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On housing, it’s time we took a leaf out of Vienna’s book

Sep 30, 2020

I read with interest Hannah Schuster and Gabe Bullard’s piece in the DCist about housing in the District. Titled “Tenant Activism In D.C. Has Surged During The Pandemic,” the article shines light on some troubling truths about the housing situation faced by DC residents.

It points out, for instance:

Nearly half of renters are considered cost burdened — meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Roughly a quarter of District residents are “severely” cost burdened, devoting more than half their income to rent.

It adds that, as is so often the case in DC, there is a racial dimension to the problem:

In D.C., about half of Black and Latino renters were cost-burdened in 2018, compared to a third of white renters, according to an analysis from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Median rent in the area grew 16% from 2008 to 2018, while renter income grew only 9%.

The article also points to the effect of gentrification and the paucity of affordable housing. The question then remain: What can elected representatives do about the situation?

My fellow candidate Will Merrifield, who mercifully I am not directly competing with (he'd be a hard candidate to beat!), has based his housing proposals on the fascinating experience of Vienna, the capital city of the central European nation of Austria. Will points out that this model has provided a sustainable and cost-effective model, especially for people on lower and medium incomes.

As an article in Edge magazine explains:

Private developers who collaborate with the city government to build affordable housing must allow the city to rent half of the new apartments to lower-income residents; the developer generally leases the remaining units to moderate-income residents. In some projects, future tenants participate in the planning, design, and construction process and give input on what kind of facilities they would like to have in the building.

Rents are regulated by the city government so that none of the residents pay any more than 20 to 25 percent of their household income for housing, compared to the corresponding 30 percent benchmark in the U.S.

Surely, my political opponents on the right will use the standard “America is number one!” and “we don’t want no socialism here” mantras that have long been used to counter such a proposal. But as someone whose name I can’t remember once said, “America is number one in many ways, but not in all ways.” And when it comes to the housing models provided by European social democracies like Austria, the US lags way, way behind.