Berlin’s Kottbusser Tor, a square and subway stop that straddles the intersection of three busy streets, is the site of a sprawling, 1970s-built concrete housing project in the migrant-rich neighborhood of Kreuzberg. As disorienting as it is to navigate the mazelike area, finding one’s way to the project’s tenants’ initiative, Kotti & Co, is relatively simple. Just ask the Arabic vegetable vendors or Turkish barbers, who call the area by the nickname “Kotti.” They’ll point you to a wood-paneled hut, the Gecekondu, which is Kotti & Co’s symbol and meeting place.

People gather in front of the Gecekondu, Kotti & Co's headquarters in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood (Photograph courtesy of Kotti & Co) 

In Turkish, gecekondu means “built overnight.” The structure’s first incarnation, a ramshackle tent, was, in fact, assembled in one night in late May 2012 as an impromptu shelter for residents protesting rent hikes and gentrification. “We want our homes back!” they demanded, banging on pots and pans, as protesters also did in Argentina, Canada, Iceland, and elsewhere. “We have a right to the inner city!”

The city’s politicos did not budge in negotiations to have rent caps restored, and so in the spirit of the US Occupy movement and the protest camp on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Kottbusser Tor’s fed-up residents pledged that they would remain camped on the sidewalks until rents fell.

This was the sensational public debut of Berlin’s grassroots tenants’ rights initiative, Kotti & Co. The enterprise now sits at the forefront of Berlin’s broad anti-gentrification struggle, which also includes architect and lawyer groups, city planners, and activists seeking to expand affordable cultural spaces for artists and musicians. And it is leading a citywide initiative to demand that Berlin buy back social housing stock that it sold off to private investors.

By engaging in the hard-fought nitty-gritty of lawmaking and crossing traditional ethnic divisions, Kotti & Co has moved beyond housing movements of the past and serves as a model for many other bottom-up initiatives for fairer housing.

A Tradition of Protest

From the outset, Kotti & Co has stood out from the plethora of Berlin housing initiatives before it: Its members reflect Kottbusser Tor’s potpourri of residents, including Turkish and Arabic immigrants and their offspring, students, working-class Germans, Kreuzberg leftists, and retirees.

“Kotti & Co, in contrast to past campaigns, focused on the specific social problems facing the tenants and not on any bigger, overarching political ideas,” says Lisa Vollmer, a sociologist, activist, and expert on Berlin’s housing politics. “It didn’t matter if you were right or left, Turkish or Kurdish, Muslim or Christian, or a [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan fan or whatever. It was about the high rents.”

By gathering protesters in one place, the Gecekondu, which is staffed around the clock to maintain its squat, has helped these diverse Kreuzbergers to bond. As the protest gained momentum, the tent transformed into a permanent wooden structure, and Kotti & Co eventually morphed into an institution fighting for tenants’ rights in local and city structures.

Kotti & Co has not only crossed boundaries between different demographic groups but also recruited academics and housing experts, and reached out to lawmakers and private property owners. While many past activists eschewed such efforts as a concession to authorities, Kotti & Co has brought these people onboard and called on their expertise and insights to help inform the campaign for more equitable housing policy.

In this way, Kotti & Co is adding to the already rich tradition of Berlin’s defiant housing movements. In Cold War West Berlin, a mishmash of anarchists, students, and social workers squatted in 200 apartment buildings in the early 1980s—many of them just off Kottbusser Tor—in an attempt to rescue the city’s turn-of-the-century brick structures from demolition, secure affordable housing for themselves, and create their own political communities. Authorities eventually either shut down or legalized the squats, fracturing a housing movement that nevertheless remained prominent and highly political.

After the Berlin Wall fell, the city’s east side also experienced a giant wave of squatting and then mass privatization following German unification. In western Berlin, the 1990s and the aughts marked a turn away from government-subsidized, affordable housing as the city sold off its stock to tenants, new homeowners, and, above all, investors. In the early 1990s, 30 percent of the city’s total housing was either city-owned or privately owned, rent-controlled social housing. By 2008, that percentage had been halved. Debt-strapped Berlin felt it could no longer afford social housing’s upkeep and sorely needed the sales revenue.

A private investment fund company bought most of the Kottbusser Tor blocks in 2002. The new owners wanted to chase away socially disadvantaged residents by refurbishing the living quarters and then leasing them at much higher rates to new, higher-income tenants. “You could see families in the elevators, the kids crying, because they couldn’t afford to live here anymore and had to go,” says Sandy Kaltenborn, one of Kotti & Co’s organizers and a resident. “Also, traditional shops that had been there for decades were being replaced with commercial enterprises catering to tourists.”

