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Berlin voters asked the city to tackle rising rents. The plan is a long shot, but the message is powerful.

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Berlin voters asked the city to tackle rising rents. The plan is a long shot, but the message is powerful.

The recent German elections were watched closely around the world for glimpses of where Europe’s preeminent power will go after the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. But to many in Berlin — and others around Germany — the outcome of a far smaller vote was almost as important.

On Sunday, voters in the German capital backed a nonbinding referendum that called on the local government to buy hundreds of thousands of housing units from large property companies in the latest bid to control Berlin’s spiraling rent.

Early Newspaper

An estimated 240,000 apartments, about 10 percent of the city’s housing stock, would end up in public hands if the radical proposal is carried out. But there is reason to be skeptical. The referendum has no legal power. Previous attempts to counter rising rent in Berlin have struggled, with a cap on housing prices overturned by Germany’s top court in April. And just how will expropriating hundreds of thousands of apartments work anyway?

Still, the message to authorities was powerful: It received more than 56 percent of the vote.

On Monday, Berlin’s new mayor said she would “respect” the results of the referendum and go about drafting a new bill. Even if not, the referendum’s organizers have said they could bring together a new, binding referendum if the law is delayed.

If it works, this unorthodox approach to municipal housing could reverberate far outside the German capital. “It can be a catalyst for municipal housing movements across Europe,” Alexander Vasudevan, an associate professor in human geography at the University of Oxford, wrote for the Guardian this week.

What to know

  • Why is rent so divisive an issue in Berlin?
  • What was the big idea in the referendum?
  • What is the opposition to the move?
  • Why are renters around the world interested?

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Berlin voters asked the city to tackle rising rents. The plan is a long shot, but the message is powerful.