Social Housing in Vienna: Lessons for Philadelphia

I traveled to Vienna in July/August 2017 to get a feel for the city and see for myself what Vienna’s social housing looks like on the ground, as well as to learn from the perspective of people living there. Photos from that trip are interspersed throughout this post to give context and help the reader better imagine social housing. There’s also a great exhibit up at the Center for Architecture in NYC through May 19, 2018 called “Social Housing – New European Projects” that I highly recommend for anyone looking for more inspiration and to get an idea about the kinds of problems (poverty, social isolation, aging, etc.) that these social housing projects (in conjunction with social programs) have set out to address. Lastly, as I finished my thesis (of which this post is a part), Dr. Peter Dreier from Occidental College in Los Angeles published a great article called “Why America Needs More Social Housing” in American Prospect. Definitely worth a read for even more of the Vienna social housing context and ideas for why social housing (suited to the geography and social history of a particular city of course) would go a long way towards addressing the housing crisis in a transformative way.

From the social housing exhibit at the Center for Architecture.

As the previous historical account has shown, the system of housing finance, production, and tenure in the United States is broken and has always been broken. Because housing is primarily considered a commodity in the United States, housing that is truly affordable to the large segment of the population that cannot afford a mortgage (in either the short or long term) is located far from jobs and is often run-down, overpriced, and managed by unscrupulous landlords. This is especially true in Philadelphia where housing stability for low- and moderate- income people has been compromised by a long history of redlining-induced segregation, low wages, foreclosure, eviction, gentrification and lack of quality affordable housing in either the private market or public housing. To realize a right to housing, the entire system of finance, production, and tenure must be reimagined, and as such I propose that we take decommodification seriously and explore social housing options that meet the need for stable, dignified housing that can be accessed by both low- and moderate-income tenants. One source of inspiration for what a social housing system could look like is that of Vienna.

After World War I, social democrats in Vienna swept the municipal elections and made the provision of housing a priority. 60,000 units of social housing were produced between 1923 and 1934. Nearly 100 years since it first embarked on a mission to house its working-class residents, housing policy and financing in Vienna have evolved and some elements of the social housing system have been recommodified; however, protections for social housing and the public commitment to its provision remain popular and intact. While the histories and policies of Vienna and Philadelphia are widely divergent and Vienna’s housing regime has plenty of contradictions and problems, there are still many lessons that Philadelphia could learn from and be inspired by in its own journey towards realizing a right to housing. Before I trace the history of social housing in Vienna, I want to spend some time describing the housing landscape of Philadelphia.


Philadelphia is a prime example of the failure of ameliorative housing policy. Philadelphia had the highest poverty rate of all the big cities in the United States in 2017[i]. 28% of Philadelphians – between 430,000 and 440,000 people – live below the federal poverty level, and one in eight Philadelphians lives in deep poverty (50% of the federal poverty line; less than $12,300/year for a family of four)[ii]. Since the 1970s, the poverty rate in Philadelphia has grown from a 50-year low of 15.4% to the current rate reflecting a long period of decline out of step with the nation as a whole (2017 US poverty rate is 12.7%). Renters in Philadelphia face particular challenges due to a weakly-regulated housing landscape, an aging housing stock and few public housing options. The Reinvestment Fund (a Community Development Financial Institution located in Philadelphia) reports that:

HUD records related to disproportionate housing needs in Philadelphia (i.e., housing units with one or more of the following conditions: over-crowded, cost-burdened, lacking a complete kitchen or lacking complete plumbing) show that 47.3% of all households have at least one of these conditions, and that 24.3% have severely disproportionate housing needs. In addition, in the city’s 2016 Assessment of Fair Housing, the Philadelphia Housing Authority stated that the supply of publicly subsidized rental housing is sufficient to address only 12% of the need; and a recently released study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia notes that 20% of the federally subsidized rental units will reach the end of their period of affordability and some portion of them, particularly in appreciating neighborhoods, may become market rate units[iii].

