Out of a state-funded project aimed at minimizing the rise of homelessness during current crises, Austrian NGOs have established a model with the potential to end homelessness in the long-run: With Housing First at its core and a committed partner in the housing sector.
25,000 affordable homes coupled with a government-backed Housing First strategy could end homelessness in Austria by 2025 – permanently. This is according to a state-commissioned 2021 paper by the Austrian National Platform of Social Services Provided for People affected by Homelessness (BAWO). Now, as many working with Housing First may know: Gaining access to just a handful of affordable homes can be tough. And doing so 25,000 times over may sound utopian.
Well, while Austria is still far from reaching those numbers, the last two years have seen the emergence of a model which can foster access to affordable housing for those most in need. At the core of it is a partnership between BAWO members and the limited-profit housing sector and the financial backing of the Austrian government.
Detour #1 – Homelessness in Austria
Roughly 20,000 people are registered as homeless in Austria, a country of 9 million. These are, of course, official numbers. BAWO estimates these numbers to double when taking into account hidden homelessness. Legislation on how to assist people affected by homelessness fall under the jurisdiction of the nine federal states – and are thus significantly diverse throughout the country. It is for this reason that BAWO advocates for streamlining the approach via a national strategy on ending homelessness.
Detour #2 – The limited-profit housing sector
Austria is in a unique position when it comes to housing. Aside from the private sector, the market also consists of a large stock of social housing (mainly in the capital Vienna) as well as a „third sector“ in the form of limited-profit housing associations (GBVs). GBVs are neither state-owned nor profit-oriented. Around a quarter of Austrian households lives in homes provided by this sector, with rents averaging 25% below the for-profit market. When it comes to access to this housing stock, GBVs use a needs-based framework, for instance taking into account urgency for housing and household income. Depending on location, federal states and municipalities might have a significant say in who gets to move into these homes, adding factors such as prior years of residency within the city/federal state or language proficiency to the requirements. Once assigned a home, tenants are asked to pay upfront contributions – sums which are often a hurdle for people near or below the poverty line. So, while homes in this sector are more affordable, structural and financial thresholds still need to be overcome.
Opening doors with political backing
In early 2021, the Austrian Federal Ministry for Social Affairs announced a budget for measures aimed at curbing poverty as a result of Covid-19-related socio-economic fallouts and called for project ideas. This was a chance for BAWO and some of its partners to put into practice what it had advocated for: Based on the Housing First principles, people who had lost their homes (or were at the immediate risk thereof) due to the crisis were to be provided with immediate access to new, affordable flats and needs-based assistance.
Housing stock would come from Austria’s large limited-profit housing sector. A commitment by its umbrella organization boosted the outlook for the project’s practical implication.
Required tenants’ upfront costs were to be paid through a share of the afore mentioned government budget. And the ministry agreed: “zuhause ankommen” (“arriving home”) was born.
A new home for 1,100 people
From September 2021 to April 2023 over 1,100 people were accompanied by social workers of participating organizations into roughly 550 homes from the limited-profit housing sector. While mostly underrepresented in official homelessness statistics, over 60% of adult “arriving home” beneficiaries were women, proving Housing First to be an attractive offer for people living in hidden homelessness.
But numbers aside, a major success of the project lay in its strategic outlook: Thanks to the project structure, participating NGOs were able to boost their Housing First efforts – some even implementing the principles for the very first time. Various formats of meet-ups and a series of topical webinars ensured knowledge flow within the network of 27 NGOs from all federal states. Liaising with decision makers and housing providers as well as common efforts in communicating the project resulted in higher awareness for Housing First in Austria. In the summer of 2022, “arriving home” was awarded with Housing Europe’s European Responsible Housing Award, with the jury emphasizing the close cooperation between the social and housing sector.
Where are we going with this?
“arriving home” wrapped up in April 2023. But the structures, knowledge and methods it built remain. With costs-of-living rapidly rising, arguments for further efforts on ending homelessness are plentiful. So, as of writing, BAWO is in constructive talks with the government to fund a new future project based on methods established by “arriving home”.
In the long-run, though, the project is proof of how Housing First can succeed in Austria: It will be on legislators, from national to local governments, to build from the basis “arriving home” provides and translate its approach into a full-scale government program.
What can others take away from this?
Well, admittedly, Austria is in quite an advantage compared to many European countries when it comes to housing. An entire sector which commits to affordable living for all may seem like a dream come true. But housing stock alone does not yet do the trick: We have seen how constructive ideas on how to break barriers to such housing – be it financial, structural or political – can gain momentum.
We have also seen that it is all down to alliances: Thanks to its role as an umbrella organization, BAWO managed to unite 27 NGOs, from large players to small local organizations, behind the idea of “arriving home.” But the social sector needs partners in ending homelessness. We need those literally holding the keys. Lowering concerns, raising awareness and stressing the stability Housing First provides to landlords as well as tenants may ultimately bring fractions of the housing market on our side.
And – if you excuse the cliché – we have seen that crises can lead to innovation. Politicians are now eager to produce communicable results when it comes to shielding citizens from the pressures of inflation and ever-rising cost-of-living. As the Housing First community, we have a solution that can keep people most affected by these developments – those near or below the poverty line – from spiraling, long-term homelessness. Now is the time to confidently show what we can do!
About the Authors
Emine Özkan is Project Coordinator for „arriving home” at BAWO. She is a certified Housing First Trainer of Trainers and looks back on five years in social services provided by people affected by homelessness, including as head of the Housing First program at the Viennese NGO neunerhaus.Follow Emine on LinkedIn
Gerhard Schützinger is Project Communication Coordinator for “arriving home” at BAWO.He specializes in communicating NGO causes and has spent the last two years amplifying the voice of the homeless social service sector in Austria.