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Germany – Municipal landownership and administration

This extract from the full case study gives a flavour of how the housing system is managed in Germany. For the full case study, which delves deeper into the historical background of the system, and contains full academic references, please read the report in full.

The non-profit sector has a long tradition in Germany and it takes on greater significance for society, politics and economy than in many other countries. Common land use also has a long tradition in some parts of the country and is practiced on about 2.4% of the forest area. More recently, there has been growing concern about the need to change how public land is owned and administered, particularly in the current context of high demand for land and affordable housing in urban areas. 

The mechanism(s) of ownership/tenure 

‘Community ownership’ in Germany does not exist as in Scotland and elsewhere, however initial discussions have recently begun about Community Land Trusts in Berlin. Following liberalisation of housing companies in the early 1990s, public housing stock in Germany is continuously shrinking. Housing co-operatives are prevalent, with 1,800 co-operatives holding approximately 2.1 million dwellings (10% of the housing stock) between 2.8 million members. The members do not own the dwellings, but shares of the cooperative usually relate to the size of the dwelling. The closest comparator to ‘community ownership’ of buildings in Germany are the ‘Mietshäuser Syndikat’ (apartment house syndicate) projects and initiatives. They operate on a very small scale (currently 140 house projects and 20 other initiatives) and allow groups of people to establish a small housing association to jointly purchase property. Negative opinions from politicians of community ownership or non-market forms of housing provision have perhaps stifled the development of community models. Such scepticism may be rooted in scandals in the subsidised housing sector in the 1980s, the socialist past of Eastern Germany, or the tradition of German economic governance, which is characterized by a market-promoting policy by a strong state and which can be understood as a specific German neoliberal trajectory. 

However, municipalities in Germany’s towns and cities adopt a range of policies relating to the ownership and management of public land, several of which have received considerable public and political attention. Berlin and Hamburg, for example, have become important sites of a local ‘Right to the City’ movement, which has resulted in a number of protests and collective actions around issues of housing and urban development.  

It is important to note that the approach to municipal land varies significantly between municipalities and federal states, and often depends on the relative ‘wealth’ of the municipality. Those municipalities with financial debt are less able to implement creative ways to administer/manage their assets.  

Extent and process of community control 

The extent and process of community involvement in decisions relating to municipal land/buildings varies between states and municipalities. Some key approaches in towns/cities which are relevant to community/collective management are considered below. 

The ‘concept approach’ (‘Konzeptverfahren’) 

In Hamburg and Frankfurt, the municipalities have attempted to empower communities to buy public land. When land or building(s) become available, individuals are invited to form groups and submit a ‘concept’ to the municipality. The group’s concept must demonstrate their financial ability to buy and manage the land/building(s) collectively and they must also demonstrate the social impact of the proposed project. There are no strict requirements with regards who can apply. In Frankfurt and Hamburg, groups may register their interest in a project so that they are informed if a purchase opportunity arises. Because of Berlin’s socialist past, there was a large amount of publicly-owned land in the eastern part of the city. Following reunification in the 1980s, the municipality valued its land assets and then sold the majority on the open market to private buyers. In 2009, a political decision was made to change how public land in the city is administered, and this eventually led to a change in policy in 2015. However, there was not much public land remaining at this time. Today, attempts are being made to develop mechanisms for people to apply for land/housing that is owned publicly, using a similar ‘concept approach’.  

A planning-oriented approach 

In the smaller cities of Freiburg and Tübingen, municipalities have adopted a planningbased approach to administering public land. In Freiburg, up to 10% of the proposed development area must be transferred to ownership by the city for subsidised housing construction. Without this, planning permission is not granted. If the developer decides not to include the 10%, or if it not possible for some reason, 50% of the newly created floor space (m2) must be used for subsidised rental housing.  

In Tübingen, a more radical approach allows the development of building land in the ‘interim purchase model’. The municipality purchases land and assigns appropriate planning permission(s). Private developers then have the opportunity to buy land within the requirements of the planning permission already approved. With this approach, the municipality controls development via the planning permission process and its ‘interim’ ownership to ensure control over social housing and limit the amount of housing sold at or above market value. 

Also in Tübingen, the current mayor has recently warned around 450 owners of vacant properties that if these properties are not developed in the next four years the municipality will buy them for the current market value via compulsory purchase order, for housing purposes. If these landowners refuse either to develop the properties or to sell to the municipality, they will have to pay financial penalties. To enact this, the mayor is employing the pre-existing Building Code, which is part of the Federal Building Code, which is generally not used because of concerns related to respecting individual property rights. 


Remunicipalisation generally refers to the establishment (or re-establishment) of public services owned by the local state. This generally involves either: (1) the municipality buying back infrastructure and gaining the economic benefits from that directly; and (2) restoring public ownership with clear aims for local communities – ‘democratic, socially just, ecologically oriented systems’.  

Remunicipalisation is significant as it often reverses previous privatisations in the public sector, involving new actors in public service provision and opening up new governance pathways. In Berlin, there is growing pressure to ‘municipalise’ housing stock, with political discussions in the capital focusing on the realignment of Berlin’s real estate policy with land in public ownership. There is also a growing trend to remunicipalise public services such as energy, water and other infrastructure to bring services into municipal/collective control.  

Key challenges and future directions 

The ‘concept approach’ has been criticised for lacking transparency in terms of how decisions are made about applications, as well as for favouring wealthier, educated individuals. The model tends to address the needs of these social groups more than less wealthy individuals who require access to social housing. 

The aims of municipalities can be impeded by the ‘Land’ (state) and ‘Kreis’ (district), which also have ownership rights in some places. In Frankfurt, for example, where the sale of public land is no longer allowed due to a paucity of remaining holdings, a large area in the centre of the city is owned by the Land, who are selling it privately to investors. The municipality has no power to intervene. Similarly, across Germany, the federal landowning agency is selling land and the municipalities cannot act to stop this. 

It is also worth noting that there is a vibrant community renewable energy sector in Germany, with very high public acceptance of wind farms and lots of opportunities for communities to take on ownership of renewable energy projects. While not directly of relevance when considering community models of landownership, there remains potential for Scotland to learn lessons from the German community renewable energy model. 

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