Learning from Vienna

Tom Wetzel

The housing program of the Austrian social-democrats in Vienna after World War I is an example of what can be done to address the affordable housing crisis. Vienna, like San Francisco, is a compact city with high demand for dwelling space. The high proportion of a worker's income that was going to housing, as well as the poor quality of housing provided by the private sector, were motivating factors behind the Vienna housing program.

The city housing program was the work of the Vienna social-democratic movement, based on the city’s unions. At the end of World War I, Vienna had lost direct access to its markets in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because Austria now had to export to the world market, the Austrian unions faced a difficult task if they tried to raise wages to enable workers to afford high rents. Faced with becoming uncompetitive, Austrian employers would put up a stiff fight and some might go bankrupt. This led the social-democrats to develop a strategy for improving workers' standard of living by lowering rents.

Between World War I and the fascist coup in 1934, the Vienna city government increased the city ownership of land to one third of the entire terrain of the city, building over 50,000 dwelling units.

They did this without benefit of eminent domain, as the conservatives who controlled the national government denied them right of eminent domain. The land was acquired on the land market, based on a fund derived from a 4% payroll tax. The new buildings were mixed-use structures (typically six stories) with store fronts and social services (daycare centers, health clinics, co-op grocery stores) on the ground floor. The stores and enhanced services were intended for the entire neighborhood, as well as residents of the new buildings. Open space was provided in the form of interior courtyards, rather than removing the buildings from the street. The buildings were integrated with the surrounding neighborhoods, not separated from them in the fashion of American public housing.

Position on the waiting list for new dwellings was based on a point system, and income was one of the factors that would determine your standing in the list (those with higher incomes were assumed to have more options). But unlike American public housing, residency was not “means-tested” in the sense that there was no income maximum. Having an eviction notice from a landlord, for example, would give you high priority for an available unit, independent of your income. The aim of the program was to ensure affordable housing for the majority, not merely for a very poor minority of the population. This was also reflected in the high quality of construction.

The new buildings were typically sited along streetcar or Stadtbahn (light rail rapid transit) lines, as few Viennese workers had cars at that time. This highlights the importance of co-ordinating any affordable housing construction program with transit planning. Investment in expensive transit infrastructure (subways, light rail lines, busways) makes sense only if the areas around the stations are developed as dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented districts.

Housing around Stadtbahn
City-built housing, in foreground, sited around a stadtbahn station.
The grand boulevard, with the park-like median, had been built on the site
of the city wall (fortification), which was demolished in the 19th century.

Stadtbahn Station
Here is a closer shot of a Vienna Stadtbahn station, circa 1926. The stylish exterior – designed in the 1890s by famed Viennese architect Otto Wagner – shows that an elevated railway need not be ugly. Note the cafe on the station’s groundfloor and the neat public clock. Cafes are a friendly adjunct to a station and can bring in “concession” revenue for the transit system. Note how this station is a transit hub with various streetcar and bus routes converging here. The dense neighborhood close to the station supports high transit ridership.

In the 1970s many of the original residents of the Vienna housing program were interviewed as part of an oral history program. Though the residents were generally happy with their new dwellings, the main criticism was directed at the perceived paternalism of the city bureaucracy. This problem could be partly addressed by subcontracting the management of the apartment complexes to tenants’ associations, so that the residents are empowered to deal directly with problems as they arise.

How can designs for housing be assured of meeting the needs of the residents if the erstwhile residents are not consulted? This is also a problem with market-based housing, which is built on speculation. The developers make the decision about living arrangements “on behalf of” the future residents. There is a tendency to build to the “common denominator” (for a particular income segment targeted by the developer) – only the rich get customized dwellings. Yet, not everyone has the same sort of living arrangements or lifestyle. In the nonprofit sector this is sometimes addressed by agencies building housing for specific client groups, such as the disabled or senior citizens. But here it is assumed that the professionals who “represent” the clients know just what the clients want. Maybe they do, and maybe sometimes that element of “paternalism” is involved. An alternative approach would be to involve the residents in the design of the places where they are going to live.

Top-down control over design and management of the buildings followed from the governmentalist approach of the Viennese socialists. That is, their political strategy was to serve working class interests by building up a political machine based on the labor movement. The leaders of this political machine would then implement its program top-down through the government once they had gained control of the government. This approach often tends to favor government-managed programs as this empowers the leaders.

An alternative would be a self-management approach that aims to empower people directly through building up mass membership organizations controlling land use and development, and enrolling people in the design and management of the buildings they live in. (See A Self-management Approach to Housing).

Note: I’ve drawn most of the information about the Vienna housing program here from Eva Blau, The Architecture of Red Vienna.

Related Topics: Housing