Rents are reaching unimaginable heights and homeownership is increasingly out of reach for many people in the United States. As housing organizers, legislators, and everyday people debate paths forward, there is growing interest in a radical transformation of the housing market through the expansion of social housing. While this is a relatively new term in the US, it is common parlance in other parts of the world that have a stronger social safety net and a tenant organizing history.
Social housing policies create “housing in the public interest,” defining it as public good, rather than a financial asset. Generally, social housing models strive toward decommodification, social equity, and resident control. By creating less speculative housing markets, these policies reduce the opportunities for exploitation, negligence, and risky behavior by landlords.
Vienna, where more than 60 percent of the city’s 1.8 million residents live in social housing, is often held up as a model. Just this past November, the Viennese model came up in multiple testimonies (including mine) at a 12-hour hearing for a social housing bill introduced by D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George that would facilitate social housing conversions, development, and long-term stewardship by the city. Vienna has also been the starting point for conversations about how to practically apply the “housing in the public interest” ethos in Hawaii, Maryland, California, and New York.
Vienna is an outlier in that its long-term social democratic municipal government has continually made the preservation of its social housing stock a central aspect of its political identity, even as other European cities privatized social housing in the 1980s and 1990s. Buildings built nearly a century ago by the first iteration of the city’s social democratic party, like Metzleinstaler Hof, continue to provide comfortable and well-maintained housing for the city’s residents. And Vienna’s other housing policies, such as rent control, undergird the city’s ability to maintain and expand its social housing stock.
But Vienna is neither utopian, nor unique. It is still a capitalist city in a conservative country with a history of genocide, exploitation, and racial exclusion.
And while the American housing sector is deeply financialized, there are tenure models all across the country that are, in their essence, social housing. The country’s public housing system—though woefully inadequate and systematically undermined—remains a permanently affordable haven for nearly 1 million people. There are over 225 community land trusts across the United States, which are explicitly set up to steward non-speculative homes and other community assets for the long term. Cities like Washington and New York have legacy stocks of limited equity cooperatives, where residents buy into below-market, income-restricted apartments that are not sold on the open market. In New York, there are nearly 61,000 limited-equity cooperative apartments created under the Mitchell-Lama program, while D.C. has about 4,300 units.
To further understand the relevance of the Viennese model to the United States, I participated in a 50-person delegation of tenant and homeless leaders, organizers, researchers, and elected officials who visited Vienna in October. We met with labor and political leaders, heard from Viennese urban planners, academics, and activists. We also toured the city’s social housing developments, including the mile-long Karl-Marx-Hof (built in the 1920s), a 1970s cascading terrace complex called Alt-Erlaa, and aspern Seestadt, one of the largest urban developments in Europe today.
Shortly after we came back to New York, I caught up with a few of the participants to discuss how they envision Vienna’s social housing model impacting their advocacy and work. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What are your main reflections about our delegation and the Viennese social housing system?
Julie Colon, lead housing organizer at Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition: I grew up in public housing. I moved out last year, and I am 29. My family has been living in New York City public housing multi-generationally. My great-grandparents moved into the projects on Jackson Avenue in the South Bronx when they were first built.
Vienna is a city where half the population lives in government housing. The attitude there is so different than what we have in the United States. We have it ingrained that public things are supposed to be nasty, supposed to be the lowest of the low. But to see what we saw in Vienna, it was like, wow, it is achievable to have housing that is government-owned, for the people, and beautiful.
It was really inspiring to see that people had [in the communal spaces] saunas! And, directly down the hall, a child care room and a communal kitchen, so you could be chilling and your friends could be making dinner. We don’t have those things in the United States. Maybe for the very rich, but it’s not for the public, not for the working class.
There are flaws in their system too; it wasn’t perfect. But we went there to learn and to bring back strategies for New York State.
Dorca Reynoso, board member of the Met Council Action: When we visited Karl-Marx-Hof, our tour guide was 21 or 22 years old—in college—and already had his own place. And as a parent, I am thinking, “God, my son can’t even afford to rent a room in New York.”
I’ve been living in my apartment for 25 years. I’m facing eviction, and I’ve been fighting my landlord for a few years now. It’s so stressful. I can only imagine for people who don’t live with such a heavy burden, it is a completely different scenario.
In the United States, we are led to believe that we just need to keep working harder—and it’s bullshit! I work hard. And, I still don’t have a safe place to live. In Vienna, we saw regular people who had not only safe but beautiful spaces. [When we were touring Sonnwendviertel, a 5,500 apartment social housing development not far from the city’s main train station], I kept noticing a lot of kids. And we saw how space was really designed for them: lots of day care centers and beautiful, car-free streets. What we saw is when the profit motive is taken out of housing, it’s a game changer.
India Walton, senior adviser at the Working Families Party: My main reflections from Vienna was how long the culture of housing for all has been in existence. The quality of social housing was also interesting: the Viennese government chose maintaining well-constructed buildings, rather than demolishing and rebuilding every 30 to 50 years. The very first municipal complex was built in 1924 and is still fully occupied today. The city and culture of Vienna as a whole was pleasant and incredibly easy to navigate; our hosts were warm and thoughtful.
Seeing the [Viennese social housing] amenities in person was surprising—also how communities are meant to meet all the needs of residents without cars. I was disappointed to learn about police brutality and racism against Black people there, but not surprised.
Winsome Pendergrass, leader at New York Communities for Change and Housing Justice for All: It was very surprising to hear that Vienna’s officials believe and put into action these words: “Housing is a human right.”
And they really have it written in stone. It is thought of, and it’s established for us to see. Karl Marx’s vision works, and it stands for all to see.
How, if at all, could the Vienna model be applied to New York City or New York State?
Dorca Reynoso: I think it’s possible to build toward something big here, but it will take a lot of work. Some of it is one-to-one organizing—knocking on those doors and continuing to work with the people. But it’s also going to take big policy change. For example, not allowing politicians to take real estate money. It is going to be a hard fight!
Julie Colon: I agree with Dorca that we can build the type of power and tenant protections they have in Vienna. Our new platform, at Housing Justice for All, includes concrete steps that we need to take to get there, like the Housing Access Voucher Program or Good Cause. But we also need to expand our tenant base. We saw how much it took to win big things in Vienna historically. It is going to take a lot of work, but we have a strong foundation and have to continue the path that we are on.
Dorca Reynoso: We have to work to let people know that they are worthy of nice things. That’s a big thing!
Julie Colon: Our job as organizers is to help people make connections, to make the jump from what we have now to what’s possible. Going to Vienna really helped us make those connections, to see that, like Dorca said, we deserve beautiful things for the public.
At the same time that Vienna has a strong social housing model, Austria has struggled with reconciling its fascist past and neo-fascist tendencies within its culture. The country has one of the most limiting immigration policies in Europe. Does any of that take away from Vienna’s success?
Julie Colon: There is anti-Blackness and white supremacy across the globe. It’s everywhere. Vienna is not any more racist than Long Island! I can’t get a house out there. But I can probably get an apartment in Vienna, if I stayed there long enough, got a work permit, and registered with the Austrian Chamber of Labour.
We didn’t hear enough data on the experiences of African folks and Black folks in Austria. And some of us in the delegation wanted to point out that [the city or the national government] should collect more of that data. But that erasure isn’t unique to Vienna either.
There is still a ton we can take away from Vienna, even though it’s flawed: the history, how people were able to push for the system they have now, the social housing models themselves, and the architecture, too. It was so beautiful.
A lot of public housing in New York makes you feel institutionalized. You feel like you are in a poverty-to-prison pipeline. So, the Viennese social housing architecture is important for peoples’ well-being, I think. The overall look of it—different shapes, colors, and sizes—doesn’t feel stifling.
Dorca Reynoso: The way that it seemed Austria approaches talking about race reminded me of families who don’t like to air their dirty secrets in public: “If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.” While they do need to deal with it in the open, it doesn’t take away from the social housing models.
At the same time, when we talked to the residents in one of the Limited Profit Housing Associations in Sonnwendviertel, they told us they set aside some units for refugees. There is obviously a lot of racism in the country, but it does seem like there are people, at least in Vienna, who are trying to do something about it.
Is there anything else you’d like The Nation’s readers to know about social housing in Vienna?
Winsome Pendergrass: In Vienna, social housing is real, and it’s been in operation for nearly 100 years. Some of the housing complexes look as if they were built five years ago. The amenities are modern and functional, and the tenants are happy and are living with a wonderful quality of life. Best of all, the social housing system is set up in a way that the longer they live in their apartment, their rent gets lower.
The unions in Vienna are a big part of their social housing system; they helped build housing for their members.
The bottom line is this: When the people are considered, they are represented, and it shows.
India Walton: If you want to reduce crime and improve health outcomes, house people affordably. One of the most interesting parts of the trip was how the conservatives and social democrats both agreed housing should be a priority, because it stabilized wages and the workforce. Housing is a human right.
Dorca Reynoso: If we decommodify housing, this country is not going to fall apart. Vienna is a real example of a place where housing is centered around people, and not profit. And the quality of life is just so much better.
We know that the system here isn’t working. How much more sadness will it take for all of us to understand that it needs to change?
Julie Colon: We know that what we have in New York isn’t working. We don’t know the actual number of people who are homeless, and so many people are being evicted every day. There is a lot of privately owned housing that is in decay and in need of repairs, and there really isn’t much that tenants can do about it.
I really encourage people to learn about how there is beautiful, sustainable, publicly owned housing in the world. And, more practically, I encourage you to join your local community-based organization or join Housing Justice for All to join the fight.