Subsidized Housing That’s Luxurious and Affordable

For a subsidized housing program that really works, look to Vienna, Austria.

| July/August 2013

  • Subsidized Housing
    The pervasiveness of subsidized housing in Vienna makes the city a place where the term “public housing” carries no stigma whatsoever, unlike in the United States.
    Photo By Metro Centric
  • Triangular Architecture
    In Vienna, the idea that everyday citizens should have access to not just affordable apartments but also attractive ones—and that it’s the city’s responsibility to provide them—continues to this day.
    Photo By Paolo Mazzoleni

  • Subsidized Housing
  • Triangular Architecture

Back in 1996, residents of Vienna were clamoring to live in a coffin factory. The apartment building—a redevelopment that kept the original structure’s chimney—already had more than half of its 100 units rented out before construction was complete. Known as Sargfabrik, the development featured stunning amenities, including a restaurant, a swimming pool and even a Finnish sauna. It also had many popular “green” features, such as a parking area for car-sharing and plenty of storage for bicycles. Tenants were allowed to offer input throughout the development process on how the building would take shape—even on their individual floor plans.

In the United States, Sargfabrik might resemble a high-end condo. But in Vienna, it’s a subsidized housing project. And it’s not unusual.

A unique system nearly a century in the making has created a situation today in which the city government of Vienna either owns or directly influences almost half the housing stock in the capital city. As a result, residents enjoy high-quality apartments with inexpensive rent, along with renters’ rights that would be unheard of in the U.S. The Viennese have decided that housing is a human right so important that it shouldn’t be left up to the free market. Advocates for the Vienna model say it’s something U.S. policymakers should examine closely.


Vienna’s highly regulated approach to housing, known as social housing or subsidized housing, is largely the result of what the city experienced in the late 19th century: deplorable living conditions in the wake of rapid industrialization. At the time, many Viennese resided in housing that was unregulated, uncomfortable and cramped. It wasn’t unusual to have 10 people living in a small studio apartment—in addition to even more who would sublet the same unit during the daytime while the primary tenants worked. The overwhelming majority of apartments didn’t have private bathrooms or sinks. Rents could be increased at any time, and one-month leases were common, resulting in unstable families and communities.

That started to change in the 1920s when the country’s socialist government rose to power in the wake of World War I. It made housing, along with jobs and social services, a high priority during the period known as “Red Vienna.” The goal was to create aesthetically pleasing housing complexes that would provide the working class with the sort of accommodations that had previously only been accessible to the well-to-do. “It was important that people in the housing felt they were enfranchised citizens of the city,” says Eve Blau, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who has studied and written about the architecture of Vienna’s public housing complexes.

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