affordable housing

100 Years of Urban Housing Success

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 21/12/2019 - 7:12am in

Around the world, the cost of housing is destabilizing cities. In Europe, low interest rates meant to spur growth have caused an affordability crisis. American cities are sprouting the kinds of slums usually associated with the developing world. Some have even argued that Hong Kong’s protests are, in reality, about a real estate market that has gotten so expensive young folks have essentially no chance of getting their own place.

What can be done? How can cities make sure that people other than the wealthy can find a foothold? A few places have shown that affordability is possible. One is Vienna, Austria.

A century of affordable housing

A hundred years ago, in 1919, Vienna decided to do something about its shortage of low-cost housing for blue-collar workers and creative types. It began constructing publicly financed housing under a model that, over the years, has evolved into a system that works incredibly well. Far from being “projects,” “council houses,” or “schemies,” this is housing built by the best architects, where, over time, people of all income levels have come to live. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close.

Today, 62 percent of Vienna residents live in this “social housing.” (In New York, where I live, about eight percent of residents call public housing home.) This is a city that has, for many years running, been voted one of the most livable large cities in the world. Clearly they’re doing something right.

The Reumann-Hof, built in 1923 and named for Vienna’s first Social Democratic mayor Jakob Reumann, was one of the city’s early social housing endeavors. To this day, it’s a sought-after place to live. Credit: Payton Chung/Flickr

The historical housing “problem”

Cities need a mix of residents and a fair amount of density for folks to energize and be inspired by one another… and for the city to function well. Yet many have struggled to provide the housing needed to achieve this. When people are priced out, as many are  these days, cities become less livable, less innovative and over time, less productive. 

My daughter’s friends — mostly creative types, furniture makers, artists and the like — have been driven to the edges of Brooklyn, seeking places where they can work and live, and still have access to the resources of the city. Most of them, she now tells me, are giving up and looking for places upstate. Being an artist or creative type has often necessitated some hardships, but this trend is not just “it’s tough for creatives” — it’s the result of policy decisions. 

The lobby of Cabrini Green, a dilapidated Chicago housing project that was torn down between 1995 and 2011. Credit: Milt Hill

The long history of white flight and of cities emptied out by suburban-oriented car-friendly policies has proven this. Famously, in places like the U.S., attempts to build quality low-income housing have fallen short when the political will to manage the details has failed to materialize. Affordable housing was viewed as a handout and not something critical to a city’s lifeblood.

Pruitt-Igoe, a massive housing project in St. Louis, fell victim to poor maintenance and crime. It was demolished in the 1970s. Credit: Renato Saboya/Flickr

Cities seeking alternatives to their present predicament might want to look to Vienna, which has demonstrated a century of success with its subsidized social housing model. Below is a social housing complex by the artist and designer Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who famously hated straight lines. He once said, “The straight line is godless and immoral.” That may be a bit extreme, but his other dictums — that windows must be within arm’s reach, for example — are admirable. 

Credit: Martin Abegglen

Hundertwasser’s social housing complex has become a tourist attraction — some of the band and I went there while on tour in 2001. It’s both wacky and wonderful. The floors and walls are as uneven as the exterior. Who wouldn’t want to have an apartment there? It totally destroys our preconceived ideas about social housing — that it will inevitably be drab, cookie-cutter and somewhat degrading. 

From the New York Times on January 8, 1987, just after this apartment building opened:

Many tenants, who were admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, are young people with families (”older people are a bit anxious about living like this,” Mr. Roettinger [a city spokesman] explained). Tenants pay an initial $20,000 deposit, which is partly refundable, plus a monthly rent averaging around $100. Couples whose joint income exceeds $25,500 are not eligible.

Credit: R. Halfpaap

That was in 1987, but it shows one of Vienna’s key social housing policies: low income folks are often the first tenants, but if their financial lot improves they are not kicked out. So they stay.

Vienna is still building social housing to this day. Despite the recent rise of politicians who might not be as inclined to support this system, it continues to thrive. My friend Stefan Sagmeister, an artist who recently had an exhibition in Vienna, said that these days a 1,000-square-foot apartment in social housing goes for about 190 euros a month. And public transportation is close by.

