Social Housing: Here to stay?

Vienna’s Gemeindebau scheme is one of the largest in the world. Will funding cuts bring down a respected tradition?

News | Wolfgang Fiel | March 2012

In Austria, public housing has its roots in the era of Red Vienna, the period between 1918 and 1934, when the ruling Social Democrats launched an unprecedented programme for the provision of decent, affordable housing.

Since World War II, the sector has shifted away from direct public ownership towards subsidised construction by Public Benefit Housing Associations (gemeinnützige Wohnbauträger),  whose profits are legally limited and subject to government control.

Yet with some 220,000 housing units under its direct or indirect control, the City of Vienna is in the unique position to wield a significant regulatory influence on price developments in the housing market. As a result, overall rents are relatively low compared to cities with more private ownership, whose rents are vulnerable to hikes in global property markets.

On 10 Feb., a group of experts gathered on the premises of IG Architektur, a trade association of architects, to discuss the future of Vienna’s public housing model amid government cutbacks and a shaky economy.

Two editors from the urban research journal dérive, Georg Kolmayr and Andreas Rumpfhuber, see the Viennese model at the critical point of having to adapt to economic uncertainty.

Yet Eva Bauer, speaking for the Austrian Association for Limited Profit Housing, highlighted the continued stability of the Austrian housing market. She put this down to intelligent welfare policy: Rent subsidies are attached to the housing developments, rather than low-income occupants. Hence the city’s affordable housing stock remains intact when occupants move out of council flats or up the wage ladder.

Architect Michael Rieper agreed that Vienna was still in a very comfortable position, but lamented the lack of experimentation with the types of housing. "Clearly, we still have it too good. People are reluctant to innovate until a crisis really hits," Rieper ventured. But his suggestion received a clear rejection from Gabu Heindl, an architect and urban researcher. "It’s cynical to wish for a crisis so that architects can finally live out their creativity," she demurred.

Heindl also opposed the idea of tailoring public housing to a specific clientele, a recent development known as themed housing (Themenwohnen). This cemented social stereotypes and also risked creating urban ghettos, she said.

Architect Karin Lischke highlighted the alternative of Baugruppen (co-housing groups), a model whereby a group of likeminded individuals develops small-scale, collaborative projects as a means to shape public discussion and inspire housing policy. However, she was unable to fend off the critique that similar examples in Berlin had accelerated gentrification.

Baugruppen were not really a force, Rieper countered, as they made up only 0.5 per cent of residential developments in Austria. Rumpfhuber argued, however, that focusing on the small percentage missed the point, as fringe groups have always driven innovation.

Although the participants unanimously labelled the Viennese model a success, the audience was left with no clear answer about its future. There was also no discussion of how architecture can enhance the quality of living. Red Vienna’s original vision was to enrich life through design, and achieve a sense of community through shared kitchens and nurseries, integrating the domestic and the social. Can contemporary urban planning deliver the paradigms for the future of social housing?

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