Collective forms of ownership

Association, cooperative, interwoven Ltd.s or foundation – a variety of collective forms of ownership has emerged in Austria in recent years. Created by committed people who are driven by the same goal: To make land available for communal living and sustainably withdraw it from speculation. In the future it is important to activate the building stock and to take the pressure off the fertile ground.

In the context of the event series »Viennese housing projects – lived utopias«, the educational workshop of the Green Party had invited to a discussion on July 1, 2020:

  • Barbara Nothegger: Resident of the »Housing Project Vienna« and author of »Sieben Stock Dorf« (Seven Floor Village)
  • Beatrice Stude: Urban planner and supporter of the »Munus Foundation – land for a good life«
  • Christoph Laimer: Member of Bikes and Rails, a »habiTAT« housing project in Vienna
  • Heinz Feldmann: Co-founder of »Housing Project Vienna« and managing director of »WoGen – housing project cooperative«
  • Marion Stöger: Host and presenter of the evening

The association – »Co-housing Project Vienna«

Many co-housing projects are organized as associations, such as the co-housing project Vienna in the Nordbahnviertel. The advantage: An association is fast established and in Austria for much applicable. Often the association is at the beginning as a legal form when a project begins – and could then be transformed as needed. But mostly it remains with the association. The legal form of an association leaves the “back door“ open: collective ownership can be changed back into private ownership at a general meeting. Excluded with the actors currently acting! But what happens when the culture in the house changes and the next generation takes over?

»WoGen – Housing Projects Cooperative«

A cooperative is more complex: it is geared to the well-being and prosperity of its members. It is checked by the auditing association every one or two years – and that costs money. In 2015 some activists founded the »WoGen – Co-housing Projects Cooperative« (Die WoGen – Wohnprojekte Genossenschaft e.Gen.). It is Austria’s first and so far only property developer that exclusively realizes community housing projects with and for people who want to live in community. Currently WoGen has a completed project near Graz: »KooWo – Cooperative Living Volkersdorf«. The second one is being built in the middle of Vienna, in the Sonnwendviertel near the new central station.

WoGen cannot expand as fast as there are currently inquiries, because as owner of all projects, WoGen bears the full construction cost and construction time risk. Therefore, WoGen has to examine each project idea carefully, because WoGen is very careful with its members’ money. If a project fails, the joint liability of the cooperative will intervene and all members of the cooperative will support the project. The sale of land on which members of the cooperative live is basically excluded by WoGen: It would require a very high level of approval – also from the members of the cooperative who live on the property. The same applies to the amendment of the WoGen statutes.

Interwoven Ltd.s – habiTAT and Bikes and Rails

The habiTAT is the Austrian implementation of the German tenement syndicate and is linked to it through the network and partly through direct loans. HabiTAT buys houses for people free: the rent is used to gradually pay off the purchase costs, and the solidarity contribution, a portion of the rent, goes to habiTAT for supporting future projects. The habiTAT umbrella organisation, as part of each project, has veto rights on the ownership issue and prevents the sale. There are currently four projects in Austria – three are existing buildings and one is a new construction: Bikes and Rails – in the immediate vicinity of the WoGen project in the Sonnenwendviertel. Each house project is owned by a specially founded Ltd. The Ltd. in turn belongs to the residents’ association on the one hand and to the habiTAT umbrella organisation on the other hand, which can prevent the sale through a blocking minority. An individual project can fail without endangering the other habiTAT houses. In the case of the tenement syndicate, with over 100 completed projects, only one project has failed so far. The sale back into private ownership is de facto possible, but basically impossible due to the veto right of the umbrella organisation, in which all habiTAT projects have a say.

The non-profit »Munus Foundation – land for a good life«

The Federal Nonprofit Foundation is the safest legal form to secure collective property: The »Munus Foundation – land for a Good Life« is currently the only foundation of its kind in Austria. Its purpose stands above all else and is unalterably enshrined in its founding declaration. The people acting in the foundation – on the board of directors, in advisory boards and on the supervisory board – are subject to this purpose. In the declaration of establishment, the collective ecological use is generally stipulated as the purpose of the foundation and can be specified in the endowment of land – for example in communal living or solidary agriculture.

In order to make Austria more attractive for civil society activities, the Federal Foundation and Fund Act (BStFG) was amended in 2015: Now, land that is transferred to a non-profit federal foundation is exempt from land transfer tax, foundation entrance tax and registration fees. The non-profit Munus Foundation was established in March 2019: With the Munus Foundation, a tool is now available for everyone to secure land as common land for communities.

Careful handling of land?

Only the Munus Foundation will be making it clear on this evening that we – all of us as a society – need to treat our valuable resource fertile land with care: Currently, housing is often played off against agriculture. Mechanisms are needed to make efficient use of existing stock and to activate vacancies. Because soon the urban wastelands will be built on and greenfield construction will have to be curbed: Otherwise we will continue to destroy fertile land on which our food can grow and make ourselves even more dependent on food imports. According to the Federal Environment Agency, 44 square kilometers of land are consumed in Austria every year. That is 4,400 hectares – a third irreversibly sealed and thus suffocates all living things in the soil. For comparison: that is the area of Eisenstadt or the second largest district of Vienna, Floridsdorf.

What do community housing projects need?

Community housing projects, that is dense construction combined with high quality of the common areas. For community housing projects a separate funding track is needed. At present, most of them are organized as associations and built classified as a residential home (Wohnheim). The idea with the classification as residential home in Vienna was born when the coffin factory was moved more than 20 years ago, because at that time only housing subsidies were available for homes. This “provisional arrangement“, which is still lived by many Viennese projects today, has three advantages and four disadvantages:

The communities can allocate all apartments themselves and select the new members of their project – with standard subsidies, the City of Vienna would allocate one third of the apartments in the projects. The obligation to provide parking space for cars is reduced to one tenth: The »Housing Project Vienna« in the Nordbahnviertel would have had to build at least 40 underground car parking spaces as a standard subsidized project: This would have made the apartments considerably more expensive and prevented the construction of the event rooms in the basement; the construction costs are now around 30,000 euros for an underground car park. The classification also ensures that every resident has a share in the house as a member, but does not own their own apartment – the Tenant Act (MRG) – tenancy law does not apply here – this supports community.

The disadvantages: The subsidy per square meter is somewhat smaller than the standard subsidy for apartments; the residents inside a residential home cannot receive a rent subsidy if necessary; the fire protection requirements are constantly increasing and are being adjusted by the authorities to those of nursing homes – making construction more expensive and more complicated by hundreds of thousands of Euros. Besides the classification as residential home is set up for homes for the elderly, student homes et cetera: Thus it is always also in the discretion of the authorities whether the respective community project is classified as residential home and approved as such.

While the first co-housing projects were still very much characterized by individual floor plans, the younger ones tend to go back to well-designed apartments and standard floors: This allows for a flexible response according to need – the children move out, the new partner moves in with them and so on – and the apartments can be swapped according to space requirements: The apartment changes, but you stay in the same house. In the future, it may be possible to switch between the shared houses. Co-housing, since adapted to the needs of the people, creates efficient use of living space.

Diversity of forms of ownership – you have the choice

Which legal form a group of people chooses for their project is often a matter of taste. The non-profit foundation, for example, is not a suitable legal form for buying land with (direct) loans over the years. The various forms of collective ownership can also be used together: The land, if it has been bought free, is secured in the foundation and the building on it is given to an association, WoGen or habiTAT under building lease (Baurecht).

The original article in German was published in August by the Munus Foundation and WoGen.

Further information