Through my political activism I have visited a lot of house projects in Germany. However, understanding of the concept of “house project” as many other political ideas takes time. At first i thought it was a squat. And actually many people were explaining it in that way. “It is a squat. Not a real squat, we pay rent, but it is like squat” was an explanation that I got from different people in Germany.
Squatting was easier to grasp as it was little to do with the bureaucracy of the state and more with direct action. Yes squatting was not the most rosy way to live but for many people it was a form of political protest. Some part of belarusian anarchist movement got so inspired by this form of direct action that we squatted a building in Minsk in 2008 for 6 months and turned it into a social project, with presentations, political organizing and some parties.
Even those who were skeptical about squatting in Minsk were admitting the necessity of physical spaces for the movement to exist. In Belarus, Russia and Ukraine for a really long time those space were rented venues where punk concerts were happening. Concerts were about music but they were also about creating a temporary political space in the city. Back then police had little understanding of importance of those spaces for political organizing. At those concerts you can meet real anarchists, who were organizing different political projects. There were no signs “Indymedia”, “Anarchist-Communists” or “Antinuclear Resistance”, but those people were there and they were building social networks. You could get radical literature, cd’s with documentaries about anarchist and anti-globalization movement and of course fan zines. Some of them truly full of trash stories about fun, skateboarding and getting drunk, but the others were political magazines that didn’t have western gloss because of censorship, but sometimes were of higher quality than modern antifa magazines in Germany.
So the space was important and activists in Germany understood that generations before the anarchists in Belarus even got back to the political stage after soviet union.
In the 90th situation in Germany with squatting started slowly changing. The squatting laws were made more restrictive and repressions went higher. It became more dangerous to be a squatter in the country. The government applied a policy of divide and conquer. While some squats were allowed to stay with the renting contact, the others were evicted. Depending on the city it might have being a 1 euro contact for 20-30 years or a proper rent for the whole house. Step by step the squatting scene got legalized. This is the story of many house projects in the country – former squats that were bought out or rented from the original owner. By 2010 there were only a couple of political squats left in the country. The most famous “squat” among eastern europeans “Köpi” by that time was also a project with symbolic rent contract but still contract.
By this time there was also an alternative way to get a house project. You didn’t have to go through squat-legalization steps. Some people started going after buying a house. That’s where the group Mietshäuser Syndikat comes into the game. I mean buying property was not invented by the group. However through its existence the group popularized in radical circles the whole concept of house projects and the idea of buying property. As of Summer 2020 Syndikat has 150+ projects all around Germany. Only in Berlin 19 houses are organized around the Syndikat.
The project is simple – buying houses for credits and removing them from speculative housing market. Although the house doesn’t belong to the Syndikat itself but directly to the collective, it can not be sold anymore to any bidder. With that the collectives are conquering space for other projects and initiatives as well as grow political presence in different parts of the country.
Who is taking part in Syndikat? Depending on the city or village local collectives can be liberal non-activists who are searching for stable living conditions up to the revolutionary anarchist groups in other parts of the country. Some projects are less than 10 people while others include 100+.
The Syndikat is helping local groups to get credits from the “good” banks and involve those groups in state wide organizing. Till recent years it was limited to Germany, but recently one project appeared in Austria and the other in Netherlands.
With growth of rent in the “alternative” parts of the city many activists are looking into buying property to have a longer perspective on staying in the same neighborhood.
It all sounds good in theory and many people who are living in those house projects can tell you the stories of happy life of satisfaction and cooperation. Others can talk for hours about challenges.
For me one of the first problems with the whole political concept of Syndikat and other project that are buying houses is private property. Coming from dictatorship and getting to know the long history of Nationalization i had troubles to grasp how people can be sure that those houses won’t be taken away if the government decides that they pose danger? Private property in the modern capitalism can’t exist without the power of the state that guarantees it. At the end of the day it is the German state that evicts squatters and brings the property back to its owners. And even if you are “taking the property from the market” it is still property that depends on the political will of the market.
The other is the question of gentrification. In many places it happens around the house projects that are bringing together the “good” part of the society. Many current and former activists are students or educated workers who are living outside of poverty problems.
The social part is also problematic. The low costs of living in the house projects become an obstacle for the people to move out even if the politics of an individual are not fitting the group anymore (moved from anarchism to social democracy for example). Today moving out of house project in Kreuzberg, Berlin would mean that you need way more money for the rent or move further away to the outskirts with the poor part of the population. And leftists and anarchists in Germany rarely want to live with the poor…
However the biggest problem I see in the whole fuzz around house projects is the amount of work that it requires to become reality. I think in Dresden organization around house project (buying, renovating, running it) composes the biggest part of political work in the city. There is no other initiative that has the same energy. And this creates a huge challenge for any kind of anarchist or other anti-authoritarian movement. The real pressing problems are put aside to make the project happen. That means that your former comrades can drop for 3-4 years out of political struggle and get devoured by the work on the house.
I do understand this dynamic. With getting older every persons wants to have a place to return to no matter what happens. The stability of the own house is something that everybody dreams in this society. Nobody likes the fuzz around salary-rent and all the unknown that comes with it.
From the other side all those activists are moving into their houses. Away from the daily hustle of people surviving in capitalism. Some people would tell that with the house project they are conquering the space again for the neighborhood, but so far i haven’t seen projects that did that.
To be honest, I have a feeling that the house project movement with Mietshäuser Syndikat is another step for the leftists and anarchists away from the society further into a comfortable bubble. Instead of fighting the reality that makes it hard for us to breathe german leftists are searching for the spaces of autonomy that leaves them outside of those problems.
This approach already shows how the lack of leftist and anarchist presence in social issues gives space to right wing populism. Today the poor communities and neighborhoods are mostly dominated by the right-wing groups, while german left can get isolated in their “hoods” and subcultural ghettos.
It is hard to just go binary and say if the house projects are good or bad. In some places they do play an important role of local radicals in finding their space in the city. They also give space for some new anarchists and leftist moving into bigger cities or deciding on the contrary to move to the village.
From the other side the house project boom of the last years took away a lot of energy from the anarchist and leftist movement that was required in different social struggles. After years of fights with the state on different issues and disappointments of the anti-racism campaigns many finds it comforting to go after ideas that give real physical results.
But for sure moving away from the social issues further into middle class can not be an answer to the crisis of the revolutionary movement in Germany. House projects in modern form within Syndikat and outside of it pose little danger to the modern state and capital.