Progressives often argue that American cities should imitate Vienna’s 1920s strategy of building enormous amounts of public housing while controlling rents paid to private landlords. But a look at the birth of Vienna’s public housing system shows why that system is not easily replicated.
A book supported by the city government points out that the city had an enormous housing shortage after World War I, and that the working classes “began reclaiming the land surrounding the cities” (p. 13). The city then “offered its support in the form of the redesignation and purchase of sites”. Settlers received housing in return for committing to work on the building site (id.) Obviously, this strategy cannot be replicated today; there is not a huge amount of unowned or extremely cheap land that people can just commandeer and build on, and I am not sure many people can easily become construction workers in exchange for housing.
In addition, the city financed housing in ways that are not easily replicated today. The book notes that tax revenue for housing came from a 1923 “tax on housing development .. a simple working-class apartment was taxed at an average annual rate of 2.083% of its pre-war rentable value, this went up to 36.4 for luxury homes.” This might have worked in 1923 because city residents had no suburbs to flee to; however, today, city residents can easily respond to large tax increases by moving.
Moreover, in 1923 there was no zoning or environmental review or “community engagement” to give Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) activists a chance to delay or prevent housing construction. Today, even if government can afford to build new housing somewhere, the bureaucratic obstacles to such housing might made it politically impossible to build in some places, or expensive and time-consuming to build in others.
This is not to say that it is impossible to build large amounts of public housing- but it does mean that if American cities want to build as much housing as Vienna, they need to change a lot of rules as well as raising a lot of money.