How Vienna voted itself better, cheaper housing

Christopher Bonanos, in New York magazine’s recent “welcome, Mayor DeBlasio” package, highlights several housing production strategies that could both increase the desperately short supply of housing. Doing so isn’t just the only reliable way to break the price spiral, but several of the tactics provide the city with enough leverage to ensure that the units that it does build (not nearly as many as suspected) better address the city’s workforce housing needs. Building on city-owned parcels like the Javits Center or infilling NYCHA’s parking lots, and sharpening inclusionary incentives to push more workforce and fewer luxury units, might involve political hardball but offer rich rewards.

Anyhow, the idea that the city should take a more aggressive stance on housing production reminded me of the lasting legacy of Red Vienna:

Promised, delivered
[Wall poster by Victor Theodor Slama, 1927. In 1923, the SPD government promised Vienna 25,000 houses; it built 32,000 and many public facilities like kindergartens. Many of the future promises are results of additional housing construction.]

Last year, I wrote a report with classmate Priya Desai [full document] about the aggressive housing construction program implemented by the Social Democratic government of Vienna between the world wars. The Gemeinde Wien program was probably the most aggressive urban renewal program implemented by a democratically elected government during the 20th century — and a lasting success that still provides decent, walkable housing for hundreds of thousands.

[Reumann-Hof along Margaretenguertel, the first large Gemeinde Wien building. See more photos…]

Vienna’s government had neither the developable land nor the patience to continue to address its housing crisis in such a piecemeal fashion (Blau 1999, 154). Further suburban expansion was impossible within a city-state covering just 150 square miles — about the size and population of the present-day City of Philadelphia, but also squeezing a greenbelt within its bounds — and hemmed in on all sides by a hostile province. Meanwhile, city leaders were under great pressure to rapidly expand the scope and speed of their housing development strategy. Doing so would simultaneously address the city’s housing crisis, improve living conditions and social services for vulnerable populations, and boost employment and industrial production from their depressed postwar levels. The city also sought to center its vast new housing estates around communal recreation, health, and education facilities, hoping to raise a new generation of socialist Viennese and freeing urban women from toiling on the land. These new facilities could uplift and unify what were poor and haphazardly built quarters at the edges of the city, reversing the imperial government’s long-time development focus on the splendid central city (167)…

Red Vienna’s success was a triumph of democracy. A city stripped of its empire, with a population on the brink of starvation, mustered its own strengths to accomplish a public works project of historic scope. The Gemeindebauten they built not only met Vienna’s pressing housing challenges; they have left a durable legacy in the city’s physical and social landscape. Today, the Gemeindebauten anchor stable, sanitary, service-rich urban neighborhoods that complement Vienna’s historic core, all of which are wrapped by an intact metropolitan greenbelt. In the course of rapidly building hundreds of Gemeindebauten, the city unerringly kept its focus on efficiently empowering the masses through sanitary housing rather than remaking the city in some idealized socialist image. The pragmatic adaptations to its housing construction program incorporated lessons learned along the way, from the early shift to high-density Gemeindebauten to the later expansion of apartment sizes.

Today, Vienna’s social housing programs house about 500,000 Viennese, about 30% of the entire city population in more than 2,000 housing developments around the city (Wohnservice Wien, 2012). The original vision of Red Vienna extended beyond simply re-housing and reshaping a city but into its everyday social life: “to enrich life through design, and achieve a sense of community through shared kitchens and nurseries, integrating the domestic and the social” (Fiel 2012). As the Social Democrats subtly intended, the Gemeindebauten have indeed socialized generations of Viennese with its ideology: the party has swept every single municipal election ever since.

It was Dan Solomon’s book, wherein he credits the Gemeindebauten with inspiring his intricate affordable housing blocks in California, which first piqued my curiosity about the history of humane housing projects in cities like Vienna and Hong Kong. (Interestingly, in both Vienna and Hong Kong, housing crises were precipitated by not just industrialization and war, but also by an influx of rural migrants. Although public housing allocation in many places now persists as a way to reward “seniority” and exclude newcomers — not unlike rent control — it began as a way to welcome people to the city.)

If there’s one city in the United States which can leverage resources towards building mass housing, and where the term “public housing” isn’t irreparably tainted, it’s New York City. NYC wouldn’t be able to implement Vienna’s demand-side solution of a steeply tiered housing tax that breaks private landlords overnight, but it does have the power to implement various supply side solutions. Getting into the construction game might give the city an incentive to finally tackle unnecessarily high construction costs. Keeping control of land in the hands of public entities, land trusts or limited-equity coops, CDCs, or new L3Cs (low-profit corporations) can ensure that housing serves locals and remains permanently affordable — of all cities, surely NYC can structure financial innovations that can match yield-hungry, tax-shy investors to the steady rent checks (if limited capital appreciation) afforded by non-volatile, low-vacancy workforce housing.

There are plenty of tools, and plenty of examples throughout history, where cities acting alone have built their way out of a housing crisis. The question’s now how, it’s if our mayors have the same will.

Update: Paul Berman makes a similar call in the New Republic, pointing to previous union-built workforce housing schemes across the city: “The Socialists built cooperative apartment houses for working people, some 100,000 apartments or more, which amounts to a small city, and the projects offered and in many cases still offer some of the best housing in New York City for people with modest incomes.” Singapore’s public housing scheme also got attention in the Times.

* That depends on how democratic one views elections in cities like Singapore [photo], or some in the eastern bloc, which also underwent extensive urban renewal in the postwar years, but it’s a sharp contrast to the renewal of Paris, for instance.


One thought on “How Vienna voted itself better, cheaper housing

  1. I’ve written before about how housing policy should encourage stable and moderate housing prices, since quality housing is a social good (both a social right and a “condition of production”) necessary to proper economic health. Over at Forbes, Eamonn Fingleton points out that this policy aim has a long tradition in Germany, and perhaps so in Austria as well.

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