Credit: Einszueins Architektur

In fact, middle-class Viennese are now welcome to apply for subsidized social housing, and if their income rises they can stay in the same apartment, which helps create mixed-income buildings. You might think all these newly middle-class folks would eventually crowd out the low-income applicants, but because the city keeps building more of these there are plenty of new apartments to be had. The nearby public transportation that serves these communities is essential to their success, as well. 

Although housing in the relatively small city center (inside the Ringstrasse) is mostly expensive luxury apartments, social housing projects are more or less scattered throughout the rest of Vienna. Within each neighborhood, and even within each building, one can find tenants from a wide range of economic circumstances. As the city’s councilor for housing told the Huffington Post, “You can’t tell how much someone earns simply by looking at their home address.”

So, here are a couple of the major public housing issues solved: availability of apartments, and mixed incomes within the neighborhoods and often within the same building. 

How did this happen? How does it work?

A century ago, Austria was catching up with the wave of industrialization that had swept Europe, and folks from all over the former Habsburg Empire were flocking to Vienna in search of work. After World War I,  so many people were moving to Vienna that there wasn’t enough housing for all of them. Some began building shanty settlements outside the city — squatters in the suburbs, basically. They built their own blocks and streets, and farmed the available land. In the city proper, folks were sleeping in shifts in crowded apartments. At that time, only wealthy men could vote, many of whom were landlords. So there were few safeguards, rights or options for tenants. 

After the war, everyone was given the right to vote. This changed everything. Folks began demanding a right to housing, and the new voters supported the left-wing Social Democrats. The party got 54 percent of the vote, and once in power, they passed a rent control law that also gave the city the right to take over vacant property. Rent control can have the effect of reducing the availability of housing, as developers can’t see a way to profit with rents suppressed, and that happened in Vienna, too. As available land went undeveloped and became cheaper, the city bought it up and began to build subsidized housing.

They solicited highly skilled, innovative architects, so the buildings were nice, and though the early apartments were small, there were lots of amenities that people had never had access to before: laundries, gardens, nurseries, playgrounds, libraries, counseling offices, rooms for political gathering and debate (!!), courtyards and even kindergartens.

Karl Marx-Hof is one of Vienna’s best-known social housing complexes. At over half a mile long, it has four streetcar stops and is one of the longest residential buildings in the world. Credit: Diego BIS/Flickr

Although these projects began in the suburbs, the city ultimately bought parcels of land all over Vienna. As a result, social housing was not clustered in any one area. It became part of the fabric of the city.

How were these paid for?

“Red Vienna,” as the city was known in the ‘20s for its pro-worker, socialist mindset, had no problem accepting tax schemes to pay for all this. Capital gains taxes, luxury taxes and a progressive housing tax that ranged from two percent for workers’ housing up to 55 percent for luxury apartments provided plenty of funding for the city’s social housing program.

All of this, though very successful, was put on hold from the mid-1930s until 1945 when the Social Democratic Party was banned under Nazi rule. When it started up again after World War II, the city partnered with banks and insurance companies to create what it called not-for-profit housing. After a period of 1960s cookie-cutter construction, the city refocused on design, and began helping developers not only build new apartments, but renovate the older buildings that were beginning to decay. Vienna instituted a process whereby development corporations compete to build housing that is aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sound, and of course, reasonably priced. 

Credit: Lloyd Alter

Can we emulate the Viennese model?

Pretty damn tricky to copy the Viennese model, given all the historical contingencies! The above sequence of events and initiatives is fairly complex, and each seems to play a part in the success of the whole housing plan. The city stepping in to purchase land when rent control created opportunities — that takes a lot of political will.

Some things that have allowed this policy to persevere are clear, however. First, folks feel that the taxes they’re paying for social housing are fair. It also helps that they know they can stay in their apartments even if their income rises, and their rents are about one-quarter what they might be in other large cities like Paris, so progressive taxation is not viewed as arduous.  Land ownership is key, as well — cities might want to be very careful about selling off their land, often their most valuable asset. Voting rights were crucial, too — though this might seem unrelated, everything changed when everyone could vote. (1919 was the first year all women were allowed to vote in Vienna.) Lastly, it took a realization that the free market and social housing are not at odds. They can work together — there is a partnership here. There’s a difference between social housing and socialist housing.

