Berlin - Shortly after midnight, the "Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co" campaign began collecting signatures for the second phase of its petition for a referendum on the expropriation of flats owned by large property companies. 

Their aim is to collect signatures from at least 7 per cent of Berliners who are eligible to vote in Berlin state elections - German citizens registered in Berlin, basically. Just over 170,000 signatures are needed. The activists have four months - till 25 June - to get there. If enough signatures are collected, a referendum becomes possible, which could then take place 26 September this year, the date of both the Berlin state elections and the German national elections.

Article 15 of the German consitution

The initiative wants to expropriate the holdings of real estate companies with more than 3,000 flats in return for compensation and invokes Article 15 of the consitution which states that "land, natural resources and means of production" can be transferred by law into common ownership or other forms of common economy for the purpose of expropriation. Representatives of the housing sector reject the idea for reasons of cost and have also expressed doubts about its legality.

In any case, expropriation - bringing housing into state ownership - would require compensation for an estimated 230,000 flats. The initiative calculates a cost of €8-13bn, the Senat at least €29bn. The figures on the signature lists, which are somewhat older, differ slightly.

Die Linke support the drive for expropriation

The campaign is highly controversial. Within the city's Red-Red-Green coalition, only Die Linke supports the move. The Greens sympathise with it, the SPD flat out reject it.

"This can't wait until Berlin is the most expensive city. We have to use all possibilities now," says Die Linke's local party leader Katina Schubert. Along with the rent cap, the construction of new affordable housing and the use of the right of first refusal, Die Linke sees expropriation as part of a strategy to improve the housing situation. Leading Die Linke politicians, including national party leader Katja Kipping, will add their signatures to the list at the initiative's kick-off rally at Kottbusser Tor today.

The three Berlin ministers who belong to Die Linke are all reportedly signing the petition. "We're committed to the goals of the petition so it's only logical to participate," says housing minister Sebastian Scheel. When they sign, the three ministers will be petitioning themselves, so to speak, since the resolution states that the Berlin state government is called upon to "initiate all measures necessary for the transfer of property into common ownership".

AfD criticises referendum as "economic madness"

The Greens call the petition a "wake-up call to politicians to enforce the guiding principle of 'property comes with obligations' as laid down in the constitution," as party leader Werner Graf puts it. "We support the goals of the petition, but we are critical of the general quantitative hurdles - such as the expropriation proposed by the initiative for a certain number of flats," he says.

The opposition rejects the petition for a referendum. FDP parliamentary party leader Sebastian Czaja says: "The Expropriate Deutsche Wohnung & Co initiative wants to expropriate the homes of tens of thousands of people - without creating a single new home. But that's exactly what we need so that everyone can find a home in Berlin in the future."

AfD MP Harald Laatsch calls the referendum "economic madness". In the case of expropriation financed by credit, Berlin would lose "any leeway for investment in new building" and run the risk of getting a negative rating because of over-indebtedness.

Poll: Slight majority rejects expropriation

The CDU presented the results of an opinion poll on Thursday which found that 51 per cent of Berliners reject expropriation of large housing companies; 36 per cent of respondents said they supported the expropriation initiative and thought compensation in the billions would be a good investment. A further 11 per cent were unsure and 2 per cent did not give an answer. CDU leader Kai Wegner said the petition for a referendum was a frontal attack on the heart of society. "People don't want ideology and class warfare, but fair regulations on the grounds of our social market economy."

In response to the survey, the Association of Berlin-Brandenburg Housing Companies (BBU) said: "The figures show that a majority of Berliners is against expropriation. Because it's obvious that expropriation won't create any of the new flats that growing Berlin so urgently needs."

The Berlin Tenants' Association (BMV), however, supports the petition. In the long term, there need to be "more public providers on the housing market," says BMV director Reiner Wild, but that could only happen very slowly through acquisitions and new construction - because of rising prices and the shortage of land.

"That is why the BMV supports the initiative for the expropriation of large housing companies that use their market strength to serve their shareholders at the expense of tenants," said Wild.