Who owns Berlin?

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: Germany

Organisation: Tagesspiegel, Correctiv

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 22/02/2019

Credit: Tagesspiegel Innovation Lab (Andreas Baum, Michael Gegg, Hendrik Lehmann, Michael Gegg, Helena Wittlich); Correctiv (Anne-Lise Bouyer, Justus von Daniels, Michel Penke, Simon Wörpel)

Project description:

80 percent of Berliners live in rented accommodation. Many of them actually do not know who owns the apartment they live in, because Germany does not have a central property register. Government officials and the civil society do not know, which property companies own apartments in Berlin. Powerful actors remain invisible and difficult to reach for political debate.

The editors of Tagesspiegel and Correctiv wanted to bring more transparency to the Berlin real estate market by using crowd sourcing. The aim was to uncover problems, highlight larger structures, make grievances visible and provide a factual basis for a public debate.

Impact reached:

The research was conducted as a crowd investigation. From October 2018 onwards, tenants were able to use an online platform, to provide information on the owner of their apartment and on the experience, they have had with their landlord. In order for the entries to be verified, they were asked to submit supporting documents. Thousands of submissions were received.

Starting in January 2019, the editorial offices of the Tagesspiegel Innovation Lab and Correctiv spent several months verifying each and every one of the readers’ submissions, as well as evaluating background interviews, files, anonymous tips and other databases. At discussion events, they invited readers, politicians, representatives of the real estate industry and researchers to discuss the capital’s housing crisis and seek solutions. Hundreds of Berliners attended.

Thanks to numerous tips, the research team succeeded, for example, in uncovering the growing business model behind furnished apartments after several hints. With this model, landlords circumvent the rent brake imposed in Berlin.

In the process, the journalists also came across previously unknown large property owners. The team was able to prove for the first time that a silent real estate mogul “Pears”, an English family, owning more than 3000 apartments in the city. This is an important limit for politicians in the debate about affordable housing, who until now knew nothing about this owner.

Furthermore, it was uncovered in detail how the real estate and the financial markets are connected. Many tenants in Berlin have invested in residential property shares themselves via funds, without knowing it. That’s because some tenants living in an apartment of the equity real estate companies have pension plans investing their clients’ money in their own landlord. The team received the German “Reporterpreis” for this investigation.

Techniques/technologies used:

First, the Crowdnewsroom was important for “Who owns Berlin?”, a platform that Corrrectiv developed especially for citizen research. It was accordingly possible for tenants to transmit their data, including documents, securely and anonymously.

During the project it became clear that additional data sources were needed to make structures of the Berlin housing market visible. So numerous journalists from both editorial offices searched annual reports for shareholders, compared company data of the companies across international databases and procured missing information in commercial registers in order to reveal piece by piece company constructs of real estate owners.

 This was combined with web scraping, where data was available on commercial platforms that were not openly accessible.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Thanks to the great interest of Berlin citizens in the research, the team was faced with a particularly time-consuming task: verifying the entries in the crowd newsroom and managing a rapidly growing community.

Since the participants were not prescribed which document they could submit (tenancy agreement, utility bill, bank statements) and, moreover, all these documents are designed differently, depending on the landlord, the team manually checked and verified thousands of entries.

The research also showed that many central public registers are not citizen-friendly as well as incomplete.

Many registers charge fees. In the case of the German transparency register, journalists must prove “legitimate interest” in order to gain access. In addition, real estate companies are spread all over Europe, where each country has its own regulations for its registers.

Particularly alarming was the resistance of the real estate associations, some of which even called for a boycott of the project.

What can others learn from this project?

The project “Who owns Berlin” has shown that Citizen research brings great added value – especially in local journalism.

Thanks to the thousands of submissions, we were able to set new topics, generate unusual leads and work investigatively.

On the other hand, the project shows that cooperation between two editorial offices can lead to a great exchange of knowledge. Together, such large and extensive projects can be mastered better.

The reactions of Berliners as well as the players in the real estate market show how important the topic of affordable housing is for society. Rising rents are not a phenomenon limited to Berlin or Germany. Journalists around the world should try to bring more transparency to the housing market. In many cities, other media outlets already started similar projects, many even re-using the same technology of Correctiv used for “Who owns Berlin?”.

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