-breaking capitalists. If the police refuse to enforce the law, it’s no wonder that housing activists will try to take matters into their own hands. That seems like the only way to solve Berlin’s housing crisis.
Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.