Vienna’s ‘Gemeindebau’ apartment blocks were built out of necessity but an emphasis on social cohesion and affordability means that they might now be the world’s best public housing.
Fashion designer Ida Steixner had been living in her Gemeindebau (municipal building) apartment in Vienna’s 4th district for four months when there was an explosion. She was at work when a friend called her with tragic news: a suicidal tenant had tampered with a gas pipe, causing the building to collapse. Nearly all of Steixner’s possessions were lost.
Steixner was understandably distraught. “It was my first flat; I was really happy to get it,” she says. The housing authorities stepped in with surprising speed and within days of the incident residents were offered a range of emergency apartments as well as psychological counselling. Steixner and several others were allowed to salvage what they could from the wreckage. “They gave me a few addresses for a new flat and I looked them up,” she says.
She chose a 1930s Gemeindebau in the neighbouring area, on the bank of the Danube Canal. It’s a two-room flat with windows on either side. At 50 sq m it’s bigger than her previous place and although she can keep it if she wants to, she won’t rule out moving back to the 4th district, where she’d have a balcony when the reconstruction is done.
There was a time when Steixner couldn’t imagine living in public housing. “But I’m happy,” she says, noting that the Gemeindebau programme offers some of the city’s most interesting buildings. Residents are also treated with dignity, as her ordeal suggests. “Living in smaller flats is the future; it’s just more sustainable,” she says.
Gemeindebau is a concept specific to Vienna, born of the chaos and devastation of the First World War and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Faced with an acute housing crisis, the city’s new socialist government made an ambitious promise that sounded like a utopian dream: it would ease the shortage of homes by creating self-contained residential blocks with affordable rents and on-site amenities, such as kindergartens, laundries and libraries. It would do that by raising taxes for the rich. Some 64,000 flats were built during the so-called Red Vienna period of the 1920s and 1930s, in enormous housing complexes such as the iconic Karl-Marx-Hof and Reumannhof (named after the city’s first socialist mayor, Jakob Reumann).
The city’s new socialist government made an ambitious promise that sounded like a utopian dream
These mega-blocks quickly gained the nickname Volkswohnungspaläste (people’s apartment-palaces), in no small part for their imposing architecture and spacious layouts that often included a cour d’honneur (a forecourt of the type a grand house or palace might have, often contained between two projecting wings).
Every Gemeindebau had large bold letters on its façade showing the dates of construction and many were listed as protected sites. These buildings quickly entered popular Viennese culture, appearing in books, films and TV series. There are love songs featuring them, notably “Die Blume aus dem Gemeindebau” by the Schlager musician Wolfgang Ambros, which includes the line: “Without you this building would be so grey.”
The authorities have continued building Gemeindebau apartments to this day, albeit with a short break between 2006 and 2015, and have also kept the tradition of naming blocks after eminent public figures. With a rent cap of €7.50 per square metre, this means that, in 2018, more than 60 per cent of Vienna’s population lived in subsidised housing – both Gemeindebau and partly city-funded co-operatives such as the Alterlaa complex accommodating 10,000 people. It’s an impressive achievement that has been more than 100 years in the making. Though waiting lists vary widely, the city is ensuring that Gemeindebau apartments are available in the future: recent legislation has stipulated that two thirds of all newly designated residential land be zoned for social housing. But it is the avoidance of ghettoisation and encouragement of social cohesion that Vienna’s politicians are most proud of. “It’s paramount that there are Gemeindebau in every district, including inner districts,” says Georg Niedermühlbichler, a socialist member of Vienna’s city parliament and president of the Austrian tenant association. “Because Vienna can offer so many flats of this type, we can give them not only to the poor, as many other cities do, but create a wider social mix. It’s normal for a labourer to live nextdoor to a bank manager.”
“It is the dream of every artist to live in a ‘Gemeindebau’, not only because it’s cheap but because the rent doesn’t change”
This social mix is helped by a real sense of community among residents: many buildings come with shared spaces used for anything from drawing and clay modelling to dance classes. There is also a comparatively high-income upper limit for applicants: €47,210 a year for one person, and €70,340 for two people. Once residents are in, authorities never check on their salaries again. For many with lower incomes, a Gemeindebau flat is the only possibility for leading an independent life.
Esther Fiebinger is an artist and single mother who grew up in the Rabenhof, a labyrinth of interconnected blocks and courtyards a short walk from Prater park. She still lives in the same flat. “It is the dream of every artist to live in a Gemeindebau, not only because it’s cheap but because the rent doesn’t change,” says Fiebinger. “I pay the same rent as my mother did 25 years ago.”
For Gabrielle Bös, too, social housing is a lifeline. Now retired, she lives with her husband in Vienna’s newest Gemeindebau in the far-flung 23rd district. “I find this super,” she says with typical Viennese flair as she gestures towards the wide green expanses where her puppy Jesse can enjoy freedom and fresh air.
The City of Vienna spends some €183m a year on the upkeep of its Gemeindebau stock, with millions more earmarked for new developments: at least 18 estates will be built before 2026, to high design and environmental specifications. Whatever its political affiliation, the city government has remained largely socialist since Red Vienna, although coalitions have included green, conservative and liberal parties. Vienna’s authorities consider affordable housing a basic human right.
Niedermühlbichler of the Austrian tenant association thinks that this is a model other cities should follow. “Many international delegations come to see how we do it,” he says. “But this success story has only been possible thanks to our history and housing traditions.”