With the poverty rate consistently stuck around 25% in Philadelphia, the minimum wage stuck at $7.25/hour, and growing numbers of young college graduates moving to the city in search of jobs, there are fewer decent affordable rental units to go around. This means that those with the lowest incomes are often forced to live in dilapidated, dangerous, and dirty housing. While eviction is in itself a huge problem in Philadelphia (there are about 20,000 eviction notices filed every year[iv]), the actual living conditions of the people being evicted are terrible. Testimony collected at a 2017 City Council hearing on eviction and substandard housing in Philadelphia reveals a long list of violations: broken windows not repaired in the winter, broken plumbing and raw sewage in basements, all kinds of vermin, illegal utility shutoffs, collapsed ceilings, and a variety of fire hazards. One mother testified about a cockroach infestation in her multifamily building, resulting in one climbing down the feeding tube of her disabled daughter and causing her to choke[v]. This is the type of poorly-regulated private market housing that low-income people in Philadelphia are forced to live in. As evidenced in the testimony, the regulatory body charged with enforcing the lax housing code for private rental apartments in Philadelphia[vi] – Licensing and Inspections (L&I) –  is severely under-resourced and unable to address all of these issues, and unfortunately when it does, the result is often that the housing is found to be uninhabitable and the tenant is forced to leave.

Source: Ann Ritter via Twitter (@annritter)

With a spotty rental record, limited funds to pay for first, last, and security deposit up front, and a public housing wait list that is so long that it closed in 2013[vii], low-income renters have no choice but to find another similarly-destressed private rental unit, to stay with a friend or relative, or end up homeless. All of these effects are magnified if the tenant is a single mother, as they can trigger an investigation by DHS (Department of Human Services) that results in the removal of the children from her custody, to say nothing of the intense stress the situation causes for the entire family. But the reality of a city that has the highest per-capita incarceration rate among the top 10 biggest cities in the US as well as being the most-impoverished big city, is hidden behind 29 new high-rises (most containing luxury rental apartments)[viii], pop-up beer gardens, and urbanist cries for historic preservation.

Philadelphia also has a high rate of homeownership, even among people with lower incomes, however the historic legacy of redlining continues to haunt the market. A recent investigation by The Center for Investigative Journalism focused on the racism that continues to pervade the mortgage market in Philadelphia, finding that blacks in Philadelphia were 2.7 times more likely to be denied a conventional mortgage then whites[ix]. Banks continue to insist that their decisions are based on credit scores and debt-to-income ratios rather then race, but the data shows that blacks and Latinos continue to be denied mortgages at much higher rates and that they continue to have higher rates of approval for homes that are least likely to appreciate in value due to the neighborhoods that they are located in (majority non-white)[x]. Because of the deeply-entrenched nature of racism in the United States at all levels of public policy and finance, a right to housing movement must seek reparations for these ongoing injustices that keep black residents at any income level from realizing housing stability and dignity. As the historic record shows, a perpetual focus on market-based solutions does not solve the problem of racism, as it is baked into those same solutions. As we turn to the example of Vienna’s social housing system, we must keep in mind the historic legacy of colonialism and slavery in the United States so that we do not imagine a new system of housing that continues to reproduce the racism and segregation of the current system.

For more about housing, segregation, and eviction in Philly, check out these articles:
How Redlining Segregated Philadelphia (Next City, 12/8/2017)

3 maps that explain gentrification in Philadelphia (PlanPhilly, 3/13/2018)

Why 1 in 14 Philly renters faces eviction every year (, 4/19/2018)

Philadelphia Foreclosure Rate Nearly Double the U.S. Average (Business Insider, 4/30/2018)


Vienna’s social housing system is the subject of a great deal of journalism and academic research. While public housing in the United States is widely considered a failure and the majority of construction has ceased, the social housing system in Vienna is highly-esteemed and continues to grow. In this paper I differentiate social housing from public housing because of the historic stigma public housing has in the United States due to disinvestment, segregation, and financial constraints imposed by lawmakers resistant to any public provision of housing. While both social and public housing are developed using taxpayer money and administered by public agencies, social housing as practiced in Vienna (and in many cities throughout Europe) is rooted in a social democratic ethos with a policy goal of social cohesion. In order to imagine what a publicly-funded and administered system of rental housing could look like in the United States, it’s necessary that we part ways with our old ideas related to public housing.

