It shocks no one to read that housing in New York City is too expensive. But it is hair-raisingly unconscionable that almost ninety thousand rent-stabilized units are currently sitting vacant – while the average rent surpassed $5,200 in Manhattan this summer. In other words, as The City reported this week, one in ten rent-stabilized units are off the market, and landlords may be to blame by holding those affordable units hostage, “warehousing” units for leverage over housing laws.
Over the last few years, landlords and developers have successfully exempted hundreds of thousands of units subjected to rent-stabilization, one of the Big Apple’s only protections for its working-class and low-wage inhabitants when just over six percent live in municipal housing.
When a minimum wage worker would have to log 111 hours on the job each week to afford median rent in the city, there are no affordable units to spare.
Factor in the deluge of post-Covid-moratorium eviction cases – and the shortage of housing court lawyers promised to low-income tenants by the city’s Right to Counsel legislation – and an “all-time high” of over 64,000 New Yorkers sleeping in city-run shelters. Observe: an Empire State housing crisis of epic proportions.
What’s to be done? Look across the Atlantic. A delegation of nearly 50 New Yorkers – including tenant advocates, housing experts, and local legislators – traveled to a city renowned for its premiere livability and social housing system: Vienna.
While Vienna ranks first on the Global Livability Index, New York City is 51st. (The Met and Central Park can’t make up ground lost to deeply unaffordable housing.) And while over half of New Yorkers are overburdened by the cost of rent, only 18 percent of Vienna residents are similarly hard-pressed.
Why? Since the early 20th century, the Austrian metropolis has prioritized the construction and maintenance of hundreds of thousands of units of subsidized housing, in which nearly sixty percent of its population resides. Says the city’s public housing authority, Wiener Wohnen: “Vienna does not leave rents and land prices solely to the free market. On the contrary: housing is viewed as a public task and part of the services of general interest.”
In a Bloomberg CityLab documentary, housing experts explain the genius of the Viennese system: city intervention and long-term investment. The city tethers the affordability of housing to its land prices by buying land or reappropriating its land reserves, and heavily regulates developers’ use of the land, requiring profits to be capped and reinvested in affordable housing construction. Residency in affordable housing is allowed for long periods of time, even subsidized further the longer that tenants reside in their units – strengthening community ties. Developers couple density with parks and access to public transport.
Affordability is not the only strength of Viennese social housing – it is also beautiful, designed for holistic living across classes. While American public housing is stigmatized as run-down and undesirable, “typically, in Vienna a person’s income cannot be gleaned from his or her home address – a fact we are proud of,” Wiener Wohnen touts on their website’s homepage. Many developments feature medical offices, kindergartens, generous green spaces, and even saunas and pools for recreation and leisure. Complexes often include balconies, large windows, and public art subsidies, like at the striking, sloping Alterlaa. From Seestadt (two-thirds limited profit social housing and one-third market rate) to the Karl Marx-Hof and Hundertwasser apartments, social housing is some of the most aesthetically interesting and community-oriented in Vienna.
The delegation yearned for what could be if their city took a similar approach. Take Sonnwendviertel, a social housing development on a former railyard of 5,500 apartments, 13,000 residents, and 20,000 newly created jobs with ample green space. New Yorkers thought of their city’s bungled parallel project, Hudson Yards, a disastrous former railyard development that exploited the proximity of public housing to become an impenetrable shrine to the billionaire class – replete with an Equinox hotel but few affordable units.
Investing nearly half a billion Euros back into its system each year, Wiener Wohnen asserts, subsidizing housing is a great economic play. “The high share of subsidized dwellings exerts a price-dampening effect on the private housing market and safeguards a good social mix throughout the city.” And, Viennese representatives reported to the New York delegation, such price control increases local economic activity and high quality of life.
The New Yorkers also studied the government apparatuses that make such social equity possible, like the Chamber of Labor, a worker-led entity that fights for housing justice alongside labor protections, as well as the city’s climate council, its political parties, and its public housing authority.
No housing system is perfect. In Vienna, prices are creeping up due to private speculation, even as social housing stock is abundant. The city contends with the marginalization faced by its migrants and refugees, hardline nationwide immigration laws, and legacy of racism – problems similarly ingrained in New York’s social fabric and its segregated, disinvested public housing. Black Voices Vienna, an Austrian advocacy organization, is pushing a list of demands for citizens to consider as referenda – they would expand voting rights, increase representation of people of color in politics, replace racist street names, and ultimately improve equity in social housing.
Despite their differences, New York and Vienna both exhibit the possibilities of resilient urban futures. The cities “hold the key for a transition to a climate-friendly lifestyle,” said Vienna city legislator Jurgen Czernohorsky after a visit from the American delegation. “Attractive public transport, active mobility, energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, zero waste, circular economy and more can all contribute towards our one mutual goal: climate neutrality.”
“However,” the politician added, “The public needs to understand AND support the measures taken, which need to benefit everyone, not just the few. This is exactly why cities all around the globe need to connect and work together, using and sharing all the knowledge at their disposal. And that is exactly what happened today in my office.”
Returning home, the New York delegation will face opportunities to integrate Viennese principles into their American commodified-housing quandaries. In Astoria, Queens, a new development proposal called Innovation QNS promises to contribute jobs and affordable housing to the diverse, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. While the city is in dire need of new units, the proposal could drive up local cost of living with its luxury-focused elements, and its private developers are not offering enough affordability – only promising 25 percent affordable units without city subsidy while the neighborhood demands (and requires) at least half.
Now that the state’s infamous 421-a tax break has expired, New Yorkers have the chance to decenter the interests of luxury developers in the housing market. City Comptroller Brad Lander is hoping to reform the city’s property taxation scheme in order to incentivize construction of ample, long-term affordable housing.
Also on the horizon: passing Good Cause Eviction legislation on the state level, which trip delegates Winsome Pendergrass and Cea Weaver deemed a crucial priority in an Inequality.org interview last summer. “Under Good Cause Eviction protections, tenants are given the benefit of the doubt in every eviction case. Landlords have to prove there’s a good reason to not renew the lease or to raise the rent. So that would extend protections to millions of people beyond those protected by rent control,” Weaver told us.
The nation as a whole can take inspiration from what New Yorkers brought back from Vienna. Already, the notion of social housing is popularizing with Americans, demonstrated by federal legislators’ interest in a blanket Homes Guarantee policy.
“Imagine:” wrote Action Lab NY, a local nonprofit whose members attended the trip, “Building housing and neighborhoods to prioritize social needs instead of centralizing and protecting individual wealth. Housing for people to live & build community in, instead of hoarding for individual wealth.”
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