Philadelphia Councilmembers Find Lessons in Affordable Housing from Berlin and Vienna

Note: this blog post is a repost from Global Philadelphia. You can find the original blog post by Jessica Barber here.

In a world where affordable housing seems increasingly elusive, the cities of Berlin and Vienna serve as inspiring examples of progress and possibilities for Philadelphia residents, activists, and city leaders alike. Two Philadelphia City Council members, Jamie Gauthier (3rd District) and Kendra Brooks (Working Families Party), both highly active in affordable housing advocacy efforts, recently embarked on a transformative journey to explore firsthand the housing landscapes of these European cities. While abroad, they met with organizers, activists, and city council members to delve deeper into the affordable and sustainable housing advocacy campaigns in place, which aims to address the cities’ housing crises head-on. 

Their experiences in Berlin and Vienna offer invaluable insights into effective advocacy campaigns and sustainable housing models that can inspire change far beyond European borders. 

Berlin: “Keeping the Community in the Driver’s Seat” 

The concept behind Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co. may seem radical, especially when viewed through an American lens, but its effectiveness and significance cannot be overstated. At its core, the campaign advocates for the expropriation of housing units owned by corporate landlords with 3,000 units or more, to be transformed into social housing available at affordable rates. 

The campaign’s journey from an idea to a successful ballot initiative is a testament to the power of grassroots organizing and community mobilization. With over 350,000 signatures supporting the initiative, it passed during Berlin’s general election in September 2021 with a resounding majority of 59.1%. Notably, more people voted on the referendum than for Berlin’s actual politicians during the same election—a testament to the urgency and resonance of the housing crisis in the city. 

Berlin’s housing crisis is multifaceted, driven by factors such as skyrocketing rents, growing tourism, gentrification, and a shortage of available units, issues that are relevant in many major global cities in the 21st century after mass periods of urban migration. With 85% of Berliners renting, the city has become one of the most expensive places to rent in Germany. The privatization of social housing units exacerbated the situation, as tens of thousands of units were sold to for-profit entities, leading to the conversion of affordable housing into luxury accommodations. 

The Expropriate campaign emerged within this context of dire need and frustration. Over 3,000 volunteers joined forces to collect signatures and conduct extensive canvassing efforts to garner support for the referendum. Their collective efforts culminated in a historic victory at the polls, sending a clear message that affordable housing is a fundamental right that cannot be ignored. 

However, the journey does not end with the passage of the referendum. Despite its non-binding nature, the campaign has catalyzed important discussions within Berlin’s government. While there remains uncertainty about the path forward, a government commission has deemed the idea constitutionally sound, providing a glimmer of hope for progress. 

A strong affordable housing advocate in Philadelphia, Jamie Gauthier saw parallels between the two cities. After multiple tours and visits, she stated, “As a legislator and leader, I prioritize uplifting and empowering my neighbors to be the change they want to see in their communities. Berlin reaffirmed my belief that people-led and people-powered movements yield immense power. The organizers I met in Germany inspire me to keep our community in the driver’s seat.”

Vienna: Pioneering Sustainable Housing Models

In Vienna, the concept of social housing takes on various forms, showcasing a commitment to inclusivity and affordability. From government-owned housing units to Limited Profit Housing Associations (LPHAs), the city has embraced diverse approaches to meet the diverse needs of its residents. 

The council members began their stay with a visit to Seestadt, a sprawling urban development and social housing site nestled on a former government airfield. Spanning 600 acres of land, Seestadt represents one of Europe’s largest urban projects, poised to accommodate 20,000 people and workplaces by its completion in 2030. What sets Seestadt apart is its deliberate emphasis on inclusivity and sustainability, offering a clean, green, and intentionally mixed community where residents of all ages and incomes thrive. With ample access to transit, public spaces, schools, and small businesses, Seestadt serves as an example of sustainable urban living and social cohesion in a city that aims to be climate neutral by 2040. 

To this effect, Gauthier admirably emphasized, “In Vienna we saw what it means for the government to comprehensively work towards housing justice. A safe, stable, and affordable home is the bedrock of a successful life, healthy communities, and a vibrant city. I look forward to infusing what I learned in Vienna into my work on City Council.”


Venturing further into Vienna’s housing landscape, the delegation explored Karl Marx-Hof, a historic social housing site with a legacy dating back a century. Built in the aftermath of World War I, Karl Marx-Hof emerged as a response to the dire living conditions faced by post-war workers, underscoring Vienna’s commitment to housing as a fundamental human right. Today, Karl Marx-Hof stands as a thriving municipal housing complex, a testament to the resilience of Vienna’s housing legacy and the enduring impact of community-driven initiatives. 

While Vienna’s housing achievements are commendable, the delegation also encountered challenges and inequities reminiscent of those in the United States. Notably, the inclusion of migrants in Vienna’s social fabric remains a complex issue, with barriers to citizenship hindering their full participation in society. However, Vienna’s Chamber of Labour emerges as a formidable advocate for social housing and labor rights, championing demands for increased funding, public land allocation, and measures to curb housing speculation by private developers

Delving deeper into Vienna’s housing models, the delegation explored the innovative concept of Limited Profit Housing Associations (LPHAs). Through this model, private entities and cooperatives collaborate with the city to develop affordable housing projects, leveraging public land and subsidies to ensure equitable access to housing. The Glies 21 development in Sonnwendviertel exemplifies the success of this approach, with 38 housing units created by a group of individuals seeking affordable housing solutions. Emphasizing communal spaces and sustainability, Glies 21 embodies the principles of community ownership and collaboration that underpin Vienna’s social housing ethos.  

While reflecting on the trip, Councilmember Kendra Brooks added, “In Vienna, we saw that social housing was helping to bring people together. People from all different income brackets live together in social housing, and it’s not stigmatized as something that’s only for the poor.”

International Strategies to Solve Local Problems

The parallels between these two World Heritage Cities and Philadelphia are striking. Like Berliners and Viennese, residents of Philadelphia face housing challenges that demand bold, community-driven solutions. In December of 2021, the Philadelphia region’s average rent was 9.8 percent higher than in 2020. The rate of increase in average rents nationwide is also alarmingly high with an annual growth rate of 13.9 percent. Gentrification, the growth of private developer control of the housing market, and public housing shortages are issues that have been sounding alarms for years. 

This trip served as an example of how learning about international strategies can infuse ideas and solutions to the same problems happening here at home. Councilmember Brooks added, “We saw a totally different approach to the public good – whether it was housing or transportation or schools. There was a real investment in the shared resources that make it possible for families to thrive.

The lessons learned from Berlin’s grassroots advocacy and Vienna’s sustainable housing models offer a roadmap for action. By prioritizing housing as a fundamental human right and embracing innovative approaches, Philadelphia can work towards a future where all residents have access to safe, affordable homes. Brooks and Gauthier are already hard at work tackling the challenge.