Urban planners look to Vienna to solve housing crises

Vienna's sumptuous imperial palaces may be the main draw for the many millions of tourists visiting every year. But for urban planning experts from all over the world, 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.

Urban planners look to Vienna to solve housing crises
Wolfram Mack, 72, a resident of Vienna's one of the oldest community owned apartment building, Schmelz, is pictured in Vienna, Austria on November 28, 2018. Photo: AFP

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

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 centre.

While social housing may 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.

And because Mack has been a tenant for several decades, his monthly rent amounts to just €300 ($342) for a 90-square-metre apartment — a bargain even by the standards of Vienna's social housing. 

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

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

According to a recent study by Deloitte, the equivalent figure stood at €13 per square metre in Prague, over €17 in Copenhagen and Barcelona, and an eye-watering €26 in Paris and London. 

Vienna's extensive stock of social housing is one of the reasons why it remains so affordable, says Karin Ramser, head of Wiener Wohnen, the centrepiece 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 says.

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

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

Legacy of 'Red Vienna' 

Mack's estate — and his own family 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 says.

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, earning the city the sobriquet of “Red Vienna”.

Between 1923 and 1934, the city's social-democratic municipal governments built more than 60,000 housing units, making Vienna a showcase for the latest innovations in public housing.

The left came back into power after World War II and has ruled the city ever since. And that has had positive effects, according to Yvonne Franz, researcher at Vienna University's geography department.

“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 says.

Wiener Wohnen owns around 220,000 housing units — a quarter of the city's entire stock — making it the biggest public landlord in Europe.

A further 200,000 units are owned by associations who 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.

'Retrograde socialism'? 

However, the Viennese model is not without its problems.

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

The European Commission has criticised the system for distorting competition, but municipal authorities have stood firm, arguing that it preserves the city's social mix.

Mack says the residents on his estate come from “very different backgrounds”.

Many tenants have only modest incomes but even the better-off residents “don't want to leave because life is so good here,” he says.

That social mix may be harder to sustain in future as Vienna's population booms — 100,000 people have moved to the city in the past three years alone, and the population could pass the pre-World War I peak of two million before 

In the private sector, rents rose by 42 percent between 2008 and 2016, with land speculation “making it more and more difficult, if not impossible, to build affordable housing,” says Karl Wurm from Austria's federation of housing associations.

In late November, the city slapped tough conditions on major new housing developments. 

If developers want to receive public subsidies, the rent for two-thirds of their new units cannot exceed five euros per square metre. 

The city authorities hope the measure will stimulate a new “housing revolution”.

But the right-wing opposition condemned it as “dirigiste” and “retrograde socialism” which would discourage private investment.

By AFP's Sophie Makris


INTERVIEW: International students ‘vulnerable’ to Swedish housing shortages

People moving to Malmö to study now have to wait as long as a year to receive accommodation, Milena Milosavljević, the president of the Student Union in the city, has told The Local. The situation, she says, is "urgent and acute".

INTERVIEW: International students 'vulnerable' to Swedish housing shortages

The Sofa Project, run by the Student Union Malmö, received 80 applications this year from students who wanted to rent short-term accommodation, showing just how acute the current housing shortage is.

These 80 applicants were vying for one of seven spots, ranging from a spare room to a sofa bed – from hosts who sign up to offer their spaces to new arrivals.  As the programme only had seven hosts registered this year, the project had to close its application page to others, otherwise the number would have surpassed 80.

“They are ready to come to Malmö and sleep on a sofa bed at a stranger’s house before they find accommodation,” Milosavljević told The Local. 

Malmö recently received a red designation from the Swedish National Union of Students, which publishes an annual report assessing the housing situation in university towns and cities across Sweden. A red designation means that finding suitable accommodation as a student takes more than one semester. The report found that 61 percent of students live in a city that has been designated a red ranking.

READ ALSO: Sweden’s student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester

“The reality of Malmö and the reason why it became red is that to find suitable accommodation you have to wait up to a year,” Milosavljević said.

Some individuals, she said might have to wait up to three years to find their own accommodation, making do with second-hand contracts, long commutes, and living with family members in the meantime. For newly-arrived international students, who lack personal numbers when they move here and so cannot join Swedish housing queues, looking for suitable housing becomes a complex task.

“International students are more vulnerable because they don’t have a personal number to enter the system before they come to Sweden,” Milosavljević explained.

Milosavljević herself moved to Malmö as an international, fee-paying student. Because she paid tuition, she was offered housing by Malmö University. Based in part on her own experience, Milosavljević explained that the housing issue cannot be reduced to a shortage in the number of flats and rooms. There is also a shortage of appropriate housing options for different needs.

“They offered me accommodation in a student building,” she said. “Not an apartment, but a room – and I came with my husband. The room was not enough for two of us.”

Student accommodation must accommodate the different needs of different members of the student body, Milosavljević said, including those who move with partners or spouses, or even with their children.

In the past year, one new student apartment building was built in Malmö, with 94 new spaces for the city’s student body. This is inadequate, Milosavljević said. While Malmö is growing, and there is residential construction being carried out around the city, it is unclear how many of those new buildings will prioritise the city’s student population.

The city’s student population, too, is growing. As the pandemic era ended in Sweden, students returned to campus. And new students joined them. While student ranks grew, housing options remained stagnant.

“From our perspective from the Student Union, we have talked about, in the previous years, how the situation after the pandemic is going to get even worse for the students,” Milosavljević said. “There’s an increase of students coming back, new students, and already not even enough housing.”

Milosavljević has fielded calls and emails from students who say that they cannot move to Malmö because they cannot find housing.

“They are already working on it,” Milosavljević told The Local of the university’s response.

There are plans to create more housing for international students, but these proposals focus mainly on students from European Union, leaving other international students out. All international students should be given priority for student accommodation, Milosavljević said, because none of them have access to the Swedish housing market.

“I do believe strongly that the City of Malmö and Malmö University need to have urgent negotiations and start building straight away,” she said.

Because Malmö University is a public university, it must follow the lead of the Ministry of Education and Research. Milosavljević acknowledged that in the aftermath of Sweden’s recent elections, which put the right-bloc in power, student housing shortages might not rank highly on a list of national priorities.

“The Student Union Malmö considers this situation quite urgent and acute,” Milosavljević said. “We are more than prepared to sit down and talk so we can actually do something, instead of just having meetings. The students will continue to suffer if the living conditions and the bostad [housing] situation in Malmö is not improved.”