Vienna Model experts join Vancouverites in roundtable to discuss practical policy-making for social housing

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      Imagine living in a price-controlled unit on a life-long lease, where monthly rent caps at 30 percent of your income.

      For the population of Vienna, where 60 percent of people live in subsidized housing, this is a reality. The people behind The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st-Century City, an exhibit running at the Museum of Vancouver until July 16, think it’s not that far-fetched for Vancouver, either.

      That’s why on Wednesday night (June 28) the museum is hosting a roundtable discussion with delegates from Vienna’s housing initiatives. Hedwig Bauer, Abigail Bond, Wolfgang Förster, Luke Harrison, Andrea Reven-Holzmann, Peter Neundlinger, and Werner Taibon will be speaking at the Museum of Vancouver at 8 p.m. and inviting the public to join the conversation about how to ground social housing in real policy and to navigate Vancouver’s increasingly unforgiving housing market.

      Jeff Derksen, an SFU professor who organized exhibit and event along with colleague Sabine Bitter, told the Straight that years of housing activism and recent attention to the out-of-control market make this a good window for Vancouverites to look to other successful models that prioritize humane living conditions over market demands.

      “Certainly, to approach housing as a right and as a cultural and social good for everybody has, I think, kind of reached a boiling point in Vancouver,” said Derksen.

      Derksen said Wednesday’s discussion will address topics like practical financing, policy, and the culture of housing as it plays out in our lives.

      “The history of housing in Vienna is one that doesn’t approach it as a kind of market imperative or driven by the market, but which approaches housing as a right, and housing as something that makes better quality of living in the city,” said Derksen. “So what can Vancouver learn culturally from Vienna in that sense?”

      Some of Vienna's social housing units combine livable density and innovative urban wood construction
      Stephanie Stern

      Bitter, also a professor at SFU and co-founder of research collective Urban Subjects, wanted to bring the Vienna Model to Vancouver ever since she was involved in curating the art portion of the show in New York City in 2013. She was particularly inspired after seeing a roundtable discussion that took place between representatives of the city’s housing department, the curator of the MOMA, and regular citizens.

      “The discussion was really productive in terms of how is it actually done. ‘Who owns the land, who finances the building, is it a rental, what kind of ownership, what is the public’s role?’ What are the different partnerships in this very complex system of building development and city planning,” Bitter told the Straight.

      Bitter was impressed by the pragmatism and productivity of the conversation, and hopes to emulate a dialogue with similar rigor on Wednesday. On Thursday (June 29), there will also be a workshop for City of Vancouver representatives to meet with the Vienna delegates and discuss how to take further steps towards emulating some of Vienna’s housing policies and practices.

      Derksen readily admits that there are some fundamental differences between the two cities. Vienna’s housing initiatives are supported federally and municipally, for example, a system that Vancouver doesn’t have in place.

      But he says that over the course of the Vienna Model’s exhibit, city officials have been more than willing to meet with the Vienna delegates and discuss how to bring social-housing policy to life in Vancouver.

      A communal rooftop garden in one of Vienna's housing units
      Miriam Kittel

      The public, too, has so far been engaged in the discussions that have come out of the Vienna Model. Bitter points out that this stems from a long history of independent social housing initiatives, like co-operative housing that existed in Vancouver earlier than they did in Vienna. Looking around at recent initiatives in the city, like the re-activation project around Hogan’s Alley, Bitter said she detects a strong, resourceful public will in Vancouver to make social housing a reality.

      If anything, after years of activist work, demands for better city support, and increasingly powerful indigenous voices addressing the question of how we use the province’s land, Derksen called the current moment a turning point in Vancouver’s identification that needs to be faced head on.

      “It seems that now Vancouver is being defined by its relationship to housing and access to housing more than it is being defined by its relationship to nature as it always was,” said Derksen. “I think it’s kind of a tipping point in that way, so if we add in the discussion around indigenous land claims, the whole idea of housing and use of land is something that’s really open and necessary at the moment.”