Light, air and sunshine: Vienna the affordable housing example for Australia

Article published 2 March 2022

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IN many major cities, social housing is for poor people. If you’re not poor, you have to find accommodation in the private rental market. Rents are exorbitant because of speculation and the lack of supply.

Vienna is the exception to this rule. There the rule is that everyone has a right to “light, fresh air and sunshine”. The housing assistance provided by the city is not only for the poor but also for anyone with an annual income below $A60,000.

The city owns 220,000 apartments, a quarter of all accommodation in the city, and rents them out at reasonable rates.

City regulations ensure that rental apartments not owned by it remain affordable through rent controls and rental subsidies.

As a result, two-thirds of renters in Vienna get assistance from the city to make sure they have a decent roof over their heads.

Current Viennese housing policies date back to just after the end of World War 1, when the country faced economic ruin and house prices had collapsed. Construction of new housing had stopped, and a housing shortage ensued, leading to overcrowding. Overcrowding led to disease: tuberculosis was called the Viennese Disease at the time.

A new Austrian Government had a single mission: restore the standard of living. Housing policies hail back to that day and haven’t changed much.

Not everyone likes the city’s housing policies, though. These policies are funded to a large extent from a city tax on real estate. The Austrian People’s Party, which campaigns on tax cuts, wants to get rid of affordable housing policies in Vienna, claiming that they are not suitable in this day and age and that there’s a lot of fraud going on.

However, with two-thirds of the city’s renters depending on affordable housing policies, the Austrian People’s Party has so far been unable to unseat the Austrian Socialist Party, which effectively has run Vienna since 1919.

What also helps to maintain affordable housing policies in Vienna is that everyone can see what happens to rents outside of the control of the city. Market rents between 2008 and 2016 increased by 53 per cent and are not affordable for those on low-to-middle incomes.

This development has also spurred the city’s administration on to plan development of more affordable housing.

Australia is not Austria (ACDC is a far cry from the music of Johan Strauss), but the housing needs of people on low-to-middle incomes are the same: Australia needs to start building affordable housing in the interest of young and old.

It can and should be done.

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