3   marzo

Welfare policies between theory and reality: the virtuous case of housing policies in Vienna – Yuri Kazepov

By C.Stadler/Bwag - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Ciampi Visiting Scholars

According to Yuri Kazepov, a sociologist at the University of Vienna and visiting professor at the Ciampi Institute in February 2024, the socio-economic, institutional, political and even bureaucratic framework is the context that helps determine the effectiveness of social policies 

When welfare reforms, large or small, are approved, the public discussion is mainly about what (what rights for whom and how to finance them) and less about how they are to be implemented, by whom they are to be managed or what effect they will have in the areas where they will be applied. With decades of study on social policies in a comparative perspective, Yuri Kazepov, sociologist at the University of Vienna and visiting professor in February at the Ciampi-SNS Institute in Florence, insists instead on the need to study policies in concrete terms, in the places and contexts where they intervene because “when you find yourself studying policies in concrete terms, you always find a distance between the theoretical model and the complications of reality”. A good example in this sense, although not directly dealing with social policies, concerns measures for ecological transition, i.e. instruments imagined to improve the lives of all, but which could produce new forms of inequality. 

About this difficult balance between hoped-for and achieved effects of (social and environmental) policies and how to study them, we spoke with Kazepov using examples from Vienna and environmental policies.


Let’s start with the methodological approach: in his Ciampi Lecture he described a model… 

It is an approach that has helped me to analyse welfare policies and to understand the differences between the various welfare systems, valuing the details and how they contribute – in their different articulations – to structuring social inequalities.
The model with which I approach the study of social policies and their effects involves four analytical dimensions that I would like to illustrate with examples. Let us start with a banal observation with non-trivial consequences: jurisdictions define a territorial space within which certain laws apply. Boundaries determine human behaviour and create ‘redistributive’ communities. Pensions or unemployment benefits are regulated and managed at the national level. Other welfare instruments, on the other hand, may be regulated or managed at regional and/or municipal level. In the ideal situation, these differences allow policies to be adapted to local contexts by implementing redistributive policies with respect to unequal conditions. However, policies may not reflect different needs, but different power relations, different roles of different actors with different quality and strength of public administration, reinforcing, in the worst cases, forms of inequality. 

Another important element is policy design: what is the institutional architecture of different measures? Who are the actors involved and what role do they play? How are they financed? The intertwining of jurisdiction and policy design determines boundaries, decides who has rights and who does not. For example, if you only acquire rights by paying contributions you have a certain type of system, just as in Italy before the creation of the National Health System the mutual system only gave the right to health care to those who paid contributions, today everyone has the right to public care as a citizen and not as an employee. Previously, employees’ relatives were linked to them in order to have the right to care, and in the event of separation it could happen that between 1970 and 1978 they lost that right. Two different ways of imagining a policy (and their respective governing principles) change the community of reference and the way a citizen enjoys a right. 

Also crucial is the interaction between a law and the socio-economic context with which it interacts. This element is usually underestimated: the context is seen as a container where things happen, but the measures interact with reality. If you imagine a retraining plan for unemployed young people in an area and you choose to train them as bakers or hairdressers in a context in which the labour market does not need bakers or hairdressers, you will have made poor use of public resources and created frustration precisely because you have not considered the needs and characteristics of the context. 

A paradoxical example concerning jurisdiction is the way home care for the elderly used to be organised in Rome, which was managed by the municipalities: in practice, two elderly people living in two adjoining streets but on the border between two municipalities used a different service, enjoyed different rights. 

Another example of how relevant the context is we can do by considering the labour market in Italy and its relationship with the economic-productive structure. In Italy we have a system of companies made up predominantly of small and medium-sized ones (the average size is 3.9 employees and the number of companies with fewer than 9 employees is over 95%!), which translates into a labour market that tends to be poorly able to absorb graduates. This is why complaining about the low number of graduates in Italy is right from the point of view of the country’s social and cultural growth, but it must be borne in mind that many people find it difficult to find a job commensurate with their education and over-qualification is a widespread phenomenon. Of course graduates can produce innovation, do business, but in general Italy’s problem is that in order to compete in global markets it has focused on low labour costs. 

To sum all this up in one sentence, the context in which a policy is applied is crucial and the same policy applied in different contexts can produce opposite effects. Socio-demographic contexts are also important. The context produces needs, the policy uses tools and applies them within certain jurisdictions. 

