In Vienna, secure, affordable housing is not a utopian dream

November 1, 2023
Karl Marx Hof in Vienna
Vienna maintains a vast system of public and cooperative housing, which today accounts for more than 50% of the city’s housing stock. Photo: John Tully

Every human being should have the right to affordable and secure housing, yet every month, more than 1600 Australians become homeless. With rents rising to unaffordable levels, elderly long-term tenants find themselves on the street. People are living in cars and under bridges. Children huddle in tents in mid-winter. Young adults cannot move out of the parental home.

These are the “new” homeless, the victims of uncontrolled rent gouging, coupled with general rises in the cost of living, stagnant wages, and the “gig” economy. Outrageously, in a wealthy country, many families and individuals cannot eat properly because of exorbitant rent increases.

The “mainstream” press seldom, if ever, questions the supposed “right” of landlords to jack up rents as they see fit. There are sad stories of evicted grandmothers, for example, but never exposés of the grasping developers and “mums and dads investors” responsible for their plight. There is handwringing in high places, but nothing of substance gets done. Soaring rents are seen as inevitable as death and taxes.

The Albanese government has internalised the laissez-faire dogma that “There Is No Alternative” and scorns the Greens’ demand for rent controls. Even when they take some responsibility for housing policy, these pale pinks play the stock market for funds and – as in Victoria – knock down public housing to provide space for private housing at the expense of the publicly owned stock and tenants.

A cynic might note that almost half of Australia’s federal politicians own investment properties, and other investments are hidden in trusts etc. Nor can we forget the monstrously regressive Stage 3 tax cuts, and the colossal expenditure on AUKUS, which will mean slashing social spending, and yet more privatisation.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Providing secure, affordable housing for all is not some utopian dream, and Vienna is a case in point.


Jerrybuilt slums on waste ground in Vienna, circa World War I. Photo: Red Vienna museum, Karl Marx Hof

The ‘Vienna Model’

Vienna maintains a vast system of public and cooperative housing, which today accounts for more than 50% of the city’s housing stock. In total, 60% of the city’s population of 1.8 million lives in subsidised housing and a huge slice of Vienna’s privately owned housing is rent-controlled with long leases that cannot be broken at the whim of landlords. The huge stock of public housing also helps keep other private rents low. This reflects a humanist philosophy based on social solidarity that contrasts starkly with the free-market dogma espoused by both major parties in Australia.

Vienna’s deputy mayor, Kathrin Gaal, recently told journalists that “[our] social housing policies in Vienna have been shaped by the political commitment that housing is a basic right,” adding that her party — the Socialist Party of Austria (SPÖ) — is determined to keep the massive stock of subsidised homes built in the last century in public hands. “We insisted on not privatising social housing in the 1980s and ’90s when other cities were selling their municipal housing projects,” she adds. “Today, more than ever, we can see that this strategy has been successful. Once the [publicly owned] apartments are gone, the city has only a small lever to regulate rents.”

There is another significant difference between what we might call the “Vienna Model” of public housing and that which often exists elsewhere. Rather than being hidden on the city’s outskirts with poor access to jobs, services and public transport, Vienna’s social housing is integrated into the landscape of the city: the public apartment blocks, alternate with private blocks of flats. Moreover, the Gemeindebauten as they are called in German, are often beautifully designed inside and out; so much so that middle-class Viennese see no stigma in living there. Contrast this with the Thatcherite mentality that labels public housing tenants and public transport users as “losers”.

Vienna is consistently ranked as the world’s most liveable city and along with a vast network of clean, efficient public transport that costs citizens one Euro a day, this is due to the provision of social housing on a scale and of a quality that puts Australia to shame. Vienna is not perfect. There are still homeless people there, and other Austrian cities have elected Communist mayors and councillors in large part to tackle inadequate housing. The Austrian capital, however, is the heir of the great social experiment known as “Red Vienna”, and it is to this we shall turn.


Inside a one-room slum in Vienna. Image: Red Vienna Museum

Red Vienna, 1919‒34

When World War I broke out in 1914, Vienna was home to 1.9 million people, and capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had a population of just under 53 million.

When the empire collapsed in 1918, Vienna suddenly became the oversized capital of the rump German Austrian Republic with a population of just 6.5 million people. The city was exhausted, suffering privations imposed by the Allied blockade, and deprived of the once huge hinterland that provided markets for its manufactures and kept it supplied with food and raw materials.

The Hapsburg emperors were gone, leaving behind — Ozymandias-like — their huge palaces, built at the expense of the multinational empire’s workers and peasants. The blockade had pressed hardest on Vienna’s working class, who had already suffered under the heel of monarchical dictatorship. It was a tale of two cities within the same metropolis: squalid rookeries and unimaginable opulence.

In May 1919, Austria’s first free elections gave the Social Democratic Labour Party an absolute majority on the council of the city-state of Vienna. Since then, except for the period of clerical fascist rule between 1934 and 1938, and the Nazi dictatorship between 1938 and 1945, the party and its heirs in the SPÖ have continuously governed the city.