Can others copy some of what Vienna has achieved? I’d say that since much of the social housing in Vienna is the result of long-term policies and a fortuitous series of events, simply copying Vienna might not be possible. But one can still learn from what they have done, and copy parts of the Viennese model when opportunity arises. Most of all, I would offer that what we can learn here is that our housing problem is not unsolvable, that public housing does not have to mean dull and neglected projects (I would bet money that most Americans wouldn’t guess the buildings pictured above are social housing), and that a city benefits in thousands of different ways from enlightened housing policies. We get back more than we give.

The next article in this series will be about Singapore, another city with an enlightened housing policy — but a VERY different story.

The post 100 Years of Urban Housing Success appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The Fixer: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Buy ‘Em

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/12/2019 - 12:23pm in

Welcome back to The Fixer, our weekly briefing of solutions reported elsewhere. This week: a San Francisco program buys up real estate to keep people in their homes. Plus, open data helps reduce opioid deaths in Pennsylvania, and a sandy support for a Dutch dyke shows promise.

Time to buy

San Francisco has a displacement problem, and it’s only getting worse. Soaring housing prices have landlords selling their buildings, leaving tenants at the mercy of the next owner. Attempts to slow the surge have been mostly futile, so one program is working within the system to buy buildings at market rates and allow the tenants to stay put.

The city-run program, called Small Sites, funnels public money to housing non-profits. The non-profits then purchase buildings on behalf of the city and, as the new owners, keep the rents reasonable. Much of the money comes from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, which has used Small Sites to buy 35 buildings, keeping more than 500 residents in place.

A Chinatown property in San Francisco acquired through the Small Sites program. Credit: Pedro Cambra/Flickr

Launched five years ago, Small Sites started out with just $3 million, which doesn’t buy much in the sizzling-hot Bay Area real estate market. Now, however, a bond measure is set to put $30 million into the program. To make sure it can be spent right, in June the city enacted the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives the non-profits five days to purchase any available property before other investors swoop in. “We essentially pay what you pay on the private market for it,” said the director of one non-profit. “We’re not paying any less than another buyer would be paying.”

Read more at KPIX 

Release the data!

Pennsylvania’s opioid epidemic has been, by many measures, worse than the U.S. national average, with an overdose death rate of 18.5 per 100,000, compared to 13.3 nationwide. But the situation is improving, thanks in part to a digital dashboard that gathers data from across state agencies and makes it easier to read.

The opioid data dashboard is a legible, comprehensive snapshot of the state’s opioid struggles at any given moment, and anyone is welcome to use it. Data include everything from birth complications caused by opioid use, to ER visits caused by opioids, to the number of naloxone treatments administered by paramedics. The dashboard also calculates and creates visualizations of the impacts of opioids on the state’s economy, hospital network, justice system and other vital functions. “Having the command center and the governor’s focus on opioids is a real reason why we’re able to de-silo all of this data and bring things together,” an advisor to the state Secretary of Health told GovTech.

Along with better access to naloxone and closer monitoring of prescription drugs, the dashboard is being credited with Pennsylvania’s 18 percent reduction in opioid-related deaths. The success echoes other states’ efforts, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, both of which have also seen a decline in overdose deaths since allowing agencies to more easily share information.

Read more at GovTech

Nature’s breakwater

The Netherlands was an early adopter of flood mitigation. After a storm surge in 1953 killed 1,800 people, the country built a series of dykes to prevent a catastrophic repeat. One of them, built in the 1960s and ‘70s, is beginning to deteriorate. Normally, such a structure would be reinforced with boulders, something the low-lying country doesn’t have too many of. So instead, the Dutch pioneered a new construction method using a decidedly less stable material: sand.