By the 2010s, the demand for housing was exploding as Berlin crept out of its economic funk, and ever more newcomers, including refugees, flooded in. In a city in which 85 percent of the population rents, rental prices shot up by 46 percent between 2009 and 2013. Evictions rose with them.

The most notable part of Kotti & Co’s response to these disruptions has been its push, alongside other housing activists, for legislation to ensure more affordable rental housing. “The Senate of Berlin is ignoring its constitutional mandate to provide people, particularly those with low incomes, with inexpensive places to live,” stated the 2015 affordable housing campaign that Kotti & Co helped lead. “We need at least 120,000 more affordable homes in Berlin.” The activists started a Berlin-wide rent referendum and in six weeks collected an initial 50,000 signatures, reaping plentiful media coverage for an issue that was not in the media limelight or on politicians’ agenda. After all, Berlin’s rents were lower than in every other major German city, and a fraction of those in Paris and London. Many politicians and businesses saw the higher rents as a natural process of Berlin “catching up.”

“The possibility of a referendum shook up the city’s politicos,” says Uwe Rada of the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung. “They didn’t want a referendum that might have committed them to broadly revamping their policies. So they offered Kotti & Co and the other groups a deal: a new housing law.”

A Legal Milestone

Kotti & Co worked closely with lawmakers and legal experts in drafting the new law, not shying away from either the turgid legalese or going toe-to-toe with the authorities on the law’s substance. The law’s passage in 2015 marked a turning point in Berlin’s recent social housing policy. First, it put meaningful rent controls back on city and privately owned social housing properties, addressing the original demands of Kotti & Co and other city initiatives. Second, it committed Berlin to expanding its stock of social housing by constructing new housing and purchasing existing stock, including buying back social housing it had previously sold off during the privatization drive of the 1990s and 2000s.

“The law was a milestone,” says Sigmar Gude, a sociologist who has worked on housing issues in Berlin for 25 years. “It gave Berliners in social housing something palpable, effectively lowering or freezing rents, and it established a new direction for housing policy. Its passage has already added 20,000 social apartment units to Berlin’s holdings and will add another 80,000 over the next eight years.” (The city has also tried to ban short-term subletting to tourists and Airbnb, although with limited success.)

Under the new law, Berlin has bought back Kottbusser Tor’s northern towers and is now negotiating purchase of the southern block. Yet Sandy Kaltenborn says that Kotti & Co’s work is nowhere near finished. The group wants to help shape the estate’s management so that its residents are actively involved in its decision-making processes. “We’re the experts here, not the housing association,” says Kaltenborn. “We see huge waste happening that costs us. If we did the repairs ourselves, we could save money.”

Kotti & Co is now organized as a formally registered association, its officials selected by vote among its members. But more important, an informal core group of roughly 15 people meets once a week and leads the group’s advocacy efforts. “The core group evolved organically during the campaigns,” says Kaltenborn. He explains that Kotti & Co isn’t highly structured like a classic political organization, but rather is more like a “family in the neighborhood.” He admits that this closely knit community may not make newcomers feel immediately comfortable. But so far, this structure has helped the organization achieve its goals, and there are no plans to change it.

Since Kotti & Co’s success, other, similar groups have sprouted up, such as Stadt von Unten (City from Below) and Bündnis Otto- Suhr-Siedlung (Association of the Otto Suhr Estate). These groups are also trying to get Berlin to buy or buy back more housing stock and use the property it already owns—some of which now stands empty and dilapidated—for social housing, as well as for cultural endeavors and to house refugees. Meeting these demands will be a tall order for Berlin: A “preemptive right of purchase” law allows the city to buy buildings on the market at a lower price before private investors do, but that price is still pegged to the rental market. So the city finds itself competing for real estate with private developers in a housing market vastly more costly than that of the 1990s.

The activists of Kotti & Co admit that despite their successes, Berlin’s housing market remains fraught, with rents climbing and ever more real estate bought up by private investors. “[Y]ou can’t blame Kotti & Co for the fact that 40,000 new people a year are moving to Berlin. Berlin just can’t keep up with it,” says Gude. But he says that groups such as Kotti & Co have put a dynamic of tenant mobilization in motion that the housing movement can build on. Five or six years ago, he says, before Kotti & Co, this kind of momentum was unthinkable.

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