Sam Butler




How Social Housing Can Help Us Face the Climate Crisis — From Vienna, to Our Local Neighborhoods

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"You can continue living as you do.

Or you can live in your home for the rest of your life, for a fraction of what you pay today, with other people in your community."

... Here's the situation:

We have to rework and transform our economies. We have a responsibility to, as 10% of our human societies — infrastructures and ways of life spanning the centers of capitalist countries — are swallowing up worlds, across our planet.

We're already at 1.2 degrees of warming. … Land is falling into the ground. Places that people have called home for millenia, are underwater, deserted, hollowed, and extinct. Species numbered in the billions are gone. For 500 years, the richest countries have been consuming worlds to keep themselves rich.

And now, this consumption is happening faster than ever.


A growth economy. Business as usual. To keep getting paid to keep the hot tub on, so we can pay for a roof over our heads and food on the table, as our worlds and histories evaporate around us, every day.

How can we change the economy and our ways of life, when participating in this economy — this economy — is a requirement, in order to live?

It's a paradox. A tangled, toxic web. In order to live — in a world where not having a home makes you illegal, and where we can't have anything unless we pay for it — we can't separate ourselves from what we need today, and what is killing us and our children tomorrow.

And here's one way we can pull ourselves away from it.

You can continue living as you do. Or you can live in your home for the rest of your life, for a fraction of what you pay today, with other people in your community.

What does that mean?

Let's take a trip to Vienna, the "City of Dreams", to find out.

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After the first World War and the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, Vienna went from being an imperial city … to an overcrowded capital of a little new country, with a quarter of its population homeless, and ravaged by an infectious disease.

Sound familiar?

On the verge of death — death of a city, death from poverty, death from freezing winters and tuberculosis — the Vienna City Council made a decision that changed life forever, in their city, and the world.

In 1923, the Vienna City Council commissioned twenty five thousand public housing units — financed by new taxes on land, rent, fine dining, champagne, brothels, cars, any luxury item, you name it — to make homes for poor people. For people who were homeless, or freezing to death in the woods.

And this wasn't just housing. According to historian Julian Schranz, quoted in a fantastic article by Kirsty Lang — which much of this content on Vienna is sourced from, you can find a link to it below — "the idea was to build housing that was affordable, hygienic, and beautiful. … City council believed that the right to beauty should not just belong to the rich, and put a lot of effort into avoiding ghettos, and building mixed communities."

Today, Vienna is known as the most livable city in the world — the city of dreams, award-winning architecture, Before Sunrise with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Public housing apartments in Vienna are ventilated and insulated, tenants have access to gyms and swimming pools — a newer public development even has a swimming pool on the rooftop. And 50 percent of all new public developments in Vienna are enmeshed with green spaces.

Almost two-thirds of Vienna lives in subsidized housing— more than a million people — and they're proud of it. Not to mention, everyone benefits — even non-public housing, in one of the greatest cities in the world, is only $750 per month.

Compare that to 20% of London who live in subsidized housing, in a city where the average rent is $2,800 dollars per month. Or Manhattaners, who pay an average rent of $5,200 dollars per month.

And Vienna's work isn't done. Vienna keeps building subsidized and public housing, keeps its rent control and social housing protections, and keeps building on this foundation — award-winning architecture, luxuries for everyday people, "a city where you can choose what century you want to live in", and the most livable city in the world — where a roof over your head costs nearly a tenth of what it does in Manhattan.

How did they get here? Housing. They raised taxes on luxury items, used that to build and invest in city-owned and subsidized housing — and made those homes as healthy, livable and beautiful as they can be.

That lowers the cost of housing for everybody across the board, everyone benefits, and you have one of the greatest cities in the world.

And Vienna isn't alone.

Singapore, one of the top 10 cities in the world — 78__percent of people live in state-owned housing. The dominant arrangement there, is people buy 99-year leases on homes, which are owned by the state and managed by local town councils, giving people a home for life — with all the benefits of state-owned and subsidized housing, which ripple across the city.

States and cities investing in housing, building homes, giving people an opportunity to live with roofs over their heads — and making the cost of living (living legally, in our world today) more affordable for everyone.

So back to your choice. Keep your rent or mortgage as you have it today. Or opt for your home becoming state or city-owned housing — the city invests in existing homes, builds new ones, lowering the bills you pay every month, and lowering the cost of housing for everyone across the board.

If you take that choice, there is one key difference from your life before. In a transition to state, city, or cooperative housing — the point is, to make homes.

So if you have vacant rooms and extra space, like most homes in America do, other people would have a chance to live there too. Like it used to be — when relatives, neighbors, family, friends, would live in closer homes, together.

So that's what we get, for having our rent or mortgage slashed to a fraction of what it is today, through city and government investments and buy outs —community.

