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Austria: Is Vienna really a ‘renter’s paradise’? 

Vienna's commitment to social housing has given it the 'renter's paradise' nickname. But is this nickname deserved?

Hundertwasser Haus

Vienna has the highest salaries in Austria, but not the highest rents.

One of the major reasons for this is the city’s social housing stock. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

Vienna’s commitment to social housing

One reason for Vienna’s relatively low rents is the large amount of social housing – ranging from the famous Hundertwasser House to the Art Nouveau “red housing” buildings such as Karl-Marx-Hof in the 19th District. 

Close to sixty percent of Vienna’s inhabitants live in municipal housing estates or in dwellings subsidised by the City of Vienna, according to the Stadt Wien website. 

Since Vienna’s first municipal housing complex, the Metzleinstaler Hof, was built in 1920, the City of Vienna has built 220,000 municipal dwellings (Gemeinde Wohnung) for half a million tenants and contributed to the building of a further 200,000 subsidised apartments.

One in four Viennese people lives in a Gemeinde Wohnung, or a council flat owned by the city of Vienna, and rented out cheaply with open-ended tenancy agreements, according to Wohnberatung Wien

More recently similar subsidised apartments have also become available for people on low incomes, as part of the SMART homes project. 

SMART flats are cheap, but smaller than traditional Gemeinde Wohnung.

READ MORE: Which of Austrian state has the cheapest rents based on your salary 

What is a Gemeinde Wohnung (subsidised apartment)?

Vienna’s investment in subsidised apartments started after the First World War. Between 1923 and 1934 alone, apartments for more than 200,000 people were built.

It was around this time that the idea of Vienna being a ‘renter’s paradise’ became widely shared, particularly in German-speaking countries

Currently, the largest ‘property manager’ in all of Europe is Wiener Wohnen – an organisation 100 percent owned by the city which operates 220,000 apartments in the city. 

Vienna’s rental system attracts international attention as the social housing has far more facilities than other typical social housing in different countries and cities. 

Many of these community buildings have green inner courtyards, sometimes there are playgrounds, kindergartens and various community facilities such as hobby rooms and laundry rooms.

Some even feature a sauna or swimming pool.

So how easy it is actually to get your hands on a Gemeinde Wohnung (GW), or Viennese council house? 

In theory, all you need to do is get a Wiener Wohn-Ticket from Wohnberatung Wien, and fulfil the basic requirements which are: 

  • Being over 17 years old
  • Having a two-year permanent main residence at a current Viennese address,
  • Austrian or EU citizenship 
  • Falling below the existing income limit of €47.740 (net). 

In addition, there should be additional justifications such as overcrowding, starting a household or age-related or illness-related reasons. 

Social housing in Vienna (Photo by ALEXANDER KLEIN / AFP)

In practice, many people living in Vienna say it is not easy to secure a GW, describing the process as “tiresome” and “complicated”. 

Similar requirements apply if you want to get an apartment with the SMART homes initiative, which are also distributed through Wohnberatung Wien.

According to Germany’s Stern magazine, who discussed a study on Vienna’s social housing scheme in 2020, the reputation of Vienna as a “renter’s paradise is unfortunately a myth”. 

As private rents have become more expensive in Vienna, you can expect to languish longer on the waiting list.

In addition, people who already have a GW can pass it on to family members under certain circumstances, reducing the number of apartments available for newcomers to Vienna.

It also takes longer if you want to live in a fancy district or hold out for apartment features such as a balcony.

REVEALED: The best districts to live in Vienna

If you are lucky enough to get a GW, there are other aspects which can drive up the costs – and which are less frequently talked about. 

For instance, operating, repair and maintenance costs are much more frequently passed on to tenants than in private rentals – with these costs rarely appearing as part of the ‘rent’. 

I don’t meet the criteria for a Gemeinde Wohnung, what other options do I have?

Genossenschaft Wohnungen (co-operative housing built by a non-profit organisation)  could be an option for people who earn too much to qualify for a Gemeinde Wohnung in Vienna.

Getting a Genossenschaft Wohnung means that you pay a large deposit on an apartment (typically several thousand euros towards construction) and then can live there with a significantly reduced rent.

However, some Genossenschaft Wohnungen schemes do have income restrictions.

The other disadvantage is many are located far outside the city. 

Private renting 

According to the Mietmonitor planning unit of TUI University in Vienna’s website, people in Vienna today have to pay far more for rent than they did a decade ago.

Rents have increased faster than the rest of the housing market, outstripping general inflation and income growth. 

From 2008 to 2016 rents in Vienna increased by 53 percent, while disposable income only increased by 22 percent. 

However, although both buying and renting in Vienna are expensive, it is far more affordable to live in Austria’s capital city than Paris, London and Munich, according to the Deloittes 2019 property index.

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ANALYSIS: Is Vienna in good hands with ‘crisis manager’ mayor Ludwig?

No Austrian politician has become more disputed and exposed to the public than Michael Ludwig, the mayor of Vienna. But as his political opponents grow could the city's so-called "crisis manager" yet come out on top?

