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Imagine a Renters’ Utopia. It Might Look Like Vienna.Imagine a Renters’ Utopia.

New York Times, Francesca Mari, Photographs by Luca Locatelli, May 23, 2023

Soaring real estate markets have created a worldwide housing crisis. What can we learn from a city that has largely avoided it?

When Eva Schachinger married at 22, she applied for publichousing. Luckily, she lived in Vienna, which has some of the best public housing in the world. It was 1968. Eva was a teacher, and her husband, Klaus-Peter, was an accountant for the city’s public-transportation system. She grew up in a public-housing complex in the center of the city, where her grandmother, who cared for her from 6 in the morning until 6 at night, lived in one of five buildings arranged around a courtyard. Eva played all day with friends from the complex.

Her mother, who was renting on the private market after a divorce, had recently applied for public housing, too, and she was offered a unit first, in 1971. By then, Eva had a young daughter, and her mother decided Eva needed the spot more and offered it to her. The available unit was in the 21st District, on the northeastern edge of the city. Eva’s father-in-law warned her — not entirely jokingly — that out there, they would be the first to be occupied by the Russians. But she and Klaus-Peter liked the floor plan: Although the apartment was an economical 732 square feet, it had two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a toilet and washroom and a balcony. The rent was 700 schillings. (That’s about 55 euros, though the currency wasn’t introduced until 1999.) Eva transferred her teaching job to the 21st District, to a school a 15-minute walk from her new apartment.

When I met Eva late last year, she looked smart in a jean jacket with a neatly tied silk scarf around her neck, small dangly earrings and cropped curly hair. Over the course of the last 44 years, as she continued to teach English to fifth through eighth grades, Eva’s rent increased almost fivefold, to 270 euros from 55, but her wages increased more than 20-fold, to 3,375 euros a month from 150. Viennese law dictates that rents in public housing can increase only with inflation, and only when the year’s inflation exceeds 5 percent. By the time she retired in 2007, Eva’s rent was only 8 percent of her income. Because her husband was earning 4,000 euros a month, their rent amounted to 3.6 percent of their incomes combined.

That’s about what Vienna was aiming for back in 1919, when the city began planning its world-famous municipal housing, known as the Gemeindebauten. Before World War I, Vienna had some of the worst housing conditions in Europe, Eve Blau notes in her book, “The Architecture of Red Vienna.” Many working-class families had to take on subtenants or bed tenants (day and night workers who slept in the same bed at different times) in order to pay their rent. But from 1923 to 1934, in a period known as Red Vienna, the ruling Social Democratic Party built 64,000 new units in 400 housing blocks, increasing the city’s housing supply by about 10 percent. Some 200,000 people, one-tenth of the population, were rehoused in these buildings, with rents set at 3.5 percent of the average semiskilled worker’s income, enough to cover the cost of maintenance and operation.

Experts refer to Vienna’s Gemeindebauten as “social housing,” a phrase that captures how the city’s public housing and other limited-profit housing are a widely shared social benefit: The Gemeindebauten welcome the middle class, not just the poor. In Vienna, a whopping 80 percent of residents qualify for public housing, and once you have a contract, it never expires, even if you get richer. Housing experts believe that this approach leads to greater economic diversity within public housing — and better outcomes for the people living in it.

In 2015, before they bought an apartment on the private market, the Schachingers were making about 80,000 euros ($87,000) a year, roughly the income of the average U.S. household in 2021. Eva and Klaus-Peter paid 26 percent and 29 percent in income tax, respectively, but just 4 percent of their pretax income was going toward rent, which is about what the average American household spends on meals eaten out and half a percentage point less than what the average American spends on “entertainment.” Even if the Schachingers got a new contract today on their unit, their monthly payments would be an estimated 542 euros, or only 8 percent of their income. Vienna’s generous supply of social housing helps keep costs down for everyone: In 2021, Viennese living in private housing spent 26 percent of their post-tax income on rent and energy costs, on average, which is only slightly more than the figure for social-housing residents overall (22 percent). Meanwhile, 49 percent of American renters — 21.6 million people — are cost-burdened, paying landlords more than 30 percent of their pretaxincome, and the percentage can be even higher in expensive cities. In New York City, the median renter household spends a staggering 36 percent of its pretax income on rent.

To American eyes, the whole Viennese setup can appear fancifully socialistic. But set that aside, and what’s mind-boggling is how social housing gives the economic lives of Viennese an entirely different shape. Imagine if your housing expenses were more like the Schachingers’. Imagine having to think about them to the same degree that you think about your restaurant choices or streaming-service subscriptions. Imagine, too, where the rest of your income might go, if you spent much less of it on housing. Vienna invites us to envision a world in which homeownership isn’t the only way to secure a certain future — and what our lives might look like as a result.

