The New York Times Magazine - Cover with 'The Renters' Utopia'
By the time Eva Schachinger retired in 2007, her rent was only 8% of her income. Because her husband was earning 4,000 euros a month, their rent amounted to 3.6% of their incomes combined.
In 1919, Vienna began planning its world-famous municipal housing, known as the Gemeindebauten. Before World War I, Vienna had some of the worst housing conditions in Europe. Many working-class families had to take on subtenants or bed tenants (day and night workers who slept in the same bed at different times) in order to pay their rent. But from 1923 to 1934, in a period known as Red Vienna, the ruling Social Democratic Party built 64,000 new units in 400 housing blocks, increasing the city’s housing supply by about 10 percent. Some 200,000 people, one-tenth of the population, were rehoused in these buildings, with rents set at 3.5% of the average semiskilled worker’s income, enough to cover the cost of maintenance and operation.
Experts refer to Vienna’s Gemeindebauten as “social housing,” a phrase that captures how the city’s public housing and other limited-profit housing are a widely shared social benefit.
To American eyes, the whole Viennese setup can appear fancifully socialistic. But set that aside, and what’s mind-boggling is how social housing gives the economic lives of Viennese an entirely different shape. Imagine if your housing expenses were more like the Schachingers’. Imagine having to think about them to the same degree that you think about your restaurant choices or streaming-service subscriptions. Imagine, too, where the rest of your income might go, if you spent much less of it on housing. Vienna invites us to envision a world in which homeownership isn’t the only way to secure a certain future — and what our lives might look like as a result.
Text by Francesca Mari