The noise starts every morning at 7am: saws, jackhammers, monstrous vehicles and a crane towering above it all. The worst — I didn’t even know this was a thing — is a horn at the top of the crane that blasts constantly. A neighbour who lives on the other side of the wall said his vibrating apartment has become uninhabitable.
Construction workers are renovating three apartment buildings near my house. Wipperstraße 5 in Neukölln has been almost entirely empty for more than a decade. The 40 apartments have been allowed to rot. Yet sometime next year, people will finally move (back) in.
Neukölln desperately needs more apartments. By living with the ruckus, we are taking one for the team, right? I certainly wouldn’t mind the noise if it served to create affordable housing.
The whole project, however belongs to Henning Conle, a billionaire who moves between Zurich and London. His father Heinz Conle was a social democratic official in Duisburg who made millions with public housing in the 1950s and 1960s. The younger Conle has increased that fortune with reality speculation.
In 2015, his fortune was estimated at just over a billion Swiss francs (which is just over a billion euros or U.S. dollars, more or less). He has acquired prime real estate in central London, but hasn’t abandoned his core business: as the magazine Neuköllnisch reported, Conle specialises in buying up apartment buildings and keeping them empty. With prices in Berlin constantly driven up by speculation, the longer you keep a property empty, the more you can make off it.
Conle avoids publicity so consistently that he has been called a “phantom.” But he made international news when journalists found out that he had made massive illegal contributions to the far-right party Alternative for Germany or AfD. In deliberate violation of German laws on party financing, he gave secret donations to AfD politicians like lead candidate Alice Weidel and party chair Jörg Meuthen.
Donations of 132,000 euros to Weidel and 90,000 euros to Meuthen were made via straw men, some of whom were Conle’s business partners. He has also donated to the far-right Swiss People’s Party. There could be more that has not yet been discovered.
Keeping apartments empty more more than three months is against the law in Berlin — it is banned as Zweckentfremdung, which roughly means “misuse of living space,” and can be sanctioned with fines of €500,000. District authorities are supposed to break open empty apartments and rent them out at fair prices. As far as I can tell, they have never even attempted to enforce the law — they say they don’t have the resources.
When the Mietendeckel (rent cap) was in effect, millionaires and billionaires went on television and declared that they were refusing to rent out apartments at regulated prices. They were right not to worry — not a single one suffered consequences after bragging about their criminal activities.
In 2018, activists occupied the Holzkohleladen, the former coal shop at Wipperstraße 5, hoping to turn it over to people without homes. The police showed up within minutes to end the occupation. Were the activists violating the law? No, exactly the opposite: they were trying to enforce the law. Were the police enforcing the law? No, they were there to help a billionaire violate the law.
This brings us to the topic of expropriation. 350,000 Berliners supported the campaign Deutsche Wohnen enteignen to socialise Berlin’s biggest landlords. Opponents like to claim that nationalization would be some kind of violation of “law and order.” But the exact opposite is the case: socialisation is allowed by Article 15 of Germany’s Basic Law, and it would put a stop to rampant lawlessness on the housing market.
People with German passports will be able to vote on nationalisation on September 26, alongside the Berlin and German elections. Eighty-six percent of Berliners pay rent every month. What should happen with that money? Most would probably agree it should be invested in maintenance of existing buildings and construction of new houses.
But if an apartment is owned by Conle, rent goes to finance right-wing parties. Or in the case of Deutsche Wohnen and Vonovia, rent flows to investors like Blackrock, who in turn use the money to lobby in favour of Trump’s tax cuts.
Far-right parties like the AfD often promise to fight “the swamp” and present themselves as advocates of “the little guy.” But look at who sponsors them: all the hatred against immigrants is just a smoke screen for a billionaires’ agenda.
We know that too well in Berlin. One of Germany’s most famous racist demagogues is Thilo Sarrazin, who uses thinly vailed eugenicist arguments to claim that poor people and immigrants are less intelligent. In the 2000s, he was Berlin’s finance senator and a member of the SPD. Along with Harald Wolf from Die LINKE, he was responsible for privatising almost 200,000 units of public housing for throwaway prices.
Now, the same SPD has announced it intends to buy back 20,000 of those apartments. As the renters’ initiative Kotti&Co has pointed out, the city could pay up to six times the selling price — despite the fact that the apartments have only gotten minimal maintenance for the last 15 years. Sarrazin’s racist agitation would seem to be accompanying music for massive handouts to wealthy friends of same-proclaimed “populists.”
There is a way to break this cycle: expropriate Conle, Deutsche Wohnen, Vonovia, and all for-profit landlords with more than 3,000 apartments. This is the only way to take housing out of Berlin’s “realty mafia” — which is connected to organised crime. Putting all that housing under public control would also be a way to dry up financing for far-right parties all over the world. Expropriation is antiracism.
Red Flag is a weekly political column by Nathaniel Flakin.