Dealing with squats: the case of the berlin line

The Whitsun squatters are putting the Berlin Senate under pressure. Will the requirement to evacuate houses within 24 hours be overturned?

Martial: Police officers clearing Mainzer Strasse in 1990 Photo: Reinhard Kaufhold

Rarely has a radical form of protest enjoyed such popularity – the concern of broad sections of the population about the shortage of affordable housing is obviously leaving its mark. The fact that squatting is a legitimate means of drawing attention to the housing shortage is now recognized by the majority of all Berliners: 53 percent. This is the result of a Forsa survey commissioned by the Berliner Zeitung.

The verdict of Red-Red-Green voters is even clearer. Instead of immediate eviction, they prefer the path of dialogue. Occupations should initially be tolerated, and negotiations with the occupants should take place. This is demanded by 64 percent of the voters of the Left Party, 63 percent of those of the Greens and 45 percent of the supporters of the SPD.

The Senate will have no choice but to include this when it agrees on how to deal with occupations in the future. Originally, the red-red-green coalition committee was supposed to deal with the issue already this Tuesday, but now the date has been postponed once again.

From the house of urban development senator Katrin Lompscher (Left), it is nevertheless said that it is clear that the issue of occupation will soon be on the agenda. The question on the table: should the Berlin Line be abolished or modified, or will the model of passing on a political problem to the police be adhered to?

This is the Berlin Line

Within 24 hours after an occupation becomes known, an eviction is to take place, that is what the Berlin Line says so far. The regulation is not set in stone, not a law, but has the character of an internal administrative recommendation. However, it makes the openness that many Berliners want more difficult. Also because even state-owned housing associations call the police for eviction.

This is what happened two weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday, when activists occupied an empty apartment building on Bornsdorfer Strasse in Neukolln. Negotiations took place, but in the end the managing director of the housing association Stadt & Land filed a criminal complaint. The police took 56 squatters out of the building.

What appears to be a purely repressive instrument was once meant to be progressive.

When asked, it stated that it did not practice a "rigid 24-hour time limit," but that it was released from an eviction obligation only "when it is certain that a criminal complaint will no longer be filed or can no longer be effectively filed."

What appears to be a purely repressive instrument was actually intended to be progressive when it was installed in 1981. The Berlin Line, formulated by the then governing mayor Hans-Jochen Vogel (SPD), was a reaction to a wave of squatters who had occupied some 165 houses in West Berlin. Although it included the 24-hour rule against new occupations, it was also intended to protect houses that were already occupied. These were to be evicted only if the owners filed penalty applications and promised swift redevelopment. For 105 houses, this led to legalization.

The generous part of the Berlin Line, which was also called the "Berlin Line of Reason" by the Senate at the time, was applied only a second time: in the period between the fall of the Wall and reunification, when more than 100 houses were occupied in East Berlin. At that time, the Senate decided to apply the Berlin Line from the cut-off date of 24. July 1990 to be implemented in the east of the city. All houses occupied by then were to be offered contracts.

Pressure on the eviction advocates

Because there have been no more mass occupations since then, only the repressive part of the line remains: rapid eviction. But this approach does not enjoy majority support even within the governing parties. The proponents of the eviction policy, Mayor Michael Muller and Interior Senator Andreas Geisel (both SPD), are under pressure.

Two days after the occupation in Neukolln ended, the Berlin Left Party’s state executive board passed a unanimous resolution: "The evictions were wrong." The party clearly positioned itself against the Berlin line: that Interior Senator Geisel had insisted on it "torpedoed the efforts of the representatives of the Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing and prevented a sustainable solution, which at that time already seemed within reach." Leftist State Secretary Sebastian Scheel had negotiated with the squatters on site and demands that the housing association and the activists return to the negotiating table.

Katalin Gennburg, urban development expert of the Left parliamentary group, calls for a "new Berlin line of reason" and the decriminalization of squats. Katrin Schmidberger, housing policy spokeswoman for the Green parliamentary group, expressed similar views.

Grumbling SPD

On Saturday, the SPD state party conference decided: "We share the squatters’ criticism of the current situation on the housing market." And further: "Speculative vacancies, the conversion into condominiums or sham renovations at the expense of tenants* show that politics has celebrated a growing city for far too long without having set the right course."

The former urban development senator Michael Muller, who was punished with a miserable result in the election as state chairman, may well take this as criticism. Muller himself said, "We cannot leave the police and the interior senator alone because we are sympathetic to the cause and therefore question the Berlin line. What is clear is that breaking the law is breaking the law."

Many see it differently, most likely the activists of the #besetzen campaign themselves. They boarded the stage during the party conference. On their banner they demanded: "Drop criminal charges". Perhaps they will also bring down the Berlin line.

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