They must have wondered where to start, so appalling were the social conditions that confronted them. True, Karl Lüger, the antisemitic prewar mayor had begun an ambitious programme of public works, including sewers and water supply, but the condition of the Viennese working class shocked those who cared to see.

In 1900, the life expectancy of an unskilled Viennese worker was 33 years, and almost one-quarter of the city’s children died in the first year of life. Most of the city’s population lived in slum tenements without running water. Toilets were communal and unsanitary and bathrooms were unheard of. Little provision was made for light and fresh air.

In 1910, more than 100,000 people were sub-tenants and another 75,000 were Bettgänger who rented a place to sleep, often on a rotating shift basis. In the working-class suburb of Ottakring, a quarter of the flats consisted of a single room and kitchen accommodating six people. Unsurprisingly, water-borne diseases and TB were rampant.

Many people lived in crude shacks on waste ground with no civilised amenities at all — like later American “Hoovervilles” and “Happy Valley” in 1930s Sydney. The leftwing writer Karl Ziak remarked; “If it were possible to take houses to court, the Viennese blocks of flats would have to be put in the dock…”. The slumlords too, one might add.

What could be done? The Treaty of St Germaine forbade the fledging Republic from uniting with Germany, and although the Socialists enjoyed a huge majority of Viennese votes, much of the countryside was under the sway of clerical reactionaries. However, it was unconscionable to allow the urban horrors of Vienna to continue. Robert Danneberg, the city’s first Social Democratic mayor, argued that “Capitalism cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful instalments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.”

Rosa Luxemburg and other revolutionary socialists took issue with this “reformist” approach, and one hundred years on, capitalism remains intact in Austria. Nevertheless, Vienna’s “Austro-Marxists” did rescue their city’s proletariat from utter squalor and crucial to this was the provision of public housing on a monumental scale.


Clockwise from top left: Baby clinic - Red Vienna. Text reads ‘no Viennese child must be born on newspaper’; Socialist militia, early 1930s; Slum alley circa WWI; Fascist artillery preparing to open fire on the workers' district. Images: Red Vienna Museum

'One day these stones will speak for us'

The city’s flagship housing project was the Karl Marx Hof, a beautiful 1.2-kilometre-long apartment block in Heiligenstadt in Vienna’s 19th district; so long that it straddles four tram stops. When construction began in 1927, the bourgeois press sniped that it would soon collapse, given that it was built on reclaimed land and eschewed the services of capitalist developers. At the opening ceremony in 1930, however, the mayor, Karl Seitz, correctly predicted that “one day these stones will speak for us”.

And so they do! The Karl Marx Hof is one of many Gemeindebauten in Vienna.

By 1934, the city’s Socialist administration had built 64,000 apartments, many of them in Art Deco and Bauhaus style, designed by acclaimed architects such as Karl Ehn, rehousing over 200,000 people. The planners insisted, too, that the Gemeindebauten provided a new infrastructure of social and cultural institutions. Larger blocks, such as the Karl Marx Hof and Friedrich Engels Platz incorporated a variety of services, including kindergartens and after-school care, clubs, libraries, medical and dental clinics, along with laundries, bath houses, coffeehouses and sports facilities.

Green spaces were also important and the builders were determined to provide light, fresh air and sunshine, along with clean water, inside toilets and baths. As a result, infant mortality fell steeply by more than 50% over pre-war rates.

Rents were capped at an affordable percentage of a semi-skilled worker’s wage. The city did not play the capitalist stock market to raise funds. As a city-state, Vienna was able to levy new, progressive housing taxes to pay for the ambitious building program. Most important were the Breitner taxes, which levied money from land, rents, commercial properties and luxury goods — and even on the employers of servants. The bourgeois squawked, but there was little they could do about it, for a decade and a half at least.

Dark times were coming, however. In 1934, the clerical fascists under the leadership of Engelbert “Millimetternich” Dollfuss used a parliamentary impasse as the pretext to seize power and rule by decree. Vienna’s Socialist militia resisted, turning the Karl Marx Hof into a fortress. Alas, they were outnumbered and outgunned. The fascists stormed the Hof after blasting it with artillery. Adding insult to injury, they renamed the block after the commander who had led the assault and installed a chapel in what had been a reading room.

Four years later, the Nazis took power in Austria and ferociously repressed what was left of the workers’ movement. Jewish residents — many of them proud socialists — were deported to the death camps.

After 1945, the Socialists were returned to power in the municipal council and began to rebuild the war-damaged city and restart the Gemeindebauten program. There are now more than 220,000 municipal apartments and the city is determined to keep building more, rejecting the privatisation mania that swept countries such as Australia.

The stones of Karl Marx Hof do indeed speak for the foresight and determination of the Viennese working class, and they set an example that Australia in the throes of a housing crisis should ponder. As the social theorist Karl Polanyi put it: “Vienna achieved one of the most spectacular cultural triumphs of Western history … an unrivalled moral and intellectual rise in the condition of a highly developed industrial working class which, protected by the Vienna system, withstood the degrading effects of gross economic dislocation, and achieved a level never reached before by the masses of people in any industrial society…”

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