Thu, Dec 06, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Planners look to Vienna to solve housing crises


Raben-Hof, a community-owned apartment building, is pictured in Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 28.

Photo: AFP

Vienna’s imperial palaces might be the main draw for the millions of tourists visiting every year, but for urban planning experts, the Austrian capital’s more humble abodes are of greater interest as they search for solutions to the housing crises plaguing many of Europe’s cities.

Vienna is this week hosting a conference on affordable housing, where experts can take a close look at the city’s much-vaunted public housing model.

Wolfgang Mack, a 72-year-old pensioner, is a proud tenant of the city’s oldest social housing project in the 15th District, just 15 minutes from the historic center.

While social housing might bear some stigma in other countries, Mack’s estate boasts tidy green spaces and well-kept facades, as well as easy access to public transport and other amenities.

Because Mack has been a tenant for several decades, his monthly rent is just 300 euros (US$340) for a 90m2 apartment — a bargain even by Vienna’s standards.

“I ask myself how people manage to live in other big cities,” Mack said.

The average rent in Vienna is just 9.6 euros per square meter, to the envy of other big European metropolises.

According to a Deloitte study, the equivalent figure stood at 13 euros per square meter in Prague, more than 17 euros in Copenhagen and Barcelona, and an eye-watering 26 euros in Paris and London.

Vienna’s extensive stock of social housing is one of the reasons why it remains so affordable, said Karin Ramser, head of Wiener Wohnen, the centerpiece of city’s public housing policy.

“The fact that our market is not entirely in the hands of the private sector is generating more and more interest,” she said.

According to official figures, about 60 percent of the city’s 1.8 million inhabitants live in a property owned either publicly or by housing associations.

In both cases the rent is capped, which experts say helps act as a brake on prices in the private sector.

Mack’s story reflects the pioneering role Vienna played in the development of social housing.

“My grandmother came to live in this estate in 1923, I was born here and my daughter has just moved in, too,” he said.

That is typical of generations of particularly working class Viennese, who have benefited from the social housing policies of successive left-wing administrations since World War I.

Between 1923 and 1934, the city’s social-democratic municipal governments built more than 60,000 housing units.

The left returned to power after World War II and has ruled the city ever since, having positive effects, said Yvonne Franz, a researcher at the University of Vienna’s department of geography and regional research.

“Lots of European cities have gradually sold off their housing stock because they see the upkeep costs as a burden on the public purse, but Vienna has taken the opposite view,” she said.

Wiener Wohnen owns about 220,000 housing units — one-quarter of the city’s entire stock — making it the biggest public landlord in Europe.

Another 200,000 units are owned by associations that agree to cap rents in return for public subsidies.

Spending on housing and other aspects of urban planning is financed by a nationwide tax paid by all businesses and employees.

However, the Viennese model is not without its problems.

One point of controversy is that rental contracts for subsidized housing are awarded virtually for life, regardless of any changes in the tenant’s status or income, and can be passed on to relatives.

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