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IDEAS

Maybe more of us should live in public housing

Economically diverse housing complexes, owned by the community, could answer the need for affordable units in Boston and other cities.

Vienna's Karl Seitz-Hof is an example of the city's abundant "social housing," which is owned by the city or collectives of residents.
Vienna's Karl Seitz-Hof is an example of the city's abundant "social housing," which is owned by the city or collectives of residents.Bwag

It’s a spritzing winter morning in Vienna and I’m standing, Hobbit-like, before a tower of greenery: baby spruce, gnarled vines, bushes that will bear flowers in a few months. They’re all exploding from balconies on one of the curved 27-story high rises that make up the Wohnpark Alterlaa — a massive housing complex built by a city-owned nonprofit and occupied by low-income and middle-class Vienna residents alike. Walnut trees, gardens, swimming pools, fitness centers, kindergarten classrooms, and even an in-house shopping mall and subway station are among the perks that Alterlaa residents enjoy, on top of their permanently affordable, rent-stabilized apartments.

This is one of the ways Vienna does public housing. Ever since the early 20th century, when housing shortages, grotesque living conditions, and rampant disease outbreaks brought Vienna to the brink of chaos, the city has embraced housing projects that can seem downright utopian if you’re a renter or aspiring homeowner in a city like Boston. Today, more than 60 percent of Vienna residents live in housing units owned and managed by the city government or nonprofits. They don’t call this public housing, however. Instead, the affordable housing stock here is referred to as “social housing.”

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No matter whether you call it public housing or social housing, the term might bring to mind the dreary tower blocks one encounters behind the former Iron Curtain or, for that matter, many American cities. In Vienna, social housing is an allusion to its former Social Democratic government, which catalyzed the construction of thousands of permanently affordable flats during the late 1910s. But there’s another layer to the name that has contemporary relevance. Social housing refers to social ownership — an arrangement in which housing is owned either by taxpayers or a collective of residents.

Better yet, social housing is built to encourage integration between social classes. The mixed-income nature of Vienna’s social housing means that you’re just as likely to live next to a subway-car driver or a lawyer. You could hang out with them in your building’s centralized courtyard and catch up over a few bottles of beer, or you might bump into them at the built-in library. You’re each paying a quarter of your income in rent.

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Most people travel to Austria’s capital to gawk at the beautiful buildings, wander the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace, and imagine the crowds who once lined up for Mozart’s concerts. But I’ve come here to learn how a century ago, Vienna solved a problem that now besets Boston.

Like every major US city, Boston has capitulated to the idea that housing should be left to the market. Our strategy of persuading developers to add a fixed number of affordable units to market-rate projects has failed. The Boston Foundation’s 2019 housing report card paints a grim picture of the reality for low- and middle-income renters. Rents have been skyrocketing so severely that even historically affordable neighborhoods are feeling the squeeze. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Dorchester or Roxbury is now $2,000. With the population of Greater Boston expected to grow by nearly 20 percent from 2010 to 2025, at least 320,000 units of housing would be required. But thus far, less than 200,000 units of housing are projected. Clearly, bolder ideas are needed — like rethinking the very nature of public housing, including what it looks like and who lives in it.

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PEOPLE IN VIENNA, especially expats who have moved here, are happy and willing to show curious visitors around social housing. Eugene Quinn is one of them. He and I are strolling past a swing set in the grassy square of the Karl Seitz-Hof, a sand-colored complex in Vienna’s working-class Floridsdorf district that wraps around a circular garden with lots of sunlight. Families are at play nearby. Quinn is a U.K.-born urbanist and DJ who fell in love with a journalist from Vienna and moved here to start a family. Now he gives cheeky tours of Vienna’s most garish vanity architecture, but he also leads more admiring expeditions into Vienna’s social housing. A week before my visit, he guided a group who had traveled from China to learn about Vienna’s affordable housing system. So I sought him out for a long walk.

The Karl Seitz-Hof is a good example of classic social housing. It used to be a stronghold for social democrats during the “Red Vienna” era when they ran the city more than 100 years ago, and while the interiors have been modernized, much of that turn-of-the-century architecture is preserved. But social housing comes in many forms. In the slightly more affluent Leopoldstadt neighborhood, we find the Wohnprojekt Wien: a co-housing project partially funded by city subsidies, but owned by the diverse association of Vienna residents who co-founded the place.

The city’s subsidies allow the Wohnprojekt to remain permanently affordable for people living here. As of January last year, apartment rents were stabilized at 10 euros per square meter, which would be equivalent to about $1,250 for a 1,200-square-foot apartment. Aesthetically, the community brings to mind Somerville’s Assembly Square, with finished wood-and-steel apartment buildings and little parklets, one of which is occupied by a family taking a plump white rabbit for a walk. In this and similar social housing complexes in Vienna, Quinn explains, each of the residents contributes some time to community upkeep. They also organize group dinners and car-sharing programs.

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Massachusetts doesn’t make housing like this. We have the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which is a partnership between the public and private sectors to help finance the development and purchase of affordable housing. But our strategy of persuading private developers to build more affordable units hasn’t mitigated the housing crisis. Worse, much of that private development is happening on publicly owned land that the city has sold off. And even if we still had that land and wanted to build publicly owned housing on it, another hurdle would loom. The budget of the federal Housing and Urban Development is much lower now, on an inflation-adjusted level, than it was when it funded much of the public housing in the United States. This means cities like Boston would essentially have to go it alone in finding ways to fund permanently affordable, socially owned housing comparable to Vienna’s.

