Housing in Red Vienna

by Leo Thuman

Denmark? The Netherlands? Maybe it's time for democratic socialists to look at turn of the century Vienna as inspiration.  In the second,third, and beginning of the fourth decades of the twentieth century, Austria’s capital was known as “Red Vienna” and by most leftist accounts run ably by the Social Democratic Party.  The legacy of this period is one that socialists should emulate and look upon as a standard upon which to measure progressive and social reforms in housing and social services.

The shining star of ‘Red Vienna’ was its housing projects, which were begun to meet a desperate need for housing, due to frozen rent rates and high demand.  Private enterprises, due to their profit seeking nature, would not begin new housing developments, as they would not benefit the capitalists running those development firms.  The housing outlook was bleak, yet rather than raising the floor on rents, and causing many workers to be driven from their homes, the Social Democratic government of Vienna instead made the highly intelligent policy decision to construct new housing and transition towards greater community and city ownership and development of housing.  These projects were known as “Gemeindebau”, a German word meaning community construction, which aptly explains the very nature of the purpose of these buildings, as they were run with the interests of the community of working class families and individuals in mind.

The construction of affordable housing in Vienna during that period was emblematic of the overall economic and political revolution ongoing in that city.  This affordable housing boom was an “architectural revolution” of sorts.  The new buildings had massive green courtyards, where children could play and working class Viennese citizens could socialize after work.  What’s more, they were entered from inside these courtyards, which created an atmosphere of safety, and growing equality with the wealthier bourgeois districts of the city.  These building projects were so ambitious, that they yielded the longest single housing block in the world’s history: The Karl-Marx Hof, fittingly named for a revolutionary philosopher, and an excellent homage to his vision of equality and economic justice.  These developments, including Karl-Marx Hof, included not only housing (equipped with running water and full bathrooms, unknown to working class individuals at that time) but nurseries, kindergartens, shops, libraries, and community gardens.  In short, at that time, the housing projects led to a revolutionary shift in the conceptions of what public housing can and should be.  It demonstrates that glorified cell blocks and unsafe tenements are not the most a society can achieve when it organizes together, and it demonstrates that a better life is possible for low-income and minority individuals and families.

The success and lessons that can be learned from how early twentieth century Vienna coped with its housing crisis and created a better situation have been applied throughout political and socialistic municipal organizing throughout the end of that century and the beginning of ours, demonstrating that this is still possible.  The Vienna of today boasts regulations that continue the city’s long tradition of affordable and high quality city owned residences.  Laws in Vienna require new developments to devote 25% of new constructions to affordable housing, which the city distributes to individuals in need of such accommodation.  Not only does this housing remain in effect, it remains affordable, with the vast majority of residents paying under 20% of their income for housing (compared to the average of 30% in the US) and prospective tenants hold a powerful voice in the design of their homes.  Those who are going to live in housing projects are able to voice their concerns on a board, help decide facilities available to them, and help to pick the style and layout of the building.  In doing this, Viennese municipal policy provides greater equality of housing, giving working class and poor residents a chance to design homes in which they can flourish and experience a greater standard of living.  This has helped decrease social and economic inequality in Vienna, through the empowerment of workers and the availability of housing.

Similarly, Bernie Sanders, the candidate supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Young Democratic Socialists of America has implemented similar and differing options to ensure housing equality and affordability for working families.  During his tenure as mayor of Burlington Vermont, Bernie Sanders implemented a housing program which is indubitably a distinctly American and distinctly socialist program.  This program was a land trust, which sold homes, while owning the lots on which they were built.  This made the American dream of homeownership a possibility on a socialist basis, and on this socialist basis it has been an incredible success.  Sanders additionally purchased private apartment developments which were in a dilapidated state, and he transformed them into affordable housing.  Consequently, Burlington, although a trendy spot, which is filled with students, professors, and entrepreneurs, is also an affordable home for working class families, and the land trust his mayoral office established is now the largest in the country.  Burlington is frequently listed amongst the best places to live and raise a family in the United States, by several different publications.

It really is possible to achieve sustainable and aesthetically appealing public housing in the United States.  But it will take socialist organizing.  In ‘red’ Vienna, workers and socialists banded together and created what is likely the world’s most magnificent, suitable, and practical monument to democratic socialism: a housing system with blocks the envy of public housing systems around the world.  They were not met without opposition, and they were eventually stopped by the fascists, but that was not until after they had built public housing which was expansive, safe, and affordable.  The housing was such an asset to the city of Vienna that even fascists did not want to eliminate or privatize it.  Again, Bernie Sanders did the same thing, he made housing affordable for working class families and individuals, but Republicans and Democrats, backed by their corporate masters, vehemently opposed him, opening his mail, creating a coalition against him, and refusing to fund any of his plans initially.  But the people organized for what they needed, and they reelected Sanders, through grassroots campaigning and political activism.  Today Burlington hosts public housing which makes the American dream a reality, guaranteeing home ownership for thousands of Burlington’s working class and middle income citizens.

We must make this a reality across the United States, because we face a crisis of housing.  The poorest of the poor in inner cities are often the only members of the working class who can be allotted public housing, and this housing is often dangerous, structurally and socially.  Meanwhile, the working class who cannot achieve stable housing thanks to a conservative system of public housing are held at the mercy of high rents and unpredictable, and often cruel landlords.  This structure must be changed, and as democratic socialists, we are the ones to bring about this change.  We can organize for pro-housing candidates at the local, state, and federal levels, and we can call upon artists, architects, unions, and voters in solidarity with us to help construct affordable housing for all, housing which is beautiful, respecting the dignity of its inhabitants.  A volunteer system can be created for the beautification and creation of these projects, many socialists are skilled and passionate in many areas, and they will help us if we call upon them for solidarity.  Their pro-bono consultations and expert advocacy and testimony will aid us in our housing revolution.  We can turn to the Red Vienna of the past and today.  We can turn to Burlington to.  We can create housing apparatuses which will smash inequality at its residential foundations, if we all band together and organize for our basic rights to homes and stability.

Let’s start a Housing Revolution!

Leo Thuman is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists and is an incoming classical philology major at Case Western Reserve University.

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