It's not all dreamy ... learning to live with other people, especially if we've gotten too used to isolated lives. But of course, with all of this, there would be retrofits and conversions, to make sure everyone who chooses social homes can have a sense of privacy, security, and safety — while everyone gets a chance to live.

So: we're living in community, paying a fraction of what we used to pay for our rent or mortgage, maybe even a tenth — what now?

We're talking about all of this in a time when the U.S. is running out of water.

The Amazon is on the verge of dieback.

Temperatures can drop 60 degrees in hours.

Communities are buried in snow storms, drowning in floods, burning up in heatwaves and fires and droughts, and losing access to energy, medicine, warmth, harvests, overnight.

When carbon dioxide concentrations are lowering the nutrition in our plants, winter is gone, and temperatures are getting hotter more rapidly than we've ever known before.

We're living in a new world. Maybe it's time — now that we have the time, because we're paying so much less for a roof above our heads — we start learning, or remembering, how to live in it.

How are we gonna get food? How are we gonnna get water? How are we going to drink, wash, clean ourselves, grow a garden? How are we going to survive?

How are we going to survive, together?

Because we're in community now. All this isolation and melancholy and separation of the last 40 yeas is over. We learn, and survive, together.

Instead of going to work every morning — since our rent is now a fraction of what it used to be — most days, we can learn how to grow food. How to build systems, like fish ponds for protein and wastewater treatment. How to generate heat and electricity, by shaping energy locally. How to build intermittent production systems, that make use of energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. How to manage and steward our local landscapes, so the materials we want — timber for houses, bamboo for bicycles, hemp for concrete, flax for fiber, wool for blankets — we can source here, long-term. How we can be_gin agroecology, green roofs, enmesh ourselves in the worlds around us .. build connections and relationships .. make, share, and experiment, with the wisdom from so many cultures and histories around us.

.. And decide together — who gets what? How do we get it? What about the future — which we can imagine, and speak with, just over our shoulders? Because this moment is the beginning of their future — what they will have, has now as its seed, just as we have the fruits of our ancestors today.

This isn't utopic. It's work .

It's learning. Failing. Experimenting. Hungry, sometimes. Cold. Healthy. Rhythm. Seasons. Re-learning how to live on the land, and live in a place, with practices that have been buried for very long times.

It's effort. Risk. Apprehension. Getting hurt. Getting injured. Healing ourselves. Dying.

It's doing the best we can, even when we don't know what to do — and learning from that, and passing it on, as we've learned from the past.

It's ticks, bugs, and tall grass. Streams of water. Fungal infections. A climate that continues to change, and new and old challenges to survive.

And it's now.

These are the worlds we're moving towards. Those futures are right now — their seeds are these moments.

The more quickly we move towards them, the more worlds we'll have left to call home.

The more nutrition and life in our plants. The cleaner our air. The lower our temperatures, the more friendly our climate — the more opportunity to live and thrive, experiencing the best of life, with our ancestors and descendants beside us. "An endless unfolding of the past and future into the present," in the words of Leanne Beta samo sake Simpson.

This is nothing new. This is how our ancestors lived 80 years ago, 200 years ago, two thousand years ago, forty__thousand years ago. How cultures live around the world to this day. And how our descendants will live as well.

The only question is: how quickly can we get started?

Turning off the heat in the hot tub, relocalizing our ways of life, working less and living more, decarbonizing, healing land, making homes — separating ourselves from this economy, this history, this world, and start making our own?

And as we begin this work, addressing our legacies — five centuries, thirty-five generations, of genocide and dispossession ... as homes are healed and returned, for all sorts of life who have always called them home … perhaps, we can begin to honor outstanding treaties and responsibilities to human and non-human relations.

Perhaps homes — back to the public, and then back to those who've always called them home — are a way to Land Back as well.

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Working list of acknowledgements: Julia Steinberger's work on "Decent Living with Minimum Energy", Chris Baulman and Alexander Baumann's work on the paradox of housing and degrowth, Peter Dynes on repeated calls to scale down our economies, MEER and Peter Yao on locked-in warming, Rhodri for pointing to research on CO2-linked plant malnutrition, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's stories from As We Have Always Done, Kyle Whyte's perspectives and research (which point to Simpson!), learning about subsistence cultures from many voices in the Global South and Indigenous communities, Kris De Decker's work on Low Tech Magazine, Cory Doctorow's explanation of England's Enclosure Act on the Douglas Rushkoff/Team Human podcast, David Graeber for perspectives on jubilee and cultural experimentation, a person who I can't remember who tied the absence of property to several bible passages (need to remember who this was!), Donella Meadows for highlighting the importance of changing the way we see, Daniel Nichanian's reporting on ballot referendums to cancel medical debt, Max Ajl's work in "A People's Green New Deal" and on the People's Agreement of Cochabamba, Kirsty Lang's writing on the Vienna housing system, and many more influences be thanked and named, in a coherent way!