The Vienna Model: Innovation in Affordable Housing

Vancouver often ranks alongside the Austrian capital of Vienna in top 10 lists of the world’s most liveable cities.  Vienna’s European charm, rich arts and culture scene, low crime rates and excellent public transit all contribute to its appeal.  With approximately 60% of Vienna’s population in municipal housing, the city seemingly solved the issue of housing affordability before it began.  Conversely, with vacancy rates of less than 1%, Vancouver is deep in the grips of an affordable housing crisis.  To solve the issue of affordable housing, can Vancouver look to Vienna’s municipal housing history for new paths forward?

Vienna Model – Origin

Municipal housing in Vienna has a long history.  Based on the need for housing following the First World War, the city’s first housing model had many features which are still prevalent today: larger housing complexes, green space courtyards and playgrounds, and a wealth of community services.  After the devastation of World War II, social housing endeavours continued in war-torn Vienna.  By 1954, construction for the 100,000th social housing apartment was underway.  Today, the city owns about 220,000 subsidized apartments, with non-profit operators owning another 650,000 units and growing.

Why it’s So Innovative

Vienna’s approach to housing its population is quite innovative due to the commitment to creating not only housing, but community. Housing complexes can include such amenities as shops, gardens, kindergartens, and pools. New complexes are constructed with social urban planning in mind for the area, and are developed along with schools, health care institutions, and public transportation.  New housing complexes fit within a larger City Development Plan, which is revised and approved by City Council every ten years.  In addition, rent in Vienna’s affordable housing units are subsidized, so residents pay no more than 30% of their income for housing, whereas 44.2% of renters in Vancouver were living housing units that exceed 30% of their income.

How It can be Applied to Vancouver’s Market

In a coastal city such as Vancouver, land is in increasingly short supply. When discussing housing affordability in urban centres, a recurring recommendation from urban planners to municipalities is to not sell public land.  As with Vienna, an essential component to turning the housing crisis around will be developing income-based housing on city-owned land.  A recent visiting delegation of housing experts spoke in Vancouver on the Vienna model, providing a positive step forward in bringing municipal housing solutions to the Lower Mainland.

As Vancouver continues to address its ongoing housing crisis, Vienna’s model of municipal housing potentially serves as an ideal. While Vancouver struggles as an expanding metropolitan city short on land supply, Vienna’s ability to not only mass produce subsidized housing, but create communities around developments proves how municipal housing can be affordable and can strengthen community bonds.  How Vancouver utilizes city-owned land for affordable housing developments will be key to a Vancouver solution to building the kind of city that all people can afford to live in.