You can blame the Marxists for Vienna’s epically cheap rent

Siedlungs- und Wohnhausanlage Schmelz in Vienna, Austria.
(Photo credit: Manfred Werner-Tsui/Wikimedia Commons)
Siedlungs- und Wohnhausanlage Schmelz in Vienna, Austria. (Photo credit: Manfred Werner-Tsui/Wikimedia Commons)

In the capital of Austria, housing is considered a human right — which may be why Vienna has been consistently ranked as one of the “world’s most liveable cities.” 

But not everyone agrees with Vienna’s century-old housing policies — and the future of the city as a relatively low-rent location is in doubt.

It’s the rent control, stupid

Mercer, a French consulting firm, ranked Vienna first in the world in 2019 for the tenth year in a row on its Quality of Living Survey. 

The Economist Intelligence Unit gave the city the same rating. 

Most credit “Red Vienna’s” left-leaning city governments, which have been in power since 1919, with only the exception being city’s occupation by the Third Reich during WWII 

Over the decades, the city has built up a huge stake in the housing sector — 60 percent of all renters are in public or subsidized housing. 

Tens of thousands of public apartments have been built, including the internationally celebrated Karl-Marx-Hof, known as the “Workers’ Versailles.”

Studio apartments in Vienna’s social-housing units cost only US$326 per month, while four-room apartments range up to US$816. 

In other world cities, studios can rent for more than US$1,000 per month.  

Utopian vision

Vienna’s initial vision for public housing included utopian dreams of affordable living spaces for industrial workers, complete pools, gardens, libraries, laundries and other amenities virtually unheard of at that time.

Today, spaces such as the Schmelz municipal housing complex continue to reflect this heritage. 

Working-class residents pay a few hundred euros a month to live in a safe, village-like setting filled with hundreds of gardens, embedded deep within the urban core.

Vienna’s 220,000 public apartments are not clustered in single areas, as planners anticipated the ghettoization that has been seen widely in other cities. 

Instead, they are scattered throughout the urban area, even near major tourist attractions. 

This helps avoid the inevitable stigma associated with rent-controlled units — one’s address does not reveal one’s income level.

Holes in the safety net

But these apartments are not for the very poor, who “remain at significant risk of being excluded,” sociologist Christoph Reinprecht told the Beglian advocacy-news outlet Equal Times. 

He stresses that Vienna’s social housing is primarily for working- and middle-class residents. 

The latter are able to stay in the units for life, if they wish, as the income cap of 3200 euros per month per person is only for initial qualification for residency.

In addition to all the municipal housing, Vienna also has another 200,000 private, subsidized, rent-controlled housing units. 

The city is even adding more than 100 new public units per year, requiring large new apartment buildings to allocate two-thirds of their space to subsidized living space.

Rental housing in Vienna on average costs less than US$10 per square meter, compared to more than US$30 in Paris and around US$22 in London.

Changing politics

Government “interventionism” is not favored by all, however. 

A prominent national conservative party, the OVP, calls Vienna’s approach “retrograde socialism.” 

And amidst leftist celebrations for 100 years of Red Vienna, Austria’s right-wing politicians are actively working to dismantle its legacy. 

It is quite possible that they will soon be able to do so, thanks to the ruling Social Democrat party’s big losses in Austria’s national parliamentary election in 2019.

Vienna’s municipal elections are this year. The Social Democrat party is confronted by an array of centrist and right-wing parties opposed to social housing. 

Their plan, if they gain a majority, is to let the market “play a greater role in regulating the sector.” 

Observers say that deregulation and privatization would almost certainly result in skyrocketing housing costs and attendant social crisis, as has been seen across Europe and the United States.

Sources: Equal Times, (Belgium), Mercer (consultancy), People’s World (U.S. leftist advocacy media)

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