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“Investment or human right?” Interview with guest researcher Johanna Lilius.

Johanna Lilius about housing as a financial product, liveable cities and coffee houses in Vienna and elsewhere.

Johanna Lilius on the beach

Dr. Johanna Lilius is postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University, opens an external URL in a new window in Helsinki, Finland. She was a visiting scholar at the Department of Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy, opens an external URL in a new window at TU Wien from August 2020 to July 2021. Among other topics, she worked on housing policy and urban development in Vienna.

Socio-spatial processes in cities as well as spatial relations within and between cities have been at the core of her work for more than 10 years. In her research she focuses on housing and housing policy & development, (strategic) urban planning and development, suburban regeneration, urban cultures and lifestyles as well as urban entrepreneurs. Although firmly based in the Nordic context, as a visiting scholar, she has gained an understanding of neighbourhood development and urban planning and housing policies also in Amsterdam, San Diego, Athens and most recently Vienna.

Why did you get interested in housing policy in the first place?

Johanna Lilius: Housing is a basic component of our everyday life, and the policies around it influence how people can live, where, and at which cost. This is why I became interested in housing policy research, and understood that such a field of research even existed. It is closely connected to an Erasmus staff-exchange that I did at the University of Amsterdam back in 2014. I shared my work space with a team of housing policy researchers, including assistant professor Justin Kadi, and they patiently answered all my curious questions about the Dutch housing system. Justin later became an important contact for me to reflect on recent developments in Helsinki concerning for example the remarkable growth of private landlords, and he encouraged me to pursue research in the field.  

Was there a special reason you chose Vienna for research and how did you go about it?

J.L: Vienna was interesting from the perspective of housing policies and housing design, and I also knew that one of the most prominent young housing researchers in Europe, Justin Kadi, was based here. Those were good reasons to come. But I cannot deny that it also mattered to me that Vienna has such atmospheric coffee houses*. Those places are great for reading and writing. I was very lucky to get a grant from the Foundations post doc pool, opens an external URL in a new window in Finland and happy to see that they were ready to support a postdoc year abroad for a mother of three.

You have done research on housing in different cities of the world: Amsterdam, Athens, Helsinki and Vienna. What are the most striking differences between these cities?

J.L.: The most striking thing is the similarity: although all these cities differ in terms of city structure, urban development and housing policy trajectories as well as tenure structures, housing in all the cities is being increasingly financialized. The differences are in the ways that the national and local governments are handling the increasing lack of affordable housing. I believe that critical research is very much needed to provide policy makers and the general public with other narratives about housing than those provided by financial actors.

Vienna is proud of its housing policy during the period of the so called “Red Vienna” (1919–1934). How would you compare current housing policy with the time of “Red Vienna”?

J.L.: It is certainly less radical now. I also see a discrepancy between the reputation of Vienna as an affordable city and how the housing market appears especially for a newcomer. Limited contracts, huge real estate agent´s fees for example, and increasingly more expensive rents is something you read less about in the international press. I do find it significant however, that the city still owns such a large housing stock which is spread all over the city. This has value also for coming generations. The rent regulation in the old housing stock is also a remarkable achievement.

What are the most striking findings of your research in Vienna?

J.L.: I am fascinated by how housing policies are transformed into housing design in both positive and negative ways in Vienna. There is an emphasis from the city to develop (in terms of thinking of new solutions) apartment housing and the way of life in these houses, for example through shared spaces. There are many interesting examples of how social sustainability is incorporated into housing. On the other hand, I was not expecting to see that new housing in Vienna is also developed as financial product. I find the work by associate professor Anita Aigner on the “Vorsorgewohnung", opens an external URL in a new window very interesting.  

If you could change housing policies, what would you do?

J.L.: I think it would be important to return to the question of how housing should be viewed. Is it an investment or a human right that should be adequate for everyone? If it is the latter, how should rental and owner occupation then be regulated? In Finland for example, the public discussion about who benefits from housing policies revolves mostly around those in social rental housing. How homeowners and housing investors benefit from favorable taxation and increasing housing prices and rents is not considered a question for housing policy nor is it particularly discussed by policy makers or politicians.

What are your research-plans for the future?

J.L.: Next spring, I will concentrate on crises management in comprehensive spatial planning in Hamburg, Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki, and look at the potential of immigrant retail in urban renewal in Sweden and Finland. I will also publish a semi-popular book called The cost of housing (Boendets pris) in my mother tongue Swedish.

And our last question: Which is the most livable city in the world?

J.L.: There are several cities that are most livable for me. Athens because of the climate, the wonderful people, the history and fantastic amenity structure. You can get what you need anytime of the day or night. At the same time, I find Helsinki livable because of its equal school system, nature, the sea, and good infrastructure and shops with good opening hours. Stockholm provides the same in a bigger scale, and with a better supply of different culture-related things to do. Vienna, I find highly livable because of its fantastic coffee houses! I also agree with my 18-year-old daughter Aurora, who, after a few weeks in the city, confirmed it as the most livable city for several reasons:

  • variety of identities between the different neighbourhoods
  • "ugly shopping malls” do not dominate the retail sector
  • long history, but the history has kept its integrity and is not only for tourists
  • beautiful, without being untouchable like an object in a museum
  • located in Central Europe, so you never feel claustrophobic. 

Thank you for the interview!

* We were curious about Johanna’s favourite Kaffeehaus: "I cannot give a simple answer :-)", says Johanna. "My favourites are Café Sperl, Jelinek, Ritter and Weidinger. In the first district I also enjoy Café Bräunerhof, Korb and Prückel."