Vienna Takes on Airbnb Over Social Housing

After negotiations failed, the city is suing the short-term housing platform over illegal sublets in Gemeindebauten municipal apartments.

The City of Vienna has picked yet another fight with Airbnb. The online housing platform has been allowing hosts to sublet social housing flats illegally. Now, the city is threatening to sue.  

Airbnb’s track record of sidestepping country-specific regulations and taxes has had led governments to impose heavy restrictions on the platform. In allowing hosts to list Gemeindewohnungen (municipal housing apartments), Airbnb has crossed a line with the City. 

No Exceptions for Airbnb

Municipal housing flats are subsidized housing units, owned, run and managed by the city’s business enterprise Wiener Wohnen (Vienna Housing). A project initiated by the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) 100 years ago as a core program of Red Vienna, social housing provides attractive apartments and shared gardens and common space to those of modest means. 

To qualify for one of  220,000 subsidized housing units in Vienna, an applicant must be over the age of 17, possess a residence permit for more than five years, and have an income below the set limit. A prospective tenant must be currently living below basic standards, such as in overcrowded spaces or buildings without a private bathroom and toilet. There are however no restrictions on profession or other status, and Gemeindebautenapartment buildings often house academics, artists and musicians and city employees as well as members of the traditional working class. 

However, given the subsidies, it is illegal to sublet apartments in municipal housing buildings, and there are severe consequences if caught. Amid a housing crisis, the City of Vienna will not make an exception for Airbnb hosts. “Nobody should make a business of living in a publicly subsidized apartment,” a spokesperson for City Housing Minister Kathrin Gaal told APA. 

In April, the city pressed Airbnb to remove the addresses of city-owned municipal buildings from its platform. However, the company refused, and instead, offered only to restrict apartments that the city identified as municipal housing projects, leaving the onerous job of monitoring the platform to the city.

“In accordance with applicable law, we offered during a constructive meeting with the City in April to remove such listings if they are brought to our attention,” a spokesperson for Airbnb told Metropole.

Additionally, Airbnb proposed initiating an information campaign to educate users about the existing municipal housing restrictions mandated by Viennese law. 

“We have also offered the City to work together on a joint education campaign for hosts,” the spokesperson said. “We believe that such a joint information campaign could already contribute to the effective protection of social housing today.”

This is not enough for the city. “We want all 220,000 municipal apartments to be blocked on Airbnb,” Gaal’s spokesperson told APA. “That means, that if you live in such an apartment, you shouldn’t be able to enter the address at all.”

With the city’s legal action, the platform still hopes to resolve the issue. “Airbnb would like to work together with the City of Vienna, as we already do with more than 500 cities around the world,” the company’s spokesperson told Metropole. 

Not the First Fight

However, reaching agreements is not their forte. Over the last several years, the City of Vienna has been arguing with the company over the payment of the Ortstaxe – a city tourism tax. But despite the deadlock in court, Airbnb remains hopeful.  

“We want to continue to implement an agreement with the city on the automatic collection of the local tax,” a spokesperson for Airbnb told ORF. On this issue, the company said, “we believe that all open points can be resolved.”

Amina Frassl
Born in Vienna, Amina is now studying journalism and politics in New York City.

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