Writing about housing in the United States, I’ve become depressed. I’m the scold at the dinner party, revolted by big investors speculating in the housing market, yes, but also by the thousands of small-time investors — including some of my own friends — who are pooling money to buy homes in states they’ve never seen or buying rental properties in gentrifying neighborhoods. But the math is hard to argue with. Buying a home near work is more lucrative than working. The growth of asset values has outstripped returns on labor for four decades, and a McKinsey report found that a majority of those assets — 68 percent — is real estate. Last year, one in four home sales was to someone who had no intention of living in it. These investors are particularly incentivized to buy the sorts of homes most needed by first-time buyers: Inexpensive properties generate the highest rental-income cash flows.

Real estate is a place where money literally grows on tree beams. In the last decade, the typical owner of a single-family home acquired nearly $200,000 in appreciation. “Another word for asset appreciation is inflation,” the academics Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings write in “The Asset Economy,” “an increase in monetary value without any corresponding change in the nature of the good itself or the conditions of its production that would make it scarcer or justify an increased demand for it.” That inflation is creating a treacherous gulch between the housing haves and have-nots. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that, in 2019, the median net worth of U.S. renters was just 2.5 percent of the median net worth of homeowners: $6,270 versus $254,900. Last year, as higher interest rates slowed home sales and caused prices to plateau (and even soften in some overheated cities), the asking price of the median U.S. rental reached $2,000 a month, a record high, according to Redfin. Inflated rent prices line the pockets of landlords while preventing renters from saving for a down payment and ever getting off the treadmill.

The astronomical pace of appreciation is the culmination of decades of policy aimed at encouraging home buying. The fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage is a particularly American invention, possible only because the federal government insures the debt — if a borrower defaults, the government is on the hook. (Only one other country, Denmark, offers the same instrument.) Then there’s our tax code, which allows those affluent enough to buy homes and itemize their deductions to write off the interest they pay on their mortgages: the bigger the mortgage, the bigger the deduction. Homeowners can deduct up to $10,000 of their property taxes from their federal taxes too, and if they sell their primary residence, they may be able to avoid paying capital gains on profits of up to $250,000 per person ($500,000 for couples). As housing activists like to point out, everyone who has a mortgage is living in subsidized housing.

Last year, troubled by the seeming intractability of these problems, I began looking for solutions outside the United States. Could the answer be rent control, as in Berlin? It might have seemed that way a decade or so ago, before investors and new residents began pouring into the city, causing land values to quintuple; now, despite rent-stabilization laws, even the apartments that no one else wanted to buy 15 years ago are huge moneymakers. Many residents with affordable rental contracts are locked into them because it would be too expensive or competitive to move. Frustrated by the housing squeeze, tenant organizers recently put forth an “expropriation” measure, which called for landlords with more than 3,000 units to sell their holdings back to the government at below-market prices. In a 2021 referendum, 59 percent of Berliners voted in favor of it, but it’s not clear whether it will ever be implemented.

Could the answer be loosening zoning restrictions, as Tokyo did in 2002? That has certainly helped. In 2014, there was more home construction in the city than in all of England. Since then, home prices have stabilized. Tokyo is largely celebrated as a model by YIMBYs (members of the “yes, in my backyard” movement) because they like its market-driven approach to housing abundance. They often point out that the city builds five times as much housing per capita as California. But Japan is a very different market because of its earthquake risk: Because regulatory codes and mitigation technologies are ever improving, structures often fully depreciate within 35 years. Older homes are often undermaintained because there’s little expectation that any investment might be recaptured upon resale; they’re thought of like used clothing or cars — you resell at a loss.

Auckland, New Zealand, might seem like a more applicable example. In 2016, the city, which has one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, “upzoned” 75 percent of its residential land, increasing its legal capacity for housing by about 300 percent in an effort to encourage multifamily-housing construction and tamp down prices. In areas that were upzoned, the total number of building permits granted (a way of estimating new construction) more than quadrupled from 2016 to 2021. As intended, the relative value of underdeveloped land increased, because it could suddenly host more housing, and the relative value of units in densely developed areas decreased, tempering sky-high prices. But there are limits to what upzoning can do. Often the benefits of allowing greater density are captured by developers, who price the new units far above cost. It doesn’t offer renters security or directly create the type of housing most needed: affordable housing.

That’s what differentiates Vienna. Perhaps no other developed city has done more to protect residents from the commodification of housing. In Vienna, 43 percent of all housing is insulated from the market, meaning the rental prices reflect costs or rates set by law — not “what the market will bear” or what a person with no other options will pay. The government subsidizes affordable units for a wide range of incomes. The mean gross household income in Vienna is 57,700 euros a year, but any person who makes under 70,000 euros qualifies for a Gemeindebau unit. Once in, you never have to leave. It doesn’t matter if you start earning more. The government never checks your salary again. Two-thirds of the city’s rental housing is covered by rent control, and all tenants have just-cause eviction protections. Such regulations, when coupled with adequate supply, give renters a level of stability comparable to American owners with fixed mortgages. As a result, 80 percent of all households in Vienna choose to rent.

Read More: New York Times