Housing, climate, empathy and respect

Imagine you have a nice and quiet life as a tenant for 35 years in the same rented flat. It is really affordable and allows you to have a high quality of life – and all of a sudden, you are told that your building will undergo a general renovation which will take at least a year or two, be noisy and dusty. In addition, you are told that you are supposed to participate in the costs, at least for a certain period of time.

“We had that case in one of our projects and some people – the loudest, not all – were really not happy. Some tenants questioned the necessity of every single technical measure and fought against them before the Arbitration Board. As a result, the project almost came to an end before it really started.” Stephan Hartmann, Project Manager of Smarter Together at the City of Vienna, recalls of a recent refurbishment project for Vienna’s social housing.

“The baseline is, people are scared of any change,” Hartmann says, “This is true for all of us and certainly true for tenants in social housing living their modest lives. Therefore any feedback is valuable and has to be respected.”

People are scared of any change
— Stephan Hartmann

Big reductions

Barrier-free installations for a better accessibility of the flats for elderly or handicapped people, indoor social spaces for common use, gardens, playgrounds and trees are some of the things that Vienna puts in to sweeten the deal when the city approaches the residents of its vast social housing scheme about renovating their homes to become more eco-friendly.

Housing with scaffolding up around it
Renovation in Vienna © Bojan Schnabl

A signatory of the Covenant of Mayors, the city is looking to reduce its carbon output by 55% by 2030, and it can’t do that unless it makes sure that its buildings, public and private, have modern insulation, solar panels, and ditch their dependence on gas and other fossil fuels for electricity, heating and cooking.

“The approach in Vienna is really inspiring,” says Meline Gonzalez Piloyan, Covenant of Mayors Project Coordinator at Eurocities. “That’s why we published a case study on it this year, to give people insight into how much they’ve achieved and how.”

The approach in Vienna is really inspiring
— Meline Gonzalez Piloyan

As almost half of the housing in Vienna, 45%, is social housing, with 220,000 flats provided by the city itself, and the rest provided by city-subsidised cooperative housing, this goal is not unfeasible. It is a common understanding in Vienna, according to Hartmann, that there is a need to act fast to combat climate change, but the renovations do come at a cost.

Navigating issues

One part of the refurbishment costs is financial. This is funded through the tenants’ monthly allocated reserves for future maintenance or refurbishment works, a substantial share of roughly a third of the costs is subsidised by the city, and the remaining part is initially covered by a bank loan that is added on to the rent during the repayment period of fifteen to twenty years.

Then there’s the potential inconvenience of having builders banging away at your home, sometimes for as long as a year. This may mean unwanted noise or dust, or areas like balconies being out-of-bounds for a while. Elevator services can also be interrupted – tough if you happen to be a pensioner living on the 12th floor.

“Besides the improvements of the common spaces and accessibility, our social housing provider BWSG tried to counter any inconveniences in creative ways.” Hartmann explains. For the tenants living in high-rise buildings under renovation, there was a service provided where people did the shopping and carried it up to the flat during the period the elevator wasn’t operating.

For those who would usually be at home during the most intensive and loudest working period, they would get an alternate space to use while the builders are banging away. “This just confirmed the high ethical standards and social responsibility of our social housing providers,” Hartmann adds.

“We also developed a participatory e-car-sharing scheme as an add-on to the energy related innovations we supported,” says Hartmann. “And in the municipal housing estate in Lorystraße, the tenants voted for the final colour scheme of the façade, as well as getting shopping trolleys in order to shop locally and support local economy.” These were approaches the city tried out in the EU-funded ‘Smarter Together’ project.

We have what we call a ‘wohnpartner,’ a body which fosters social interaction year-round
— Stephan Hartmann
People at a mobile information point in Vienna
A mobile information point in Vienna

A key to the success of such programmes is not just providing things for tenants, but also listening carefully to their needs. “The city committed to dialogue with tenants,” Hartmann insists, “In municipal housing, we have what we call a ‘wohnpartner,’ a body which fosters social interaction year-round.” Vienna also funds ‘Urban Renewal Offices’ all-over the city, which focus on establishing social dialogue about urban development from a very early phase.


Beyond the day-to-day inconvenience of renovations, the city is also concerned with ensuring that climate goals and broader social goals are complimentary. When a house has been renovated for energy efficiency, its value goes up, which can lead to a scourge that is ravaging many European cities: gentrification.

“When the City of Vienna started the renovation policies in the early 1970s, not all cities were worried about gentrification,” says Hartmann, “but it was a serious concern for us: we wanted to ensure that, even in poorer areas, renovation would not mean people not being able to afford their rent. We wanted to ensure that all those that live there would be able to stay there in the future.” The city, therefore, has a high level of legal tenant protection and developed models for financing affordable housing that would reduce the economic precarity of local people.

Not all cities were worried about gentrification, but it was a serious concern for us
— Stephan Hartmann

Vienna differs from most cities in that social housing is a norm for almost half the population, and is set up to be available for up three out of four residents, should they wish to avail themselves of it. As such, it houses middle-class people and families, as well as people who are more economically vulnerable.

“Our mantra was that this should be for everyone. We didn’t want to build ghettos outside the city like you see in some places.” Instead, Vienna built housing where well-off and poorer people would live side-by-side.

