What can Ireland’s housing experts learn from Vienna where two-thirds of the city’s inhabitants live in public housing was the question being asked at the launch in Dublin earlier this year of the exhibition, The Vienna Model – Housing for the 21st Century. VIEW editor Brian Pelan went to Vienna to have a look at the city’s public housing programme which is presently celebrating its 100th year of existence.
Public housing in Vienna grew out of squalor, war and disease. I learnt this after a trip to Dublin in April this year to view the Vienna Model Housing exhibition in Ballymun, Dublin. It was my first insight into how the Austrian capital had created a type of housing which has now lasted for 100 years.
About three weeks later I was on a flight to Vienna for the very first time. I wanted to see for myself how it worked and were there lessons for how Ireland could tackle its own housing crisis?
My ‘guide’ for the day was Markus Leitgeb, spokesperson for Wiener Wohnen, a municipal property management company which manages around 220,000 council flats.
Today, more than 50 per cent of all Viennese are living in a subsidised flat – either in one of the 220,00 municipal flats or in one of the 200,000 cooperative flats built with city subsidies.
Markus showed me around the Goethehof housing complex, situated near the River Danube, and answered the many questions I had about public housing in Vienna.
How many public housing apartment complexes are there in Vienna, I asked him?
“There are about 2,000,” replied Markus. “There are big ones like the Goethehof which has 800 apartments. They vary in size.
“The Goethehof was one of our earlier buildings which was constructed between 1929 and 1930. In the last few years, we have been renovating it. A team of around 4,500 employees at Wiener Wohnen looks after the needs of all the tenants in Vienna.”
I was impressed by the scale and size of a green space in the heart of the Goethehof.
“Many of our buildings have parks in them. Our belief is ‘light, air and sun’,” said Markus.
“There is a mix of tenants living in the Goethehof. That is one of our principles. We look at the income of the residents and their housing conditions. People who don’t have a job can live here in subsidised housing
“Many of the complexes have a school, library, nurseries, access to doctors, shops and swimming. The idea of Vienna public housing is ‘little cities within a city’. “
The rent is also regulated by law.
Markus showed me a newly built rooftop apartment which had 78 square metres. “The rent for this apartment would be about €680 a month. These terms are permanently fixed for the tenant with some minor adjustments.”
I was impressed by the scale and layout of the apartment and the stunning view it offered of the city.
We finished off our visit to the Goethehof by visiting the nearby River Danube which is used by residents to swim in the summer and have picnics on its grassy banks.
“The city of Vienna has owned these buildings for 100 years. We’re not going to give them away to the private market,” said Markus.
In a forward to a new book about the history of Wiener Wohnbau, its director Karin Ramser writes: “There is no other city in Europe that has such continuity of social housing policy and that never gave it up when the spirit of the times required neoliberalism and privatisation.”
My brief visit to Vienna showed me that is possible to create public housing on a huge scale were tenants have the security of tenure and affordable rents.
As Ireland struggles with a housing crisis, the city of Vienna offers a vision of what is possible. Two big issues stand in the way though – the idea of property as a commodity and home ownership. Unless we effectively tackle these two concepts, the vision of a huge Vienna-type public housing programme in Ireland will, unfortunately, remain a dream – forever on the horizon.