Seattle architect Mike Eliason describes what he learned about their housing policies.
After a trip to Vienna for a Passivhaus conference I wrote about the remarkable housing there, and how much of it is actually social housing owned by the city. Seattle architect Mike Eliason was at the same conference. He puts what he learned about Vienna and Austrian housing policies together in two articles in City Observatory and what he thinks it can teach us in North America.
It all starts off with national policy. "Vienna’s affordable housing is largely funded by federal taxes. Vienna uses these taxes to subsidize affordable housing construction, rehabilitations, and preservation.” But unlike much of North America, it mixes market housing with subsidized housing in the same building. It has also been doing this for decades, so everyone is pretty much used to it.
When a site comes up for a new project, they have competitions among groups to pick the best project.
Teams compete to develop and receive subsidies for individual projects, and are judged by a diverse panel on the economics of the project, the architecture, ecology of the building, and the social mix. The city has effectively leveraged its purse to push the price of construction down, making developers compete on the merits and economics.
But the key difference is zoning. Where I live in Toronto, there are hundreds of tall residential towers packed together on what was formerly industrial land, far away from the single family residential areas where the NIMBYs live. (Read about density creep!) Mike describes a similar situation in Seattle. Not in Vienna:
The amount of land zoned exclusively for single family houses in Vienna is zero. Just 9% of the dwelling units in Vienna are single family homes. In Seattle, 44% of dwelling units are single family homes and almost 75% of non-industrial parcels are reserved for this least dense, least sustainable form of housing. We’re constantly digging out of a hole, and until we start thinking more holistically and at a drastically larger scale, we’ll never get out.
Vienna seems to build consistently mid-rise, about 8 storeys, which I have noted is a function of their building codes; that’s how high a fire truck’s ladder can reach and pick people off balconies. The buildings are full of courtyards with gardens and play areas, but achieves pretty high densities. Mike notes that “though they are dense, they provide amenities unheard of in Seattle – especially for non-luxury housing.” The form of tenure is different, which gives some security to occupants:
For one, housing contracts in Austria are primarily indefinite, versus one-year contracts. This reduces the stress of constantly having to find new housing or accept rent increases. As an added security, because Vienna’s social housing is intended to result in economically diverse communities, there is only a limit upon starting tenancy, and increased wages do not result in households being pushed into market rate rentals. Additionally, depending on the type of unit, some can be passed on to family members. This ensures that there are no neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly wealthy or poor, but rather a diverse mix.
Mike thinks that Vienna is an ideal model for Seattle; it really is for just about any successful city in North America.
But our zoning, our lack of vision and leadership, our lack of comprehensive planning, our lack of innovation, and most importantly, our lack of funding make such a model difficult to obtain. Vienna is doing almost everything right. Perhaps it is time for Seattle to, as well.