The ‘Vienna model’ has been distorted to embrace private investment but its real redefinition should be ecological.
When it comes to housing, Vienna is celebrated as the epitome of how to do it right, amid accommodation crises around the world. While there is indeed a lot to be learned from the city’s housing politics—the oft-cited ‘Vienna model’—it also needs critical reassessment if housing is to be treated as a public good rather than a private commodity, as is more and more so under neoliberal conditions.
Recently the Austrian Erste Bank toured eastern-European cities, including Brno and Zagreb, to propagate a housing-investment programme designated ‘Vienna model’. The internationally renowned exemplar was recast in the bank’s public-relations discourse as a public-private partnership (PPP).
Within this scheme, the ground for building is still provided by the city but the housing units are built with finance from banks, private developers or insurance companies. While the dwellings must be rented out as social housing for a limited period (mostly ten years), they then fall under the rule of the market, becoming available for sale, and resale, including for private rental.
This PPP ‘Vienna model’, which should be more mundanely characterised as Wohnbauoffensive Wien, has indeed been practised by the city administration as a special, privately financed housing programme since the global financial crises. It has been applied especially in Seestadt Aspern, a large new urban development on the outskirts of Vienna. This is why analogous procedures can now be advertised under the highly reputable label ‘Vienna model’.
What, however, gives the housing model associated with the Austrian capital its reputation as a synonym for affordable, high-standard housing and a tight social-housing network is certainly not a PPP which reroutes public money into private housing. On the contrary, the good name which the ‘Vienna model’ internationally enjoys stems from its origins in a socialist housing programme carried out in 1920s ‘Red Vienna’. This continued in the city’s century-long tradition of social-democratic government, resulting today in 420,000 non-market rental housing units (municipal and co-operative), with associated security of tenure.
This tradition—which still draws on its Austro-Marxist, left-social-democratic heritage—has been misused to beautify and camouflage an initiative to privatise and capitalise urban public space. But if Vienna is recognised today as the world’s ‘most liveable city’, that is a product of its political history.
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We can still see all over Vienna icons of Red Vienna’s housing and other radical reform programmes. Inscriptions on the facades of the countless 1920s and early-30s communal housing blocks—a Hof (court) in many cases, as in Karl-Marx-Hof—announce, in big red lettering, that it was built by the city by means of the Wohnbausteuer (housing tax), a highly progressive tax to provide housing and other urban infrastructures for the working classes. This is declaimed in a straightforward manner, as a small but important victory against capital and its political representatives.
‘Luxury’ for the many
The ‘Vienna model’ practised by the social-democratic city administration from 1920—interrupted in 1933 by the Austro-fascist dictatorship of the Catholic right, replaced in turn by Nazi rule in 1938-45—meant mass housing was regarded as a high-quality infrastructure for the many: it was neither charity nor an emergency measure. The idea was to finance the housing structure as such—to make housing affordable for all, instead of financing individuals through subsidies, which would only be redirected to private owners as ever-increasing rents as demand grew.
Regarding housing as infrastructure meant that it went beyond giving a ‘roof’ to the needy, to include innovation and architectural quality. Indeed, this extended to an idea of ‘luxury’ for the many, such as via rooftop pools in public housing blocks.
Housing was a part, and a pivotal point, of Red Vienna’s declared programme of building, step by step, a city for the non-propertied masses. This represented a network not only of social-housing superblocks but also of public hospitals, baths, libraries, cultural centres and childcare facilities. The city was to become a proletarian counter-universe, surrounded by a country dominated by socio-political conservatism and authoritarianism—a tangible, liveable, alternative reality.
Profitable for some
Speaking of a ‘Vienna model’ with regard to social housing today evokes that tradition, revived after the 1930s fascist ruptures and a neoliberal intermezzo around the turn of the millennium. It is a tradition of retaining social-housing units as public property, not commodifying and marketing them, and of proactively procuring land to provide building ground as a precondition for affordable housing.
Today, sadly, the municipality so provides not only for non-profit housing associations but also for private capital investments. In a way, then, one cannot blame investment banks for misusing ‘Vienna model’ as a label for PPP schemes that are ‘working well’—read profitable for some. The city administration falls short of sticking to the socialist and democratic policies, oriented to the commons and mass empowerment, that give the model its meaning.
What is more, today’s Vienna does not really gear its social-housing programmes to the working classes but excludes a significant part of them. Disenfranchised migrant workers are to a large extent denied access, through a regulation privileging access for those officially resident for over two years.
The administration has a euphemism for this anti-migrant measure, the Wien-Bonus (Vienna bonus). Under this nice-sounding name, the traditional paternalism of the city’s social-democratic government is given a racist slant, amid the increasingly harsh conditions of neoliberally induced scarcity of affordable urban housing. While in the last two decades the market has built a lot, it has generated speculative vacancy or high-price apartments which make no contribution to mitigating the housing crisis.
Hence, even though nearly half of Vienna´s housing units are municipal dwellings (220,000 in total) or subsidised apartments (200,000), waiting lists and waiting times for both types of housing are very long. This scarcity in affordable housing provokes racist reactions, along the lines of ‘migrants should be last to get in and first to get out’.
A radical, democratic politics that remains true to its egalitarian heritage has to counter this racist political taint. Yet it cannot succeed only with appeals to an open-hearted cosmopolitanism which is nice for those who can afford it. It must combine the critique of racism with tangible reductions in the shortage of affordable housing, improving living conditions for all regardless of their ethnicised (or gendered) identities.
And even that is not enough today. Tackling the housing problem—while still taking pride in the houses and infrastructure built for the many over the decades—is not only, or even primarily, a matter of constructing ever-more housing blocks but of connecting the social questions of justice with ecological ones. It becomes about redistributing, refurbishing and bringing to affordable use what already exists. And it is about creating new imaginaries, possibly inheriting critically from lost futures in the past.
This is what would deserve the name of—and breathe new life into—the ‘Vienna model’.
This concludes our series, supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, on global cities
Gabu Heindl is a professor and head of the department Architecture Cities Economies at the University of Kassel in Germany. She is also an independent architect, urban planner and activist. Her Vienna-based practice GABU Heindl Architektur focuses on public space, collective housing and urban justice.