Vienna in 2018 is a vibrant cosmopolitan city of more than 2 million inhabitants. Like other cities throughout the world, it is speckled with the signs of new development: cranes rise above the skyline in nearly every district, sidewalks throughout the central district are flanked by safety fences and scaffolding, and huge banners advertising new luxury housing hang from historic pre-war buildings undergoing conversion. The presence of international real estate capital flowing into the city is dearly felt in both the changes to the physical appearance of the city and in how the proud mission of the city’s social housing regime has adapted to this new reality. Despite these changes and the recommodification of some previously-decommodified housing, social housing remains widely popular and new units continue to be constructed: 78% of Viennese people are renters, 42% is non-profit social, and 500,000 people live in municipal housing (social housing administered by the city)[xi].  To put this in context, Philadelphia – with a similar-sized population and land area – houses just 9% of its residents with public subsidies, one-third of which are private-market rentals using Section 8 vouchers. In Vienna that figure is 60% decommodified social housing[xii].


Vienna’s social housing mission can be traced back to struggles over the extremely limited stock of rental housing available in the 19th century. At the time, immigrants from throughout the Hapsburg empire[xiii] descended upon Vienna in search of industrial jobs and a better standard of living. Relatively late to industrialization for a variety of reasons, by 1910 49% of Vienna’s workforce was in industry and manufacturing[xiv]. Housing production did not keep up with this influx of industrial workers and homelessness became epidemic[xv]. Where workers managed to secure housing, tuberculosis was widespread due to a lack of sanitation and overcrowding. In 1910 and 1911 there were mass protests over housing, some of which ended violently[xvi]. The advent of World War I brought a transition to a war economy focused on the production of strategic goods and with it high unemployment resulting from non-strategic businesses going under. As more men were conscripted into fighting, production suffered and sent ripple effects throughout the Viennese economy. With the end of World War I in 1918, even more immigrants flocked to Vienna, putting further stress on an already limited housing supply.


Vienna held its first democratic municipal elections following the proclamation of the Republic of Austria[xvii]  and the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (which had been demanding social housing since the outset of World War I) achieved 54.7% of the vote[xviii]. This electoral victory was foreshadowed by the Viennese settlers’ movement, which began squatting the suburbs and farming allotments and ended up forming cooperatives and building blocks of houses in and around the allotments. These settler organizations, driven by their own insistence on a right to housing and inspired by the Russian Revolution in their backyard, also participated in and organized demonstrations demanding city support for their construction projects. It was on this wave of revolutionary fervor and collectivist work that the Viennese Social Democrats achieved their victory over the Christian Socials (the party of the landlords). This period of time until the Austro-fascist coup that brought the National Socialists to power (1934) is popularly called ”Red Vienna”.


Addressing the housing crisis was the top priority of the newly-elected Social Democrats, and by 1922 they passed two important laws establishing both rent control and a right to expropriation (essentially granting eminent domain over unused and vacant property, as well as property deemed “underused”)[xix]. This legislation further-dampened the enthusiasm of the private market to construct housing for workers, and so the Social Democrats launched their ambitious social housing program to fill that vacuum. Initially their goals were small – 1000 units in the first year – but the program was so successful that it more than doubled that goal and established a new goal of 25,000 units over the next five years[xx]. All these goals were met, new goals were set, and by 1934 the results were astonishing:

61,175 apartments and 348 housing estates, forty-two settlement groups with 5,257 terrace houses and 2,155 commercial premesis. One tenth of the inhabitants of Vienna lived in council housing estates in 1934[xxi].

With each new housing development advances in architecture and the organization of space were improved upon. Unlike the council housing being erected in other European cities at the time, the social value of housing was emphasized in Vienna. New social housing used architectural design to provide “light, fresh air and sunshine” to tenants, as well as to collectivize various components of reproductive labor to “liberate housewives”[xxii]. Laundries, garden allotments, nurseries, playgrounds, libraries, counseling offices, rooms for political gathering and debate, publicly-accessible courtyards and kindergartens became integral parts of the new social housing landscape. Units were quite small by today’ standards, but these amenities which were held in common and administrated by the city gave tenants access to resources never before available to them.


