Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Housing for the People?

I want to write about the recent referendum on expropriating major landlords in Berlin, but before I do, I have to take you back in time, so you’ll better understand the context in which this referendum — which passed by a vote of 56.4% to 39% on Sunday — took place.

Writing in Jacobin earlier this year, Ralf Hoffrogge explained that Berlin, a city with a long tradition of affordable housing and where 85% of residents are renters, had suffered a housing shortage in the 1980s which disappeared with reunification:

One morning, the city woke up twice as big, while demand for housing shrank because of deindustrialization and job losses both East and West.

Expropriate DW & Co Protest, Berlin, April 2019

About 10,000 Berliners joined an “Expropriate DW & Co” protest in April 2019. (Source: Neue Presse)

Privatization of public housing in East Berlin began as soon as the Wall fell, according to Hoffrogge, gaining momentum after the 2001 collapse of the Berliner Bankgesellschaft Bank which left Berliners with €6 billion in public debt. During the early to mid-2000s, over 220,000 city-owned public housing units — more than half the city’s stock — were sold. The phenomenon wasn’t unique to Berlin, as the New York Times reported in 2006:

Foreign private equity investors, mostly American and British, have already spent $25 billion since 2003 on apartments owned by German cities and companies. With the owners hungry to raise even more money, analysts forecast that 750,000 additional units will be sold over the next five years.

But Berlin was particularly enthusiastic about it:

Berlin, for example, has had a vast auction of state- and city-owned apartments. In 2004, Goldman Sachs and Cerberus, a New York-based hedge fund, bought 66,000 units for $2.5 billion. Gagfah, a state-owned company, sold 80,000 apartments to Fortress for $4.4 billion.

In the largest transaction to date, Terra Firma, a private equity firm based in London, paid $8.8 billion last year for 138,000 units owned by a subsidiary of E.On, the German utility company.

As Ruby Lott-Lavigna explained in VICE, privatized units included developments like Hufeisensiedlung (The Horseshoe Estate), designed in 1925 by Bruno Taut as social housing (and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008):

Here’s Hoffrogge again:

Funds like Cerberus bought up public housing companies then sold them on to stock-market-listed companies in which they held a share. Some of these latter, like Deutsche Wohnen, were almost solely formed from formerly public assets. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, a new cycle of accumulation started, as real estate appeared as a “safe haven” for those seeking profits. Investors both big and small tried to grab hold of a sector that Germans call “Betongold” — concrete gold. Zero interest rates allowing them to buy up real estate with borrowed money further boosted speculation. The “cure” for the financial crisis of 2008 became a curse for Berlin renters.

That curse included widespread gentrification, displacement and rent increases — between 2008 and 2018, according to Andrej Holm of Humboldt University in Berlin, the average rent in Berlin rose 37%.

And here’s another pertinent fact: according to Holm, over the past 10 years, almost €140 billion ($205 billion Canadian) has been poured into Berlin’s real estate market but rather than investing in “the desperately needed construction of new housing,” investors put 60% of that money into the purchase of existing properties. That is, left to its own devices, the free market — which we are told is the only reliable producer of housing — did not produce housing; it bought up existing housing and drove up rents.

Berlin protest 2021

People protest the German Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling on Berlin’s rent cap law, in Berlin, Germany, 15 April 2021. EPA/FILIP SINGER

Berlin has experimented with rent control but the most recent attempt, which was introduced in January 2020 and would have frozen rents for five years, was ruled unconstitutional by Germany’s highest court in April 2021.

Even before the court decision, activists had begun mooting the notion of expropriation, but the federal court decision may have helped the “DW und Co. Enteignen” (Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen and Co.) referendum campaign carry the day last Sunday, when Berliners voted to expropriate the rental properties of landlords with more than 3,000 units. (I wonder what the good people at Killam REIT, with its 16,000 rental units, made of it?)

But while they won the referendum, it was non-binding and the new mayor of Berlin, although she says the vote must be “respected,” does not believe expropriation will solve the city’s housing crisis. This is an argument put forward by the mega-landlords, too, who say expropriating existing units won’t create new units and the cost — if they are compensated at market value — would bankrupt the city.

