Tenant Power from Vienna to Sao Paolo

Last week, The Action Lab was honored to take part in the Law and Political Economy in Latin America convening in Sao Paolo, Brazil. This was the most recent stop on our journey of learning and action for social housing and tenant power, one we are helping to lead along with a range of tenant organizations and other national partners. Together, we’re pushing for innovative solutions to the housing crisis, and we’re drawing inspiration from global models of tenant unions and social housing.

At the conference, The Action Lab Senior Director of Strategy Andrew Friedman and Board Member John Whitlow were promoting our two favorite big ideas to protect tenants and challenge the power of real estate: mass-based tenant unions and social housing.

At The Action Lab, we believe that the tremendous power exercised by the real estate lobby at the local, state and federal levels results in a situation in which tenants have limited options, rights and protections. But this is not an unavoidable state of affairs. Instead, it has been carefully constructed over centuries, and with creativity, resources and time it can be deconstructed as well.

As we contemplate how to move toward a future in which housing policy is rooted in abundance, care and community and housing options are designed to help Americans thrive, we would be wise to look to values-aligned models that are already in place. In many cases, these models flow from understandings of who should enjoy safe, healthy, affordable and reliable housing, what this housing should enable and—perhaps most importantly—what the role of the market should be in allocating such housing the differ markedly from the prevailing view in the U.S.

The places that have implemented these models have had considerable success in providing high-quality, safe, healthy housing for residents.Vienna, Austria, for example is celebrated for a housing market in which the vast majority of residents—some 80%—qualify for high-quality social housing that is rich with amenities and subject to strict limits on rent increases. 20 And in Sweden, where tenants’ unions have advocated for renters’ interests for over for over 100 years, residents reap benefits including high housing quality and significant housing security. Evidence like this has been garnering the attention of an increasing number of advocates and policymakers who recognize that widespread domestic application of each idea would represent a tremendous step forward in the fight for housing justice.

A. Social Housing

While definitions of the term “social housing” vary across contexts, the term generally describes a system that provides long-term housing to targeted households by means of a distribution system and subsidies. Social housing models differ with respect to the breadth of the target group, the provider of the housing, the use of subsidies and the degree of public intervention through regulation, public ownership or other means. Vienna, Austria has had a syste of social housing in place for over 100 years. It emerged as the Austrian capital’s population swelled in the years following World War I, leading to cramped housing conditions, rampant disease and eventually, the introduction of a rent cap to make housing more affordable. In 1922, Vienna became a federal province, a development that brought with it fiscal sovereignty. During what is now commonly referred to as the “Red Vienna” period, Hugo Breitner, the Social Democrat City Councilor for Finances, used these powers to establish new taxes on land, rents, commercial units, domestic servants, luxury goods and other items, making new resources available for the construction of social housing.

Today, thanks to the construction of new residential housing and a program to subsidize the refurbishment of existing dwellings, the City of Vienna is the largest provider of social housing in Europe, managing 220,000 flats and 1,800 housing estates across the city. These properties include not just housing, but other amenities such as green spaces, courtyards, playgrounds, laundry facilities and communal recreational spaces. In Vienna, some 43% of housing is insulated from the market, with some rental prices set by law and others—such as those for residents of limited-profit housing—restricted to reflecting costs. As a delegation of organizers, tenants, policymakers, journalists and academics organized by The Action Lab and Housing Justice for All discovered in a recent visit, the benefits of this approach to keeping housing costs low extend far beyond housing itself to overall improvements in quality of life.

By removing such a significant portion of residential housing from the private market, Vienna has been able to guarantee high-quality housing to some 500,000 of its 1.975M residents at low cost. This makes the City of Vienna the largest municipal housing provider in Europe. In sharp contrast to the experiences of most potential tenants in the U.S., renters who choose social housing in Vienna are not charged commissions or asked to supply deposits. In addition, tenancy contracts are open-ended, providing renters with security and stability unknown to most in the U.S. The criteria for eligibility are also relatively broad. Anyone who is 18 or older, has resided at the same address within the city for two years, possesses Austrian citizenship or its equivalent and has income below a threshold that is designed to include middle-class families can participate.

