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Exploring the Promises and Challenges of Vienna's Social Housing Program

Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego and the Arlene & Michael Rosen Foundation spent six days in Vienna to learn about their social housing model as part of the Vienna Social Housing Field Study. Vienna's Social Housing Model offers lessons for philanthropy and housing justice advocates, however, it does have its fair share of challenges, in particular around racial justice and integration.

Co-Authored By: 
Lucky Michael (she/her), Southern California Program Officer, Arlene & Michael Rosen Foundation & Board Chair, Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego
Amy Denhart (she/her), Director, Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego

Tourists flock to Vienna, the City of Dreams, every year to enjoy the vibrant cultural life, majestic architecture, and incomparable chocolates. For housing justice philanthropists and advocates, the city offers an added bonus – Vienna serves as a model for solving homelessness and creating housing that is affordable through social housing. 

Last May, representatives from Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego were invited to visit the Austrian capital to participate in the Vienna Social Housing Field Study coordinated by the Global Policy Leadership Academy. We were joined by twenty-six Californians representing affordable housing developers, homeless service providers, community action organizations, and philanthropy. We spent six days in Vienna, Austria, meeting with their housing authority, government, developers, and tenants to learn why the Vienna Social Housing model is recognized as one of the best in the world. 

Staff participating in the Vienna Social Housing Field Study pose outside St. Stephen's Cathedral. 

There are virtually no unsheltered people living on the streets in Vienna, a striking contrast to what we see in U.S. cities, especially large metropolitan areas like San Diego. Unlike what some elected officials in the U.S. propose, the Viennese don't promote ineffective and cruel ways to address homelessness like one-way bus tickets, tent cities or camping violations. Instead, they invest in social housing to achieve housing stability and justice. 

Cities like San Diego, which have stated that “housing is a human right,” would be wise to draw from the Vienna Social Housing model. Our city is earnest in its desire to solve homelessness, yet we still have not seen a line item in the city budget to build new housing that is affordable. 

What is social housing? 

Social housing is government-subsidized housing that is affordable. In the United States, when many people hear government-subsidized housing, they think about inaccurate and racist depictions of the crime-ridden “projects” they see in films and on TV. This harmful stereotype stigmatizes social housing projects and stops meaningful discussion before it starts. 

Social housing benefits the entire community – even those who rent houses and apartments outside the social housing system because increased housing inventory prevents landlords from gouging tenants. Almost all Viennese, including those in market rate housing, pay less than 27% of their net income on rent. Some pay as little as $423 per month. Vienna has kept its rents low with more than 100 years of investment in social housing. In fact, the first 70+ years of social housing was with 100% government funded and run public housing, and now most social housing is developed by limited profit developers with government investment.

In Vienna, social housing benefits the whole community. Sixty percent of Viennese residents live in social housing, filled with people from all income levels. These housing communities are often lush with greenery and equipped with playgrounds, picnic tables, libraries, and gymnasiums. Classes are held in common rooms. Older residents share their skills with the younger generation. In turn, teens and young adults are there to help older residents figure out why the computer is on the fritz. 

How it’s working 

According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) - The Global Livability Index 2023, Vienna is recognized as one of the best cities to live in globally and one of the reasons for this is social housing.

Social housing does not happen by wishful thinking, though. There is a real commitment to investing in housing that meets the needs of the growing population. Vienna has 1.9 million people and spends $470 million per year on social housing, San Diego, on the other hand, has 1.4 million people and spent just $13 million last year on affordable housing. San Diego also has the fourth-highest rate of homelessness in the U.S. and recently surpassed San Francisco for the most expensive rent. 

Challenges Vienna faces: Racial Justice and Integration 

Philanthropists and housing justice advocates can learn a great deal from the Vienna Social Housing model, but the system is not without issues, particularly as it relates to social and racial justice. 

As our group delved into Vienna's social housing policy through the lens of racial justice and liberation, we uncovered a landscape marked by several challenges. Vienna's efforts to foster racial integration within its social housing communities often collided with the harsh realities of anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-LGBT sentiments. These prejudices formed barriers to the integration of diverse populations, making true inclusivity challenging. Social housing did not cause these problems, but the system is affected nonetheless. 

Vienna social housing still faces numerous challenges, among those the lack of demographic data and strict immigration policies, which pose challenges for racial justice and inclusion.

Throughout Europe and the United States, far-right extremism is on the rise. During our field study, BIPOC cohort members convened a dinner to gain insights from a local activist, Noomi Anyanwu, with Black Voices Vienna. We were barely seated when a white man and his companions accosted us, hurling insults and telling us to “go back to Africa.” 

We asked various questions regarding inclusion and integration within social housing and discovered that one of Vienna's challenges is the need for comprehensive demographic data, a unique obstacle in crafting effective inclusion strategies. One of the challenges with the data is that Vienna doesn't track race. When our cohort questioned this, the Viennese said that their shameful past of tracking race for the Nazis makes this practice very sensitive and fraught. However, a critical service delivery component is gaining insights into the community's needs. To best grasp these needs, it is essential to understand the diversity of the population.

Furthermore, Austria's stringent citizenship and legal residency requirements also create barriers to inclusion. Vienna's naturalization rate is below 1%, and while foreign nationals constitute 30% of the population, they are denied voting rights, creating a democratic deficit. The struggle of migrant workers seeking suitable temporary housing in Vienna and the devaluation of foreign-acquired qualifications in the local labor market emphasizes a pressing issue. Socio-economic mobility needs to be within reach for many immigrants, underscoring the need for targeted solutions.

Embracing the Social Housing model offers a potential solution to the United States' housing shortage, but this incident was a stark reminder that our efforts must accompany a strong commitment to racial justice and equity. 

How can philanthropy learn and support? 

We need the support and expertise of philanthropy to make meaningful change in our communities. Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego supports policies and initiatives championing inclusive, equitable, and affordable housing development led by the community. We’ve also formed a separate organization called Yes in God’s Backyard (YIGBY) which facilitates building new affordable housing on land owned by faith organizations. Just last month, we laid the foundation for a 26-unit complex for veterans and seniors on the campus of Bethel AME Church. This effort was supported by the local philanthropic community working together with city elected officials.

Vienna's social housing model inspired us to reflect on how we can support social housing in California.

Philanthropy can also mobilize local advocates and organizers to support the effort. For the past six years, Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego has provided capacity funding to advocacy organizations run by people with lived experience of homelessness. These advocates have leadership roles on boards throughout the county, and are integral in advancing city and county policies protecting inclusionary housing and tenant rights, to name a few. 

The trip to Vienna gave our Funders Together to End Homelessness San Diego contingent deeper insight in how we can adopt successful elements of the Vienna Social Housing model and learn from their challenges. Should we embark on a similar endeavor here in the United States, we know that we need to involve voices with expertise in the racial justice space so we can mitigate issues the Viennese grapple with. The research trip to Vienna offered us many ideas and great hope for how government, activists, and funders can work together to solve the housing crisis. 

Showing 1 reaction

  • Amy Denhart
    published this page in Blog 2024-02-29 17:01:54 -0500

We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation

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