ANALYSIS: Is Vienna in good hands with 'crisis manager' mayor Ludwig?

‘Pandemic not over’

“Once again I’d like to stress that the pandemic isn’t over,” Michael Ludwig tweeted in September 2021. “The pandemic is not over yet. We are staying on the safe side,” he posted end of May 2022. Like a mantra the city governor would also repeat this statement at the SPÖ Vienna State Party Conference on 28 May 2022, where Ludwig was confirmed as the capital’s federal leader with 94.4% of all delegates.

His most fervent supporters – close party members and Austria’s SPÖ chief Pamela Rendi-Wagner, a trained epidemiologist – keep applauding what Ludwig in his own words calls “the Viennese way”: a path that is supposed to be totally different from the national approach in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. And a path that has involved much stricter measures than in the rest of Austria and Europe: mandatory PCR tests at public outdoor pools for six-year-olds, for instance, or guest registration and “2G” restrictions (only admission to vaccinated persons and those who have recovered from a COVID infection) in Viennese hotels and restaurants.

READ ALSO: ‘The pandemic is not over’: Vienna keeps mask rule in public transport

All these measures were strongly criticised by some economic representatives and ÖVP politicians in particular. They have now been lifted, although FFP2 face masks still need to be used on all public transport in Vienna. Such measures still outrage an increasing number of social media users who blame Ludwig for keeping the health crisis alive to consolidate his power.

In an interview, former Minister of Tourism Elisabeth Köstinger accused the Viennese government of harming Austria’s hospitality and tourism sectors in the long run with its strict Corona policy. Indeed, the capital was hit much more badly than the other eight provinces, with almost 57% fewer hotel bookings than in 2019. Köstinger also questioned the efficiency of Vienna’s testing strategy in relation to high infection numbers.

But what do the Austrians think of Michael Ludwig, who ranges among the ÖVP-Green government’s toughest opponents? According to a survey by the Linz Market Institute, Vienna’s mayor would have been re-elected by more than 50%. This survey, however, was carried out beginning of 2022, before a series of scandals and crises started to tarnish Ludwig’s reputation as a trustworthy “crisis manager”.

An image made of concrete

Just a few days after the poll was published, activists revealed a monument in front of Vienna’s city hall: a concrete image of Michael Ludwig as a clear sign of protest against his climate and environmental policy. Protesters (many of them from the “Fridays for Future” movement and Greenpeace) turned out in force as the mayor insisted on building a highway and a tunnel that was supposed to cross the Lobau, a nature reserve at the Danube. Ludwig remained unimpressed. Like in the Corona crisis, the governor wants to rely on his own team of experts, emphasising that there are no feasible alternatives. Meanwhile, parts of the SPÖ’s base are openly opposing the governor’s hardline policy.

In social media, the number of Ludwig’s critics currently far exceeds his supporters and those in favour of his cautious and considerate “Viennese way”. With the ongoing war in Ukraine and an alarming inflation in Austria, this trend doesn’t seem to be reversed.

Many Austrians have started to wonder why the SPÖ was calling for national incentives to reduce rising costs of living while Vienna’s governor hadn’t offered solutions to bring down rising electricity, heating and housing expenses. One poster in the “Standard” forum also asks why the mayor, who “couldn’t be fast enough to give a press conference right after the federal government had finished their consultations,” was then making himself scarce. Only this week did Ludwig announce any measures to counter rising energy costs.

Is Ludwig able to manage future crises?

In the Austrian capital, the Social Democrats are still perceived as an open-minded and social party standing up for equal rights and opportunities. Members of ethnic minorities and the LGTBQ community feel safe with the SPÖ-run city government. This perception hasn’t changed since Michael Ludwig came into office in May 2018. However, some may now disagree after the governor’s friendly meeting with Turkey’s disputed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul this month.

The Austrian daily “Der Standard” called the consultation a “diplomatic dilemma”, while the reactions of the Kurdish minority and online posters were far less diplomatic. “Is he just overestimating himself by giving cynical, somewhat provincial signals to potential AKP (Erdogan) voters in Vienna, or is it something else?” sociologist Kenan Güngör wonders. One poster suspects that Ludwig’s main motivations for this trip were to gain Austro-Turkish voters, outperform Chancellor Karl Nehammer (who visited Russian President Putin) and prepare himself for leading the federal SPÖ one day.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Austria’s new finance measures could benefit you

With the rising inflation, many Austrians have lost faith in politicians who keep struggling to find efficient solutions against increasing prices and living expenses.

Soon after the federal government announced “climate bonus” payouts of up to 500 Euros per household this year, Michael Ludwig finally also promised an “energy bonus” of 200 Euros for more than 650,000 Viennese households. Will this suffice to calm an array of opponents and voters who have already turned their backs on the SPÖ?

It may, in the end, depend on the solutions Ludwig and his party are going to offer and communicate to the public. One thing is for sure though: The rhetoric of a permanent state of crisis alone isn’t going to be enough anymore.