How the World’s Most Livable City Tackles Affordable Housing

According to the latest annual rankings by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Vienna, Austria unseated seven-year titleholder Melbourne, Australia as the world’s most livable city. (Though Melbourne was a very respectable second place.)

The livability index is based on 30 factors including access to health care, education, infrastructure, culture, the environment and political and social stability. As usual, Canadian, Australian and Japanese cities made up most of the top spots: after Vienna and Melbourne were Osaka, Calgary, Sydney, Vancouver, Toronto, Tokyo, Copenhagen and Adelaide, Australia. (Helsinki, Finland is typically in the top ten as well.)

In contrast, many U.S. cities, in contrast saw their rankings fall this year, including Atlanta and Chicago. Honolulu is the only U.S. city in the top 25, with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania being the second-best American city. Cosmopolitan and medium-sized cities tend to do the best.

According to ABC News, Austria’s capital of 1.76 million has earned this top sport:

Located on the Danube river, Vienna boasts a rich artistic and architectural legacy. It is home to landmark buildings such as the Schoenbrunn Palace and the colorful social housing project designed by famous artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The city was also the birthplace of the Art Nouveau movement, spearheaded by artists such as Gustav Klimt.

Aside from these historic attractions that draw tourists to the city, locals say Vienna has much to offer residents.

“People think about Vienna as very a classical city, one for older people, but it does have its wild side and nightlife — there’s always something going on,” said Alexander Pearl, a project manager from Israel who has been living in Vienna for the past four years.

Pearl said he also loves the city’s abundance of parks and green spaces.

“It is a big city but it feels very relaxed and calm in a way — there’s and space and it’s not very crowded,” he added.

Public transportation is extensive and less expensive in Vienna than other European capitals such as Berlin or London. For example, a yearly public transportation ticket costs just one Euro per day, or approximately U.S. $415 annually.

The city is also famous for fostering thinkers and creators such as Sigmund Freud and painter Egon Schiele.

Vienna has a lot else going for it besides a vibrant culture and amble leisure spaces: it is a world leader when it comes to public housing, an idea that invokes poverty in the U.S. but that is widely utilized and beloved by Viennese. Quoting HuffPo:

With its affordable and attractive places to live, the Austrian capital is fast becoming the international gold standard when it comes to public housing, or what Europeans call “social housing” ― in Vienna’s case, government-subsidized housing rented out by the municipality or nonprofit housing associations. Unlike America’s public housing projects, which remain unloved and underfunded, the city’s schemes are generally held to be at the forefront not only of progressive planning policy but also of sustainable design.

One “car-free” housing project in the Floridsdorf district where Mauch lives, for example, uses the space usually reserved for car parking for a bicycle repair shop, play areas for children and some car-sharing bays. A publicly subsidized experimental development in Oberlaa in south Vienna heats homes using waste thermal water from local hot springs and recycles rainwater to flush toilets and irrigate gardens.

Social housing in Vienna has been widespread since the 1920s when the post-war municipality, led by the Social Democrats, began building high-density estates all over the city ― typically six- to eight-story apartment blocks with communal green spaces. Today, anyone earning up to $53,225 a year after taxes is eligible to apply for a subsidized apartment in Vienna in a country where the median gross annual income is about $31,500.

According to the municipality, 62 percent of Vienna’s citizens currently live in social housing. Here, rents are regulated and tenants’ rights are strongly protected. In contrast, less than 1 percent of America’s population lives in public housing, which is limited to low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities.

All this is by design: policymakers in the famously egalitarian country wanted to create a housing situation that would bring people together across different social strata–and make sure that no one would get priced out of the capital, as is the case with so many other dynamic but expensive cities.

Kathrin Gaál, Vienna’s councillor for housing, says social housing is aimed at both people with low incomes and “a broad middle class” in the city. “What makes Vienna unique is that you cannot tell how much someone earns simply by looking at their home address,” Gaál explains.

Eugene Quinn, who leads guided walks around some of the housing projects and other parts of Vienna, moved from London to the Austrian capital nine years ago. He talks fondly of the city’s courtyard “grill parties” at which social housing residents get to know one another.

“People here are used to the communal spaces of the social housing estates and are very comfortable living next to someone from a different background,”  Quinn says. “And because people are not crushed by their rents like in other major cities, they have a bit more time to be creative, to study, to get involved in community work.”

Vienna’s positive impact on its citizens hasn’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, the city was judged to offer the best quality of life of any city in the world for the ninth year in a row.

Eva Bauer, head of housing economics at the Austrian Federation of Limited-Profit Housing Associations (GBV), says keeping housing affordable is deemed to be a vital factor contributing to citizens’ well-being.

In fact, the extent of Vienna’s subsidized housing makes it one of the most affordable major cities in the world. According to the GBV,the average monthly rent paid by those living in government-subsidized housing is $470 for city council tenants and $600 for housing association tenants, with monthly assistance payments available to those struggling to meet housing costs. On average, tenants in Vienna spend 27 percent of their income on rent.

And while the already neglected public housing program is threatened with cuts in the U.S., it remains broadly popular throughout Austria (as evidenced, in part, by the use of the term “social housing” to emphasize the societal interest in making shelter affordable to everyone).

Social housing is a valued priority across Austria, funded by income tax, corporate tax and a housing-specific contribution made by all employed citizens. According to Councillor Gaál, Vienna’s annual housing budget ― which is spent refurbishing older apartments in the city as well as building new social housing projects ― amounts to $700 million with $530 million coming from the national government.

Bauer says about one-third of the 13,000 new apartments built in Vienna each year are funded by the government and commissioned by the housing associations.

“Social housing is very popular,” she says. “There are a lot of young people who want to become housing association tenants, even if they have to wait on a list for a couple of years before they can get something. The city is growing, so the challenge now is building enough affordable housing and maintaining the quality that has made it so popular.”

The developers’ competition process introduced in the 1990s means architects, lawyers and other housing experts sit on the panels judging bids to build new social housing complexes, ensuring developers vie with each other to offer high-quality, energy-efficient homes.

I see no reason why the same can’t be done in the U.S., at least at a local or state level. One big problem is our attitude towards social programs and causes to begin with. Yet one doesn’t need to share Austrians’ value of egalitarianism and social cohesion to appreciate the world-renowned results. Pragmatism should be as big a motivation as compassion.


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