Rents were only 3-4% of a tenant’s income and new laws established rights for renters that gave them stability of tenure and constrained eviction (for example, when a worker became ill, rent payments ceased until they recovered)[xxiii]. Rather than rent being used to pay off a mortgage, the city considered construction costs to be sunk, so rents were based on maintenance and operating costs. New social housing was spread throughout the city, having the long-term effect of fighting off the type of intense segregation that we take as normal in the United States. The social housing program of Red Vienna was financed primarily through redistributive taxation. The Social Democrat city government introduced real estate, capital gains, investment and luxury taxes, but the greatest source of revenue was the progressive housing tax: about 2% for a simple worker’s apartment and 37-55% for a luxury apartment[xxiv][xxv]. This was made possible by the Separation Act of 1921[xxvi], which separated Vienna from Lower Austria, making Vienna its own province with the ability to raise its own revenue through taxation[xxvii].


The Red Vienna social housing program as it was first designed came to an end in 1934 when the rise of Austro-fascism led to civil war between the Social Democrats and the Christian Socials, the latter being the only party permitted after parliament was dissolved by the National Socialists[xxviii]. After World War II, the Second Republic was declared, and free elections were finally held in 1945. From that time forward, Austria’s government came to be characterized by cooperation and the idea of “social partnership” between the Social Democrats and Christian Socials. This “corporatist” government ushered in an era of Fordism and although Vienna’s city government was once-again led by the Social Democrats, it was much more of a top-down welfare state administration that some have argued depoliticized civil society[xxix]. Social housing became part of national welfare state policy, but with important changes. Most importantly, third sector (non-profit) housing providers emerged to eventually become key players in the social housing regime. Vienna’s built infrastructure was badly damaged during the war, resulting in a loss of about 20% of the total housing stock, and it these third sector providers stepped in to successfully fill that gap (as the city did not have the capacity to do it alone). Additionally, new legal frameworks and funding schemes were introduced soon after to allow for housing cooperatives and associations. Together with council housing constructed by the city, the housing shortage was largely eliminated in fifteen years.


The 1960s were a time of prolific social housing construction in Vienna. New technologies including prefabricated elements were introduced[xxx], reducing the cost of social housing at the expense of architectural quality and aesthetics[xxxi]. In addition to criticism of the monotony and density of these new apartments, the splitting of the city into distinct quadrants associated with a particular land use resulted in many of these new developments being constructed in far-flung areas of the city that were poorly-served by public transportation[xxxii]. None-the-less there was marked improvement in the quality of apartments at this time and the city succeeded in building more than 10,000 social housing apartments throughout the decade. Despite the top-down welfare state approach that characterized the postwar decades, by the 1970s the idea of participatory planning in the realm of social housing gained a foothold, which led into the “soft urban renewal” policies of the 1980s. These policies provided loans and subsidies to modernize the social housing stock, as well as to help private landlords who were not motivated to update or improve their properties without the financial incentive of high market rate rents. The 1985 Housing Promotion Law devolved the management of subsidies to the nine regional governments, which began the process of fragmentation in Vienna’s social housing system but has not slowed the construction of new social housing units[xxxiii].


The last few decades have seen a turn towards increased financialization and privatization, but Vienna has managed thus far to avoid selling off its social housing stock or deregulating rent controls on social housing as other cities have done. The city has had to innovate in terms of financing due to the influx of private capital flowing into the real estate market and raising property values, which has meant introducing “Right-to-Buy” in conjunction with new units and the flexibilization of the federal budget so that funds are no longer earmarked for housing or any other use[xxxiv]. Another important development has been the dualization of the social housing sector. While non-profits came on the scene during the postwar housing crisis, they are now the exclusive developers of new social housing. Regarding rents, regulation, and quality there is not much difference between the non-profit housing and municipal housing, however, securing a non-profit unit requires a down payment of around 500€ per square meter[xxxv]. The city has programs to lower this cost and offer low-interest loans for those who qualify, but it remains that a person needs to have access to capital to secure much of the social housing being developed. While rents are still regulated in the private rental market, rent controls have been liberalized over the last couple decades allowing landlords to upgrade their properties and move from the low-price to the high-price sector. Landlords are also permitted to charge location bonuses on top of rent in the most desirable sections of the city. The combination of these policies layered on top of previous policies has resulted in a two-tier system for low-income households, where those who were able to access council housing or get a rent-controlled lease in the private market (prior to 1994) have a good standard of living. As with all urban policy, housing policy in Vienna continues to evolve, however, the social democratic ideals and commitment to social cohesion that the system is rooted in appear to be intact so there is reason to be (cautiously) optimistic about what types of solutions they will come up with to deal with their current issues.