“The attitude I think we need to develop, as a city, is that we have limited resources to create affordable housing,” says Chuck Collins, a program director at the Institute for Policy Studies think tank. We’ve met up for coffee in Jamaica Plain a couple days after my return from Vienna. Collins has been an advocate for taxing luxury development projects and using the proceeds to fund new affordable housing.

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This wouldn’t have to be like most other “affordable housing” today. In our current arrangement, much new affordable housing is owned by the private sector. Without rent controls in place, there’s no guarantee of permanent affordability. Socially owned housing could have that guarantee.

Collins is quick to point out that our state has micro examples of socially owned housing, and some of it is mixed-income housing. A couple of blocks from my apartment in JP, there’s the Farnsworth House, a nonprofit where seniors live in rent-subsidized apartments. Then, just over the neighborhood line, the Dudley Neighbors land trust manages over 200 units of housing for Roxbury residents. Like the co-housing I visited in Vienna, it’s permanently affordable and socially owned. In theory, an expansion of land trusts in the Boston area could set the stage for an expansion of such units.

Other examples exist within driving distance. New Hampshire and Vermont fund affordable housing “almost entirely through a social ownership structure,” Collins says. For example, Vermont has a housing conservation board that taxes real estate transfers and puts the revenue into a trust fund for nonprofit groups that are creating permanently affordable social housing.

That idea is on the legislative table here in Massachusetts. Boston, Somerville, and Nantucket are just a few of the communities whose elected officials have proposed placing transfer fees on certain real estate deals, and using the proceeds to support affordable housing development. But what’s missing here and in Vermont is an expansion and re-imagining of permanently affordable housing that’s built by developers but owned by the city — by all of us. It would take furious organizing to funnel those transfer fees toward municipal housing with rent stabilization and mixed-income residency. We haven’t seen that yet. And so, I can’t help but wonder if the big roadblock between our status quo and something like Vienna’s social housing system isn’t the lobbying power of developers, but the affliction of normalized class segregation.

One of the reasons why public housing in America has often failed to flourish is because we’ve treated those units as a last resort for those with nowhere else to go. This model has concentrated poverty, further marginalizing the poor from the middle class. And, according to state Rep. Nika Elugardo, it reduces public housing to a top-down act of begrudging philanthropy, which is not the same thing as social ownership. “Our conception of public housing was sort of born out of a federal program for housing, and that includes a certain unhealthy dependency on national political dynamics for not only our housing funding, but our idea of what public housing even is,” says Elugardo, who ran for office on a housing equity platform. “We’re just chasing that funding. That’s a charity model of public housing. We need to shift to a local investor mindset, where the taxpayer is the investor.”

One of Elugardo’s forthcoming bills will focus on use of public land assets. “There’s at least $1.2 billion in surplus state-owned land that’s sufficient for affordable housing,” she says.

It’s not hard to find the kinds of places where this could happen, like the old red brick Nawn Factory building in Roxbury. Last fall, the city put out a call for bids to redevelop the site for both commercial and residential use. As I size up the old building, listening to the hum of traffic on Melnea Cass, I can’t help noting that back in 1880 — the year when the factory building was erected — Vienna was in the throes of the housing catastrophe that put the city on a radically different and effective path. We could take that path too. Next to the Nawn Factory, there’s a vacant lot called “Parcel 8.” Socially owned housing could fit there. People could live there.

THAT’S ANOTHER NEAT thing about Vienna. People there are still re-envisioning what their housing can be like, even as other cities struggle to catch up and experiment with social ownership that Vienna embraced decades ago. On my last full day in the city, I get a glimpse of this by tramming over to the leafy Ottakring district and meeting up with Ula Schneider, founder of an art collective. Her studio office is located in the Sandleiten Hof, another city-owned housing complex. After a quick cup of tea, we go for a stroll on cobblestone paths connecting the parklets of the complex, which is built on a hillside that affords a view of downtown Vienna.

There’s more than just housing units here. Schneider and I visit a public square with shops and a nonprofit headquarters and an art school classroom where students are tinkering away at sculptures. Just outside of the complex walls, we pause at a green where Schneider and her colleagues have staged an annual arts festival, with the help of Sandleiten residents. “We’re always trying to imagine new ways to use vacant spaces for the benefit of the community,” Schneider tells me.

As Schneider and I stroll back to her studio, there’s a slight awkwardness to our conversation: an almost irreverent quality. I wonder if it feels odd for Schneider to take an American journalist on a tour of something that’s so normal for her and most Vienna residents. Vienna social housing is a unique achievement, globally speaking. Markus Leitgeb, an official of the Vienna city government who’s something of a press liaison, tells me he’s received more media inquiries over the last couple years, as cities elsewhere grapple with housing nightmares of their own. “One hundred years ago, Vienna had a problem that required a new approach to creating permanently affordable housing,“ Leitgeb says. “And today, most cities are now living that same problem.”

I’ll admit, having returned home to the anxiety that comes from renting in Boston, I’ve often found myself daydreaming about going back to Vienna. But why flee there when we could just take one of its best ideas?

Miles Howard is a journalist based in Boston.