What Germany’s renters union can teach its radical British counterparts

An Acorn union protest. Image: Acorn.

Berlin is the only capital in the EU whose residents’ incomes are low enough to be a drag on average national income. But this will not be apparent to the ordinary visitor. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs are thronged with young people apparently rich in disposable income. The cause? Cheap rent.

A reasonably spacious two bed in Prenzlauer Berg costs around £800 a month – about half the price of a similar apartment in London. The political power that German renters wield is partly due to their diversity; white collar workers are as likely to rent as manual workers. People of all backgrounds have skin in the game.  

Another reason for low rents is the powerful German tenants’ unions of the Deutsche Mieterbund – an umbrella association which represents a total of 3 million German renters. The Berliner Mieterverein (Berlin Renters’ Union, or BMV) is the largest association, counting 170,000 members. The union advocates for private tenants but also maintains an interest in social housing.

The BMV has mounted legal challenges in a climate of rising rents. It has campaigned successfully for Berlin’s city council to exercise its right, when apartment buildings come on the market, to match private offers and take them into municipal ownership. Its size and influence must seem a distant dream to Britons engaged in tenants struggles.

Several upstart organisations have sought to replicate the BMV’s success. Acorn, which counts branches across the UK, has instigated high-profile direct action campaigns against unscrupulous letting agents, bad landlords, and banks which discriminate against those on benefits. As Acorn’s national organiser Nick Ballard puts it, the union has a broader purpose that intersects with other political struggles. Their inaugural branch in Bristol, for example, successfully campaigned against the city overturning £8.5 million pounds in planned cuts to council tax benefit.

The radicalism of Acorn and other British tenants unions, such as the London Renters’ Union, is to be expected; Britain’s housing crisis is severe and its political landscape is heavily skewed in favour of landlords. Wibker Werner, from the Berlin union, cautions that her organisation does not succeed because it is particularly radical, but because it has strong relationships with major German parties.

Acorn’s recruitment strategies embody its radicalism and desire to mobilise mostly working-class tenants. They differ markedly from those of its German counterpart. The BMV’s turnover is only about 5 per cent each year, and its numbers are sustained mostly through advertising. Acorn, on the other hand, favours a door-knocking strategy.

While building a membership through door knocking is arduous – political parties attract few recruits this way – the tactic seems to work. Ballard estimates that Acorn has attracted 70% of its membership in this way. The remainder, Ballard believes, join Acorn after hearing about its protests.

Comparisons between renters unions and trade unions are often warranted. A trade union knows that once they achieve a certain level of membership in a workplace they are entitled to recognition, and that the weight of their numbers enables them to threaten bosses with industrial action. The difficulty for renters’ unions is these tactics are not easy to replicate.

In the property market there is no equivalent of Companies House – one can’t reverse-search property ownership by landlord and recruit that landlord’s tenants to a union. Indeed, allowing the land registry to be searched according to property ownership, as one can in certain circumstances do in Germany, would be a sensible demand of tenants’ unions, and a presumably cheap innovation for any government wishing to support them.

Since 2018, Labour Party policy has been for the state to finance British tenants’ unions. Werner cannot imagine the BMV accepting state funding – she says the organisation’s reliance on membership dues is the key to its cherished independence. Ballard is also wary; Acorn’s decision would depend on “what strings were attached”. Given Ballard’s reticence, it might be wiser to spend the money on other measures to empower tenants and let unions grow organically.

Those measures could include encouraging longer tenancies and introducing automatic voter registration. Britain’s large turnout gap between tenants and homeowners can be explained by the frequency with which tenants move home and by non-automatic voter registration. Would-be voters fall off the rolls, political parties find it harder to maintain useful data on tenants’ political priorities and voting intentions, and transient populations care less about choosing their local representatives.

In Germany, renters move far less often, and voter registration is near automatic – this may explain the smaller turnout gap and the consequent respect with which governments treat tenants.

One might think that Acorn stands to learn more from bigger players like the Deutsche Mieterbund. But given the union’s rapidly growing membership, success in a difficult political environment, and radical, creative tactics, the Berlin renters’ union could also learn a lot from its radical British counterpart.  


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.