B. Tenant Collective Bargaining & Tenants’ Unions

As with social housing, domestic implementation of tenant collective bargaining has the potential to dramatically reshape the U.S. housing landscape. In Sweden, as in Austria, major housing reforms coincided with war, financial turmoil, population growth and a resulting housing crisis. In response to these conditions, the Act of 1917 and the Act of 1942 were passed to establish rent controls. While both were ultimately reversed, they had the impact of socializing Swedes to the concept of tenure security.

The Swedish Union of Tenants (SUT) also emerged during this period and began to amass power over subsequent decades. It was formed when residents of housing provided by the Swedish Telegraph Service came together to demand that their landlord provide electricity, make hot water available and address the vermin that infested their homes. The SUT was instrumental in supporting Sweden’s early rent control reforms as well as the passage of the 1978 Act on Collective Bargaining on Tenancy Issues, which codified many practices that are still in use today.

Today, SUT has nearly 530,000 member households. The non-partisan organization negotiates on behalf of most of the nation’s tenants, pushing for rents that correspond to housing quality, do not rise rapidly and do not surpass 25% of the average Swedish after-tax income. Notably, SUT’s representation of a large portion of Swedish tenants allows it to compare units and negotiate fair rents across locales. The power dynamic created by tenant collective bargaining translates into more rigorous assessment of housing quality alongside price. When assessing the “utility value” of a unit, for example, SUT centers the aspects of the home that matter most to tenants, including the housing environment, location, size, number of rooms, floor plans and conditions. 35 Almost all rents nationwide are set through this collective bargaining process. Only newly-constructed dwellings and sub-let dwellings in tenant-owned coops are excluded from this process, though some of these units are subject to other restrictions designed to keep rental costs low. This system of collective bargaining has been found to balance market effects, limiting rent increases in both the private and the public housing markets.

In addition to its negotiation of rents, the SUT provides legal information and advice and represents tenants in formal legal proceedings in rent tribunals, district courts and courts of appeal. The Union also advocates for the construction of additional affordable housing and other improvements and works with other stakeholders to elevate and address tenants’ safety concerns. 37 Beyond this, the SUT has supported the broader movement for tenant unionism and collective bargaining, playing an active, long-standing leadership role in the International Union of Tenants (IUT).

Tenant unions are not limited to Sweden. Similar organizations have been established to educate renters and advocate on their behalf across Europe and the United Kingdom, including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. 39 On the African continent, the IUT has affiliates in a dozen nations, including Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa and Uganda. 40 In Asia, tenants unions have formed in India and Nepal.

Closer to home in North America, a number of Canadian provinces have enacted laws that protect the rights of tenants to organize. In Ontario, for example, evictions in response to tenants’ efforts to defend their rights or organize tenant associations are prohibited. In Manitoba, it is unlawful for landlords to prevent tenant associations from forming, stop associations from gathering in their buildings or impose unreasonable conditions on the operation of these groups. In Vancouver, advocates are fighting for recognition of tenant unions and for the right to collectively bargain among a slate of other policies designed to limit rent increases, implement dispute resolution hearings for all evictions and allow tenants the opportunity to convert their rentals into cooperatives when landlords put buildings up for sale. Through efforts like these, tenants’ unions and associations across the world have played an instrumental role in the fight for housing justice and, by extension, just economies.

Creating Space for Bolder Vision & Action

These models for building tenant power and ensuring healthy, safe, affordable and reliable housing have attracted the attention of housing justice advocates in the U.S. The Action Lab is working with a wide range of tenant organizations around the U.S. to help win campaigns to radically expand both tenant unions and social housing in the U.S.