In 2017, the Netherlands began pumping sand from beneath the Markermeer, the country’s large sea-fed lake, and using it to reinforce the dyke. It’s the first time sand has been used to support such a structure, and so far the nearly 10 million cubic meters of the stuff seems to be holding as intended. The water’s currents and waves are beginning to disperse the sand along the dyke, creating something akin to a natural barrier that might have been created by sea itself. 

Now that it’s showing success, the process is expected to be adopted by other countries. “We’ve learnt some generic rules in this project about how to work in a lake system building with nature,” a spokesman for the project told Agence-France Presse, adding that the newly reinforced levee is built to withstand a 10,000-year storm. In addition to flood protection, all the new mud will create a flat surface upon which a nature preserve will be built.

Read more at AFP 

The post The Fixer: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Buy ‘Em appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Finger on the pulse: New headline housing indicators for City of Knox using

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 28/11/2019 - 6:00am in

With our new online housing product almost 1 year old, we’ve had the chance to work with a number of councils to improve the tool to help them achieve their goals.

One of those is City of Knox, who are heavily invested in a monitoring approach to their community planning. As monitoring is one of the main benefits we designed for, we thought Knox would be a natural fit for a case study about how the tool is being applied in the real world.

To learn more about the work that the housing team do with councils, visit the housing team page.


The City of Knox, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs was looking for a set of housing indicators for their State of Knox report, a visual, data-driven summary to inform decision makers and community consultation leading into the creation of the city’s community plan.

Every 5 years, the City Research and Mapping team creates the State of Knox report by drawing together and analysing a set of headline indicators across the facets covering Social, Economic, Environmental and Cultural characteristics of the city.

Approaching the next report in 2020, the team realised they had a gap in their housing indicators, and were on the hunt for datasets which they could confidently use and rely on through future 5-year cycles of monitoring the city.

A gap in housing indicators

The big gaps for the team were:

  • Measuring housing affordability. Tracking private rentals and sales and what’s affordable by households on lower incomes.
  • Data about households in income bands prescribed in the Victorian Government’s Planning Scheme (very low, low and moderate households)


The solution for Knox was, .id’s new online housing monitor. Delivered as a website alongside the City of Knox’s other .id tools, it could provide an easy-to-use, visual set of housing indicators that quickly bring people up to speed on the housing story of the area.

Through 34 indicators over 4 easy to use ‘lenses’, the housing monitor has delivered the City of Knox the indicators they need to inform their State of Knox report now and into the future.

Browse the City of Knox housing monitor.

Private rental affordability
The housing monitor delivers more precise measures of affordability, calculated using up-to-date housing market prices against what is affordable by households on different income bands. Delivered as LGA and small area figures enables deeper, local level analysis of affordability.

Affordability of rental housing vs. what households can afford (left) and the number of rental listings in a 12-month period that were affordable by households in income bands (right)

Affordability of rental housing vs. what households can afford without going into rental stress

Housing stress by the income bands prescribed in the Victorian Government’s Planning Scheme (very low, low and moderate households), presented as LGA and small areas.

The spatial picture of rental stress in City of Knox, able to be filtered by income bands

Meeting Knox’s requirements

The housing monitor meets the City’s principles for their indicators:

  • Reliable source in another 5 years
  • See change over time
  • Benchmarked to the region
  • Small area data
  • Visual – easy for people to see the story quickly
  • Trustworthy – transparent and from trusted sources
  • Reduce the burden of data collection


New housing indicators for the City

The City Research and Mapping team are now using the housing monitor to create their new set of indicators, and will be going out to the community with the State of Knox report in 2020.

Using, Darlene Swan, Acting Coordinator of City Research and Mapping, says that provides ‘very strong’ datasets for their new sets of indicators, and for ongoing work monitoring their housing story.

Reduced burden of data collection

Having a subscription to enables the City Research and Mapping team to confidently update their set of headline indicators without the added burdens of data collection. “We’re collecting data right across everything, it’s very useful to have a source that’s already done” says Swan.

“And the fact that it’s on a public website too is fantastic. The data is there for everyone to see and use. Our partners, our community.” The result, says Swan, is that the team can spend less time finding data and fulfilling small requests, and spend more time looking at the trends and identifying the issues that might need addressing in City of Knox.