End Notes: What Philadelphia Can Learn From Vienna About Social Housing

It is easy to take a surface look at Vienna’s social housing history and either glorify it as the answer to the housing crisis or write it off as impossible to replicate in a US city. The scope and scale of it require a deeper inquiry by those of us who are interested in a transformative approach to housing policy. Like military, welfare, or environmental policy, housing policy in any nation or city is going to depend on the historical moment when it gets passed, as well as all of the history and policies that unfolded leading up to it. We cannot simply ask city council, the state of Pennsylvania, and the United States to change their tax codes and earmark a few hundred million dollars for the purpose of building social housing and expect to start construction in a few months. Neither can we just dissolve the cultural baggage of public housing in the US or convince the vast majority of homeowners to become tenants. And yet there are several things we can learn.


Firstly, a citywide right to housing movement that focuses on the rights of renters needs to be consolidated and mobilized. Currently, most housing justice work is fragmented and to a certain extent competition. There is organizing around eviction and a push for “just cause” legislation, but this amounts to a single issue that is a symptom of the housing crisis, but not a root cause. There has recently been some great investigative journalism exposing the continued practice of redlining, but not a real critique of real estate markets or the idea that housing should be seen as a wealth-building tool. The racist history of housing policy in the United States needs to be exposed through education, of which data related to federal expenditures on suburbanization and the wealth-depleting process of homeownership for nonwhite and lower-income people must be exposed. A right to housing movement needs to be grounded in a critique of the irrefutably racialized capitalist real estate market as it is, while also offering a vision of what is possible. The Vienna example is useful in this way because while recreating it would be impossible, its mere existence proves that there are other ways to organize our housing. In addition to alternatives to our current housing system, we need to imagine new ways to build wealth and stability – the question of being able to set out children up for the future with a good education and for ourselves to be able to retire comfortably in a post-pension post-safety net world. We need to imagine new safety nets that are not market-driven. From the social movement, new leaders that aren’t non-profit professionals or city bureaucrats need to get elected at all levels of government.

Secondly, that movement needs to articulate a clear set of objectives, no matter how utopian some of them may seem. In fact, the bigger the better, alongside the history and facts of our current housing crisis. Housing legislation enacted both during the Red Vienna period and at other points in time as circumstances changed offers some good examples. Yes, just cause eviction protection is part of that. Rent controls are another.  Options for extended tenancy. Modernization and rehabilitation of current public housing. Creation of a new body whose exclusive job is to regulate private rental housing (to replace L&I who do not have the manpower or agency to prosecute slumlords). Housing tax on luxury rental units to fund a social housing development bank. New legislation to make community land trusts and innovative forms of social finance more feasible and easier to scale up. Expanded use of eminent domain in gentrifying neighborhoods to preserve affordable living and small business spaces for lower-income residents. Public input on a development master plan. Clear goals for development of affordable housing units. No income limits for tenancy in current public or future social housing (ie if you are low-income enough to qualify but better your situation after a couple years, you will not be forced out of your apartment).

Thirdly, experiments in social housing can and should be carried out now, even if they have to be small-scale (perhaps a goal of ten units, the majority. In the absence of significant federal and local funding, this will require fundraising and other forms of social financing (a Social Real Estate Investment Trust is one avenue I plan to explore in my future research). By working with a particular neighborhood to engage stakeholders, find out what their needs are, and mobilizing together to raise money and aggressively pressure lawmakers (differentiated from just asking them in minority protests or petitions), we can build social equity around the idea of social housing, and then such a housing complex, when built, can serve as a “tangible, visible reflection” of how we think society should be organized. Vienna’s social housing program did not start with 100,000 units. It started with a movement of people forced to squat in the periphery of the city that led to municipal regime change. The historical context could not be more different from Philadelphia’s in the details, but the struggle for a right to housing, against landlords, and against the commodification of the means of survival remain salient.