“We even have social housing right next to Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, right in the centre of Vienna. There is a saying that you would actually have to be buried in the cathedral to get any closer to the centre than our social housing. The rental contracts in municipal flats are always without limitation in time,” Hartmann says.

Climate and social

“Vienna’s social housing is not housing for the poor, it is housing for the future,” he declares, stressing that the city does not just want socio-economically mixed neighbourhoods, and not even only mixed buildings, but even mixed floors. “We want people with more and less money sharing the staircase, the garden – everything, even if one has a slightly smaller flat than the other. And it works.”

Vienna’s social housing is not housing for the poor, it is housing for the future
— Stephan Hartmann

The social cohesion that results from this approach is one of the major assets for quality of life and economic potential of Vienna. It also means that otherwise distant climate goals are easier to reach.

“That’s where a common societal vision comes into play, where resilience comes into play,” Hartmann explains, “The climate crisis would be overwhelming without this approach, because we need common goals and a common understanding, even across different political parties and other actors, so we can merge our energies to reach the same goal.”

One way that everyone manages to surf the same wavelength is having a smart city strategy that guides the tides of the city’s activity. Even though housing and climate are separate departments within the city, the strategy gives them a shared set of goals that makes working together easy.

For Vienna, the term ‘smart city’ isn’t just about technology – far from it – it’s about innovation and integration, treating social and climate goals as two posts of the same ladder, intended to protect and improve local people’s quality of life.

“Now the European Green Deal has confirmed our approach,” Hartmann says, “We’re really happy about that because it gives our policymaking addition legal and political weight.”

Private property

When working on its European Smarter Together project, Vienna focused on social housing, while Munich and Lyon also tackled private housing. “It was inspiring to see what was done in Munich and Lyon to encourage owners of private housing to become more climate conscious,” Hartmann recalls. The City of Vienna was aware that even with its vast social housing stock, it was going to have to bring private owners along too to achieve its goals.

We’ve just had to open new and bigger facilities
— Stephan Hartmann

One response to this need was another EU funded project, RenoBooster, that city devised to boost the renovation of private housing by empowering people and making knowledge easily accessible. The city created a ‘one stop shop,’ a single place in which all the information, assistance and paperwork are available for learning about renovation, technical options, suppliers and grants.

“This ‘Hauskunft’, as we call it, has been so popular that we’ve just had to open new and bigger facilities,” Hartmann boasts. A ‘Quality Platform’ also supports owners by recommending providers of refurbishment services, from planners to plumbers.

The city has also launched a 10-year programme that will follow up on the district renovation approach of Smarter Together, ‘WieNeu+.’

In the private sector, where one building consists of a number of flats owned by different people, coordination around large-scale renovation is a challenge. The city wants to get such buildings away from using gas towards renewable options that can help the climate and reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.

To do this, Hauskunft and the Quality Platform as well as RenoBooster project partners spread information and make innovative options like heat pumps more easily available. As new federal legislation will make it mandatory for people to stop using gas by 2030, and due to rising costs, they have a good incentive to engage with the city on other options now.

Climate consensus

“With this tragic war in Ukraine, I think people are more aware about energy now than ever,” Hartmann says. He also feels that there is a broad consensus among the Viennese people about the need to tackle climate change and the related need “to have the same level of resilience for those who are more and less fortunate economically.”

With this tragic war in Ukraine, I think people are more aware about energy now than ever
— Stephan Hartmann
Selfie with Sakir Sarioglu and Bojan Schnabl
Sakir Sarioglu and Vienna’s Bojan Schnabl pose with Smarter Together resources © Bojan Schnabl

Hartmann and his colleagues sometimes encounter the tenants that they have worked with later on, whether out and about in the city, or during guided tours of the project area. “What I realise is that we established a very nice culture of communication through the project,” Hartmann says. “I feel people really understood the renovation was necessary, and they appreciated the funding and support that the City of Vienna had given. Because we do care.”

Empathy and respect

The main takeaway for Hartmann is that “you have to respect that people need time to get acquainted with the change.” He stresses that the challenge is an enormous one, both for the people and the city. “Just mathematically, how do we deinstall 450,000 gas lines from the flats in Vienna in a couple of years? It’s a huge task.”

But dealing with scepticism can also lead to inspiring innovation. In one building that had to be renovated, the tenants were very unhappy that fire safety regulations meant that a row of old trees would have to be torn down during the process. After some open dialogues, the city investigated innovative options and came back willing to try a new technology that would use pressurised air in case of fire meaning that the trees could stay where they were.

They all gave a big applause when we revealed the solution
— Stephan Hartmann

“There were around 100 people at our tenant’s meeting,” Hartmann recalls, “and they all gave a big applause when we revealed the solution. Accepting refurbishment work is one thing, getting applause is really another level we achieved through empathy and respect for the tenants.”

Vienna is now on its third smart city strategy, which strengthens the marriage between sustainable and social development, while embracing innovation. “Thanks to our social housing for all, Vienna has been shown to be more resilient, and for many is a role mode administration,” Hartmann says. “We have visitors from across Europe, and they ask us how we do it.” His answer is always the same: “With empathy and respect for the people.”

Discover more with a Covenant of Mayors case study on Vienna’s housing renovation here.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer