Revolutionising Housing with ‘Vienna Model’

Pic: Courtesy of Pixbay

By Peter McNamara

Faced with soaring rents, limited supply, and ever-worsening homelessness, Dublin City Council has been looking to untried solutions to solve the city’s housing crisis. Brendan Kenny, the Council’s Deputy Chief Executive, recently spoke about the possibility of bringing the world-renowned Vienna Model to Ireland’s capital. 

“Our plans for future housing investment must adopt a holistic view capable of fostering a socially integrated society living in sustainable and affordable housing. The Vienna Model of Housing is the living proof that demonstrates how providing high quality, affordable housing is the basis for an inclusive, thriving, healthy society.”

In Vienna, forty-five percent of housing is classified as social or affordable, and people can earn as much as €53,000 a year and qualify for city-owned and subsidised apartments. Often ranked first in international quality of living scales, over the last 100 years the Austrian capital has developed a means tested cost-rental housing model, where rents are based on construction and maintenance costs instead of market fluctuations. 

The scheme provides homes for around one in four people in the Austrian capital. Wiener Wohnen, the authority which manages more than 220,000 homes in Vienna, receives almost €500m annually from the city in subsidies, €212m of which it spends on building apartments. The scheme is funded by a property tax and the authority builds on average 7,000 apartments each year. 

In contrast, there were just 4,251 social houses built in Ireland last year, comprising of 2,022 local authority builds and 1,338 delivered by approved housing bodies. 

Brendan Kenny’s comments come on the foot of a recent exhibition about the Vienna Model, which took place at various locations around Dublin during April. The exhibition was a joint partnership between the Dublin City Council, the Housing Agency and the City of Vienna, and featured numerous seminars and events.

A Pioneering Approach

Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis, with increasingly high rents making it more difficult for first-time buyers to meet Central Bank lending requirements. And now that nearly 30% of the already limited supply of homes are being bought by ‘cuckoo funds’ – international corporate investors that buy-to-rent – it’s becoming increasingly clear that market-led solutions are failing. With that in mind, Kenny believes there is much to be said for taking a different course.   

“Itʼs timely to consider new models for Dublin, up to now there is a big gap in Ireland between social housing and private housing when you consider over 80 per cent of people own their homes in Dublin.”

Qualification depends on a means test – an income of €3,300 a month or less for a single person – but is also needs-based. Growing families can apply for a move to a bigger flat; similarly, older tenants can apply to downsize or move to an apartment with a lift. 

“Six hundred euros is an average rent for a fifty-square-meter, two-bedroom apartment close to the city centre,” explains architect, Helene Schauer, who travelled from Vienna for the exhibition. And interestingly, many housing blocks are designed with fewer car spaces as sustainability experts predict 21st century living will move from a culture of ownership to a culture of sharing.

Discussing the success of the Vienna Model of Housing, executive city councillor for womenʼs issues and housing, city of Vienna, Kathrin Gaál, said what makes the people of Vienna so proud of the housing policy is that one cannot tell how much someone earns simply by looking at their address. 

What’s more, Vienna operates a “jury system” for planning developments. All subsidised housing has to follow four criteria – planning, costs, ecology and social sustainability. Architects, landscape planners, ecologists, economists and sociologists are on this jury whose binding decisions result in the provision of land and subsidies. Such a system might easily be added to An Bord Pleanala’s decision-making process.

Challenges to Implementation 

Like Britain’s remarkable National Health Service, the Vienna model was conceived in response to severe post-war strife. In 1919, after the First World War, the people of Vienna were in dire straits, with whole swathes of the working and middle-class populations living in slums. Extreme times called for an extreme solution, and for the last hundred years Vienna has made the delivery of sustainable affordable housing a top political priority. 

For the model to work in Dublin, Brendan Kenny says that policy and strategic change would be required. 

“There has been a scarcity of land and Dublin City Council owns very little of it. Construction costs are also very high in Dublin. Dublin City Council needs the freedom to buy further land to develop a new model of housing for Dublin and there is a huge role for the non-profit housing associations to be involved in this.” 

According to Michaele Bankel, vice president of the Austrian capital’s housing authority, the Vienna Model would take 10 years to have an impact in Ireland. For one thing, a significant difference between Vienna and Dublin is that in Vienna there has been a very steady construction programme to respond to current and future needs. 

Hugh Brennan from Ó Cualann Co-housing Alliance, which is involved in cost-rental housing developments in
Dublin, says that affordability is the key. 

“Nobody should pay more than one third of their net income on housing needs. Affordability is all about what you earn and weʼd like to see the income limits scrapped for social housing and a variable subsidy introduced instead to include people on annual incomes from €40,000 to €90,000,” he says. “Weʼd argue that to build affordable housing, no land should be sold to developers by the Land Development Agency or county councils for the next 10 years.” 

Creating a Fair
Rental Culture

Times are changing. After a century of industrial over-production, excess, and waste, a culture of repairing, re-using, and sharing is becoming more popular and appropriate. In that vein, given Dublin’s increasing population, the rise of life-expectancies, and the city’s finite size, renting a home in or around the capital is probably more responsible and realistic than owning one outright. 

Property has long been viewed as a safe and lucrative investment opportunity in this country; but it may be time to insist on housing being used exclusively as a home and not an asset. At present a culture of renting is being forced upon Dubliners, on very iniquitous terms. 

Ireland’s fixation with home ownership largely stems from our colonial past, but the Irish mistrust of renting and of landlords is aggravated by the weak rights afforded to tenants, and the bias towards, and overwhelming presence of, landlords in the Dail. If Irish people are to be won over to a rental culture, they must be given added protection against the whims of profit-driven companies and investors, and the boom-and-bust market place.