Vienna Offers Affordable and Luxurious Housing

Vienna has figured out how to offer high-quality apartments with low-cost rent and renters’ rights that would be unheard of in Canada.

Back in 1996, residents of Vienna were clamoring to live in a coffin factory.

The apartment building — a redevelopment that kept the original structure’s chimney — already had more than half of its 100 units rented out before construction was complete. Known as Sargfabrik, the development featured stunning amenities, including a restaurant, a swimming pool and even a Finnish sauna. It also had many popular “green” features, such as a parking area for car-sharing and plenty of storage for bicycles. Tenants were allowed to offer input throughout the development process on how the building would take shape — even on their individual floor plans.

In the United States, Sargfabrik might resemble a high-end condo. But in Vienna, it’s a subsidized housing project. And it’s not unusual.

A unique system nearly a century in the making has created a situation today in which the city government of Vienna either owns or directly influences almost half the housing stock in the capital city. As a result, residents enjoy high-quality apartments with inexpensive rent, along with renters’ rights that would be unheard of in the U.S. The Viennese have decided that housing is a human right so important that it shouldn’t be left up to the free market. Advocates for the Vienna model say it’s something U.S. policymakers should examine closely.

Vienna’s highly regulated approach to housing, known as social housing or subsidized housing, is largely the result of what the city experienced in the late 19th century: deplorable living conditions in the wake of rapid industrialization. At the time, many Viennese resided in housing that was unregulated, uncomfortable and cramped. It wasn’t unusual to have 10 people living in a small studio apartment — in addition to even more who would sublet the same unit during the daytime while the primary tenants worked. The overwhelming majority of apartments didn’t have private bathrooms or sinks. Rents could be increased at any time, and one-month leases were common, resulting in unstable families and communities.

That started to change in the 1920s when the country’s socialist government rose to power in the wake of World War I. It made housing, along with jobs and social services, a high priority during the period known as “Red Vienna.” The goal was to create aesthetically pleasing housing complexes that would provide the working class with the sort of accommodations that had previously only been accessible to the well-to-do. “It was important that people in the housing felt they were enfranchised citizens of the city,” says Eve Blau, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who has studied and written about the architecture of Vienna’s public housing complexes.

It goes on with the economic reasons that exist to this day.

There was also an economic reason to push for the public housing expansion. By subsidizing housing costs, rent would be kept low. That, in turn, meant wages could be kept low too — without negatively impacting living standards. Low wages allowed Vienna’s industrial sector to be more competitive internationally. There was a political aspect to the effort as well: The new government expected improved living conditions would engender loyalty from citizens. The push for housing was so expansive that today, nearly 100,000 of the city’s 220,000 city-owned apartment units were built in the 1920s and 1930s.

The idea that everyday citizens should have access to not just affordable apartments but also attractive ones — and that it’s the city’s responsibility to provide them — continues to this day. There’s a mindset that housing is a way to link residents to their communities and the larger city through design. “It was never just about housing,” Blau says. “It was always about the city. It was about not just providing private living space but also public living space to people for whom they were also providing housing.”

Thus, in Vienna, public space and private space are interwoven. Case in point: The city’s first libraries were part of the housing system. Kindergartens and day care, dental clinics and courtyard parks were all high priorities in the early days of public housing. “It made the division between housing and the city really kind of blurred,” Blau says. That trend continues, with the government emphasizing amenities that encourage interaction among residents. Those amenities also happen to be the same type found in high-end American residences. “These places are incredible,” says William Menking, an architectural historian, of the city’s subsidized housing. “There are swimming pools and saunas and bicycle parking.”

To understand just how pervasive public housing is in Vienna, compare it to a similar city in the U.S. Philadelphia, for example, has about the same population as Vienna. While Philadelphia’s affordable housing agency owns and manages about 16,000 rental units, Vienna owns and manages 220,000 units, known as council housing. But the local government’s impact on housing extends far beyond those city-owned buildings.

Another 200,000 units are owned and developed privately — primarily through limited-profit developers — as part of a process heavily influenced by the city. Combined, the two types of housing represent about 46 percent of the city’s housing stock, making Vienna the largest landlord in Austria and one of the largest in Europe. Even within Austria, Vienna’s housing is an unusual model. Social housing accounts for only about 25 percent of the nation’s housing stock. The pervasiveness of subsidized housing in Vienna makes the city a place where the term “public housing” carries no stigma whatsoever, unlike in the United States.

Instead of using public housing as an afterthought, it was woven into Vienna’s fabric.  It makes a lot of sense.  This holistic approach to city building can also be seen in their approach to cycling where Vienna has become a world leader in getting people out of cars and onto bikes.