Community ownership is a form of property ownership and use beyond the exploitative logics of public and private domains. This type of ownership is more immune and resilient to real-estate speculations and private profit-seeking.
Ownership has become a key factor in our societies and economies, not only because the access to space, but also because of how these spaces generate revenues, and how they are developed, maintained and controlled. Contrary to dominant beliefs that justify state regulation or privatization, with the re-emergence of the discourse of commons, the collective forms of ownership are claimed to be the pursuit of common interest. Community ownership refers to new formats of shared ownership through organizational forms such as cooperatives and/or community land trusts that will ensure community uses in the long-term. While the rising private ownership makes the situation increasingly precarious, community ownership seems to be a valuable framework to challenge the current situation. It includes a property owned jointly by agreement of a community for the benefit of all its members. Moreover, it creates an alternative to the dominant logic of ownership and gives a new perspective that circumvents real estate speculation.
Ex Rotaprint was founded in 2005 by a renters’ association (among them artists, business operators, and community outreach organizations) interested in gaining collective community ownership over the 10,000 square meter building, in order to improve its maintenance and create an equitable, bottom-up financial model for its tenants. In 2005, artists Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser formulated a concept for taking over the property by renters, with an aim to foster a cohesive, polycultural, and lasting community based on cooperation and exchange. The concept was developed to serve a heterogeneous mix of work, art, and community. After two years of negotiations with the local district authorities, the Berlin Senate, and the Liegenschaftfonds, the non-profit organization ExRotaprint gGmbH took over the site. Purchasing a 10,000 square meter site without personal capital was a complex and ambitious undertaking. ExRotaprint faced the challenge of developing an ownership model that responds to the economic and social situation. The purchasing price was 640,000 euros (including acquisition costs), but they were determined that a bank loan was not an option. Instead, they opted for a cooperative arrangement with two foundations – Trias Foundation (Hattingen) and Edith Maryon Foundation (Basel). These foundations purchased the property on behalf of the non-profit ExRotaprint gGmbH, in order to then sign a 99-year heritable building rights contract. The heritable building right is a legal instrument that separates the land from the buildings and thus splits ownership. ExRotaprint gGmbH owns the buildings, and the foundations own the land. This secures the land from being sold again, since excluding the selling of land is the very reason for the existence of these foundations. Instead of buying the land in the beginning, which would necessitate a lot of capital, they pay an annual interest or lease fee. This fee is not paid off within 25-30 years, like a mortgage to a bank, but permanently, for 99 years to the landowner – these two foundations. The heritable building right places ExRotaprint in an ownership-equivalent position for the duration of that contract, and it pays yearly interest to both foundations. ExRotaprint has long-term security and can exist independently of those stakeholders involved in its inception. The annual interest is 5.5% of the purchase price. After 25 years, this will be reduced to 3%. But the annual interest payments ExRotaprint makes to the foundations refinances the purchase of the site and enables the foundations to collaborate on other, similarly oriented projects. A cash flow is thus created that goes beyond ExRotaprint and our own interests, as the foundations’ money flow is transparent and linked to shared goals that make sense for society. Today ExRotaprint even pays 10% of the net rental income to the foundations, making it a 6% investment return on the purchase price. It is a business relationship, not sponsoring. In the long run, ExRotaprint contributes to the financial means of the foundations. As a non-profit, they now own the buildings through a heritable building rights contract, with no right to sell the property. The association is responsible for all aspects of the space, including financing, rentals, and renovations. Non-profit status dispels the conflict over partial ownership and allows for planning unencumbered by individual interests. ExRotaprint partners do not profit from the income generated by the property and cannot realize any increase in value from a sale of their stake in the partnership. Thus, a long-term and stable location is created that can be developed on its own terms. If ExRotaprint were to give up or lose its non-profit status, the yearly interest payment would increase dramatically. ExRotaprint is an ownership model without private ownership. Rents are the economic basis which finance the renovation, building modifications, the annual interest payment on the heritable building right, and operational costs. The organizational sustainability of the project hinges on the financial costs. Needed renovations are not allowed to threaten rent stability for social, cultural, and commercial uses. The existing rental contracts are the foundation of their investment planning; creating additional social benefits and preventing displacement are the defining factors. The community structure consists of a mixture of one-third local businesses, one-third community outreach organizations or non-profits, and one-third art and cultural workers, all of whom are guaranteed affordable and stable rents. It also houses temporary rental spaces for events, workshops, seminars, and conferences, as well as two guest apartments. As ExRotaprint states, a huge field of possibility exists here - non-profit and united, non-ideological, but contingent on agreement and consensus. It is worth mentioning, that ExRotaprint pays great attention to valuable strategies employed from art during this process: “questioning and shifting one’s perspective, approaching details in novel ways, the appropriation of ideas and problem-solving methods, the principle of collage, integrating different levels of meaning, a sense for the public and pragmatism for what’s necessary, the potential to define and generate form without ideologies but with a sense of pragmatic idealism.” ExRotaprint institutes a unique form of ownership and self-organization within a precarious environment; the legal structure situates the interest of the group above individual interests, and connects the notion of profit to the site and its goals.
When off set printer manufacturing company Rotaprint went bankrupt after German Reunification in 1989, though undeveloped and badly in need of upgrade work, its spaces were managed locally and rented out to a mix of renters. The district that had become the new owner was renting spaces on a temporary basis to artists and other temporary users, but however, the industrial complex has been sitting in limbo for almost two decades. After the bankruptcy, the Berlin’s Wedding district managed the building, but the plan to sell the site was not pushed until the Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin (the city’s real-estate managing company) took over the property in 2002. It was put on the market and was to go to the highest bidder. The Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin was negotiating with Icelandic real estate fund to purchase the building, but the bid by the investor was too low, and therefore, it was not even taken into account. The site was in bad conditions and, moreover, listed with restrictions as a monument since 1991, the buildings were decaying, and the district lacked the social life common for the other parts of Berlin. Thus, potential buyers were scarce, and the sole bidder was ExRotaprint group. When the complex was put up for sale by the Berlin Municipality’s Real Estate Fund, members of the ExRotaprint began to look into the possibility of buying the area. As a result of an active media campaign and the political pressure ExRotaprint generated, they were able to purchase the property within a minimal period of time for the price that had been set for the Icelandic real estate fund. Teaming up with two anti-speculation foundations, the tenants’ non-profit company became owner of the complex, setting a precedent in Berlin that inspired many experiments in cooperative ownership, and a campaign to change the city’s privatisation policy. The community states: “ExRotaprint concerns urban development, the real estate and monetary economy, tendencies of social separation and exclusion, and art strategies within city politics, and is an example for developing new projects in urban space. The strategy we employed in taking over this site sets a precedent that can be applied to other locations.” Although the example of ExRotaprint inspired many initiatives across Europe to create alliances and receive support from anti-speculation foundations and ethical finance organizations, the model cannot simply be implemented anywhere: its adaptability depends on the ideal combination of low real estate prices, relatively transparent public real estate management, stable and suitable legal environment and high purchasing power.
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Levente Polyak, 2017, ExRotaprint – Community Ownership against speculation. Avaiable here: https://cooperativecity.org/2017/07/17/exrotaprint/ The ExRotaprint Model in the Interantional Edition of ExRotaprint News, 2011. Avaiable here: https://www.exrotaprint.de/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/3-ExRotaprint-News_Model_English.pdf “There is No Profi t to be Made Here!”: A Conversation with ExRotaprint. The interview was held with Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser for ExRotaprint. Avaiable here: http://www.scapegoatjournal.org/docs/04/04_ExRotaprint_ThereIsNoProfitToBeMade.pdf