Vienna, home to almost two million people, is depicted as a Shangri La by international media, and its brand is about more than coffee shops and its famous opera house. The Austrian capital, the world’s most livable city according to The Economist, is also a place in which ordinary people can find an affordable place to live. (Why? For starters, a majority of the population live in subsidized housing.)
The Viennese model of public housing features courtyards, outdoor spaces, and apartments which let in the light – in short, homes attractive to a wide range of people across the economic, social and demographic spectrums. Here’s another thing the Viennese understand about public housing– you have to keep building new projects. Governments in Atlantic Canada have lost track of this notion. Since building a spate of new public housing projects in the 1970s and ‘80s, they’ve been kicking the ball down the road.
A cautionary note here: Vienna’s special place in global rankings for livability, safety and ‘peace’ is rooted in history, and our CrowsNest watch crew is not about to make the mistake of so many armchair critics who suggest we can transfer European values and norms to North America hollos-bolus. Austrian-style “municipal socialism” – financed by higher taxation for social housing (and public transit) – would not be a voter-getter on the doorsteps of St. John’s or Halifax. (Talk about consensus? A single party, the Social Democrats, has governed Vienna since 1919, aside from a period between 1934 and 1945 when it was banned.)
That said, it’s time for cities in Canada to test-drive some big, bold affordable housing policies. Montreal has budgeted $600 million to buy land and buildings over the next ten years and plans to turn new projects over to not-for-profits with a mandate to provide affordable housing. A practical, made-in-Atlantic-Canada approach to affordable housing might start with a conversation between the critics who know how to lambast developers, and the developers who actually know how to build things. We might even have to abide some public investment (modest, by Euro-standards) in housing. Vienna, a great city in which people can afford a decent place to live, spends some $700 million annually on social housing.