But 1,034,709 Berliners think expropriating rental units from mega-landlords is a good idea, making the status quo look decidedly unsustainable. What happens next is going to be fascinating (possibly inspiring) to watch. 


Fall term

I figure it’s a hangover from my school days, but fall always seems to me like a time to start something new or at least buy a new pencil case and a bunch of Hilroy scribblers. I’d actually go even further and say it seems like a time to learn something new — which, in passing, I just did. While checking the spelling of “Hilroy,” I learned, courtesy of the CBC’s Under the Influence, that:

  • The scribblers were made by the Canadian Pad and Paper Company founded by Roy Hill in Toronto in July 1918 (as in, four months before the end of World War I which I would not have thought was a time to start something new, but Hill obviously knew better).
  • In 1958, Hill bought an envelope company and renamed the firm Hilroy Envelopes and Stationary Limited.
  • The company still produces 14 million “notebooks” annually.
  • “Scribbler” is apparently a Nova Scotianism.
  • It takes 45 seconds to make a Hilroy scribbler.

But I digress…

What I meant to tell you was that this urge to learn something new got me searching for online courses or workshops and — what do you know? — I found some at the Cape Breton Regional Library.

CBRL is offering access to LinkedIn Learning, which used to be, an online learning company that “lets users learn business, technology, software, and creative skills through videos.” was founded in 1995 by Lynda Weinman and her husband, Bruce Heavin. (Oh to have been a fly on the wall while they were brainstorming company names.) Business Insider tells me LinkedIn bought in 2015 for $1.5 billion. And just in case you lost track, Microsoft bought LinkedIn in 2016 for $26.2 billion. So this is a Microsoft operation.

LinkedIn Learning for Analog Artists

At the time of the sale, LinkedIn’s head of content and products, Ryan Roslansky, said:

We get so excited about the possibilities that could come from the integration of and LinkedIn. Imagine being a job seeker and being able to instantly know what skills are needed for the available jobs in a desired city, like Denver, and then to be prompted to take the relevant and accredited course to help you acquire this skill. Or doing a search on SlideShare to learn about integrated marketing and then to be prompted with a course on the same subject.

The idea of taking a course on “integrated marketing” makes me want to spend the morning in a pool hall, but the courses CBRL — which participates in “LinkedIn Learning for Library” — is highlighting right now are analog art courses, and that’s more my speed.

I’ve had mixed results learning things online — if it’s a quick lesson, like “how to replace the spark plug on a drive mower” or “how to make your dehumidifier drain automatically” I do quite well, but I’ve never managed a long-haul course, although I’ve started more than one.

I’m also always a little skeptical of courses by “professionals” because being good at your profession doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good teacher. Teaching requires a special set of skills that are never more obvious than when absent.

But I’m going to give these courses a try because they look like they’re a manageable length. And because they’re arts courses, so I won’t be worrying that Bill Gates is somehow exerting a nefarious influence over them (unless the instructors are all obsessed with intellectual property). And because it’s fall and it’s time to learn something new. I may even buy a few scribblers.


Robert Devet

I was deeply saddened this week to learn of the death of Robert Devet, founder of The Nova Scotia Advocate.

Robert Devet

Robert Devet

I had only spoken to him once — by phone, for an interview — but I felt as though I knew him through his writing for the Advocate and his social media presence. Those closer to him, his family and friends, would know best, but I always had the impression that the Robert I perceived through the Advocate was Robert.

There was an outpouring of grief on Twitter after his son, Simon, announced his father’s passing, much of it from people who actually knew Robert personally. But much of it from people, like me, who simply appreciated his work.

I’ve praised the Advocate in this space before for giving a voice to marginalized people — not simply by reporting on them, but by hiring them to tell their own stories and paying them well.

I don’t know if his loss will also mean the loss of the Advocate but I hope not, because it is an important part of this province’s independent media ecosystem, one we need more than ever as we grapple with issues like climate change, housing, poverty and Reconciliation.

RIP Robert. I will very much miss your voice.