Informing the city’s housing work has been a strategic investment for the City of Knox, as a part of a strong emphasis on housing – especially housing affordability – driven by the community. The housing monitor is already being used in other projects, including the city’s social and affordable housing strategy.

For Swan, investing in the tool has been crucial to having access to the right information that her team, the city and it’s partners need to make informed decisions about housing “I would recommend if you’re wanting to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening locally with housing.”

We look forward to following more of the innovative work happening over at City of Knox.

If you’re interested in hearing how our housing team could assist your council, book a web meeting to chat with us.

Is your local housing market supplying for vulnerable households?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 18/11/2019 - 9:16am in

 "What happened to the narrative?" "The statistics kicked in!"

We’ve written a lot about housing stress recently, and understanding the numbers of households spending too much on their mortgage and rental payments. There are a number of drivers of housing stress, one of which is the price points of sales and rental listings being supplied by your local housing market. Understanding the pricing points in the private market is vital for understanding why housing affordability may be an issue in your area. In today’s blog, Georgia shares how you can quantify the affordable supply in your local area.

Interested in hearing how our housing team could assist your Council? Book a time to meet with our team here.

How do you know if your local housing market is providing affordable housing options for households on the lowest incomes? We’ve heard that this is a pain point for many Councils across Australia. Many want to have access to this sort of information to assist in their advocacy activities, and for negotiating with developers – showing that affordable supply is limited and asking for a contribution of affordable dwellings is a valid request.

Median house and unit prices, and median rents are potentially an answer to this question, but they don’t give you an idea of the number of listings at a given price point, and often the median housing costs are not affordable for lower-income households.

So what are the other options?

It’s not all bad news though – there is data available that you can add to your evidence base around the supply in the private housing market. We’ve recently been working with Hometrack (part of the REA Group) to develop a way to measure the quantity of affordable supply in a given area.

It starts with a few simple calculations. How much can the income group you’re interested in afford to spend on a house purchase? You can either do this yourself, or there are plenty of online mortgage calculators that can help. For example, if you look at Low-income households in Greater Sydney, as defined by Family and Community Services, they can comfortably afford a property purchase of $429,000. But how many sales were under this amount in the past year? Through partnering with Hometrack, .id are able to access the list of sales that occurred in your local area over the past 12 months, and quantify the number of sales under $429,000 for example.

So how did affordable sales supply look like in Greater Sydney in 2018? Not great is the simple answer. Fewer than one in five sales would have been affordable for a household with a moderate income.

Income bracket
Affordable purchase price
Affordable sales
% of total sales

Very low



Of course, there are local nuances in the supply of affordable sales, with some areas providing a higher supply than others. Areas in Greater Sydney with higher levels of affordable supply are generally the outer growth areas, such as Camden, Campbelltown and Penrith – however affordable supply for moderate-income households only raises to one in three sales.

What about renters?

I’m glad you asked! Renters are the most vulnerable group in the private housing market, especially those on lower incomes. Again, we’ve heard from numerous Councils that accessing data around rental supply is really difficult.

The good news is that the same analysis outlined above for sales is available for rental listings. Again it starts with calculating how much the income group you’re interested in can spend on rent per week. Looking at Greater Melbourne this time, and the income brackets outlined in the Planning and Environment Act, a low-income household could afford to spend $396 per week on rent. Again, through our partnership with Hometrack, we are able to access the rental listings that occurred in your local area over the past 12 months and quantify the number of rental listings that were under $396 per week.

Looking at affordable rental supply in Greater Melbourne in 2018, we can see that there are very few listings available for very low-income households. This puts significant financial pressure on these households, and also the social housing system.

Income bracket
Affordable weekly rent
Affordable rentals
% of total rental listings

Very low



Again there are local nuances in the supply of affordable rentals. The outer suburban areas again feature in the more affordable areas, however, areas such as Maribyrnong and Dandenong also feature, especially for supply affordable for very low-income households.

If you’d like to see how this data looks for a Local Government area, jump onto one of our sites, or if you’d like to get access to this data for your Council, book a time to chat with us here.