The political and social context for Vienna’s initial venture into social housing was crisis. In Philadelphia we are in the midst of a crisis as well – a quarter of our city lives in poverty and there is a gross lack of safe, accessible, stable affordable housing. This has resulted in eviction, foreclosure, poor health outcomes, stress, indignity, and the treatment of a large portion of our city as less than human. For those with greater means but who still struggle under the weight of student loans, medical debt, and economic precarity, increasing rents and the inability to afford homeownership leave us in a place of permanent instability and stress. This crisis is human-made, so we need to use all of our humanity, creativity, and collective strength to change it.


[i] Lubrano, Alfred (2017) “An ‘uncomfortable’ life: Philly still America’s poorest big city”. The Inquirer Retrieved 4/21/2008.

[ii] Shared Prosperity Progress Report 2017 (2017) Retrieved 4/21/2018

[iii] The Reinvestment Fund (2017) Policy Brief: Evictions in Philadelphia Retrieved 4/21/2018

[iv] Ibid. This does not take into account “unofficial” evictions whereby the landlord uses intimidation and other illegal means to force a tenant to vacate outside of the legal system.

[v] City of Philadelphia City Council Committee on Licenses and Inspections and Public Health and Human Services.

RESOLUTION 160988 – Resolution authorizing the Committee on Licenses and Inspections and the Committee on Public Health and Human Services to conduct hearings concerning the impact of eviction and substandard housing on the health and wellbeing of low-income renters, and examining solutions that would improve the safety and stability of rental housing, including the right to counsel. Retrieved 4/27/2018.

[vi] Philadelphia Fair Housing Comission. Resources. Retrieved 4/27/2018.

[vii] Philadelphia Housing Authority. Admissions. Retrieved 4/27/2018. The list for public housing closed on April 15, 2003; estimates for the waiting time of most public housing in Philadelphia (if the waitlist were open) stands around 13 years.

[viii] Romero, Melissa. 2018. Mapping the 29 high-rises under construction in Philly right now. Curbed Retrieved 4/27/2018.

[ix] Glantz (2018)

[x] Dickerson (2014)

[xi] Stadt Wien. Municipal Housing in Vienna. History, Facts, & Figures Retrieved 4/22/2018.

[xii] Dreier, Peter (2018) “Why America Needs More Social Housing” in The American Prospect, Spring 2018 issue. Retrieved 4/27/2018.

[xiii] In particular, Bosnia and Herzegovina and other Eastern territories that had been annexed in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War.

[xiv] Weigl Andreas. “An important industrial location – Vienna before the First World War” in The World of Habsburgs Retrieved 4/22/2018.

[xv] Förster, Wolfgang. 80 Years of Social Housing in Vienna. Retrieved 4/22/2018. By 1913 there were 461,472 people were accommodated by private asylums, including 96,000 in living in shelters.

[xvi] Jorda, Jakob (2016) “History Time! Social Housing in Vienna” in Little Red Planning Hood Retrieved 4/22/2018.

[xvii] This established Austria as a democratic republic and wedded it to the Weimar Republic.

[xviii] Förster

[xix] Verlič, Mara (2015) “Emerging Housing Commons? Vienna’s Housing Crisis Then and Now.” Paper presented at Ideal City (conference), Urbino, Italy: August 2015. Retrieved 4/22/2018.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Förster

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Verlič (2015)

[xxiv] Förster

[xxv] Together the 90 most expensive apartments in Vienna paid the same taxes as the 350,000 least expensive apartments (Blau, quoted in Verlič).

[xxvi] City of Vienna. Culture and History: From the Capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Capital of the Republic – History of Vienna Retrieved 4/27/2018. This separation was primarily in the interest of the Christian Socials because the bulk of Austria’s population was concentrated in Vienna, which meant that the Social Democrats also held power in the more conservative and rural areas of Lower Austria.

[xxvii] Hatz, Gerhard (2008) “City Profile”: Vienna in Cities.

[xxviii] Förster

[xxix] Verlič (2015)

[xxx] Vienna opened its own prefabrication plant in 1961.

[xxxi] Jakob (2016)

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Reinprecht, Christoph (2014) “Social Housing in Vienna”. Social Housing in Europe, First Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

[xxxiv] Kadi, Justin (2015) “Recommodifying Housing in Formerly ‘Red’ Vienna?”. Housing Theory and Society, 32:3.

[xxxv] Ibid.


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