In the comparative research I have been conducting on European welfare systems for some time, these variables combine in very different ways, creating a variety of very different systems of protection or risk and exclusion. Depending on the type of policy and the respective jurisdictions, certain rights are acquired by residence or by a certain amount of contributions paid or by incomes below certain thresholds, and so on. Small rules with an enormous impact: in Vienna, for example, five years of residence were needed to be eligible for social housing, now only two, with a major expansion of the potential pool.


Let us give a few more examples of how these variables combine in different ways to achieve different results. 

The study of context is something I consider crucial because it is not sufficiently considered in policy design and implementation. The context, then, is not only spatial (which I have mentioned), but also temporal. A policy adopted before the crisis of the 1970s or after implies very different economic, political and social conditions. The fact that Italy did not adopt a non-contributory income support instrument to combat poverty in the years of economic expansion is a problem, because adopting it today – in a phase of economic contraction – is more difficult. In other European countries, such a policy is considered an acquired right. 

Another good example are the school-to-work transition instruments: take Youth Guarantee as an example. That instrument in some regions did not work at all, while in others it worked well. The point here, too, is that context plays a key role, not only because of very different local labour markets, but also because of the institutional capacities of public administrations. Many years ago, I took part in an evaluation group on the Minimum Insertion Income, which was tested in 39 municipalities spread across the country. The gap in the ability to translate the measure was huge, both in terms of organisational capacity and local administrative culture: in some contexts clientelism was a determining factor, several social workers told me that many of the potential beneficiaries asked “who should I talk to”, “what should I do in return” because they were used to a context in which the beneficiary had no enforceable rights, but always owed something in return. 

What does this mean? Not that there is no need to activate policies that broaden the sphere of rights or guaranteed services, but that when doing so, it is necessary to assess, I repeat, the local context, to take into consideration variables that are not those of an experiment in a laboratory. Reforms must be accompanied and this lack of accompaniment is a classic Italian policy: good laws, little attention to the implementation phase. But street level bureaucracy is essential, without a good ability to implement reforms these do not work even when they are well designed.


The bureaucracy also plays a role when it comes to implementing laws extending rights, i.e. it has a certain margin of discretion here too….
The degrees of discretion given to those implementing the laws is important: in some contexts the social worker decides whether or not to grant a right, in other cases the right is there and is modulated according to the situation of need. It is one thing to work with the person entitled to an income to build a training path or to establish whether that income should take the form of free transport and books for the children, it is quite another if it is the right (the income) that is left to discretion: the lack of enforceable rights (‘this guy is young let him get a job’) makes vulnerable people even more vulnerable.


A good example of context is housing policy in Vienna. 

Gustav Mahler used to say ‘when the end of the world comes, I want to be in Vienna because everything happens there 40 years late’. Now this delay, if we talk about the housing issue, was fortunate because it allowed the city to skip the phase of selling off public property. In Berlin the selling off has created enormous problems, in the German capital it has gone from 30 per cent to 8 per cent public housing. In Vienna, on the other hand, there are around 900,000 flats and 220,000 of these are owned by the municipality, 190,000 are subsidised housing. So just under half of Vienna’s flats are rented out at prices capped at 6.8 or 7.6 euros per square metre, prices that are affordable for the vast majority of Viennese.


Apart from the relative immobility of Vienna mentioned by Mahler, it is the context that is crucial.

And so, a first aspect relates to jurisdiction, Vienna is a federal Bundesland i.e. a state within the federation and this implies greater powers than a normal municipality. This makes it possible, for example, to regulate the rental market (including the non-popular ones) in a very precise manner, reducing the number of flats on the open market to a mere 11%, plus a relatively low share of owner-occupied houses. Two-thirds of homes, in short, have social or otherwise controlled rents, and even middle-income earners can obtain social or rent-regulated housing. Then there is history and political context: social housing has been a constant in Vienna’s city geography since the 1920s and the city government has always been social democratic (or at most in alliance with the Greens or -recently- with the Liberals). All of these aspects, as well as the widespread access to rent-controlled housing even among middle-income earners, create a consensus around housing policies and make Vienna a very special case. An indicator of how critical the housing situation is is the percentage of city dwellers who spend more than 40% of their income on housing. In London this percentage is over 60 per cent, in Berlin it is 50 per cent and in Vienna it is 18 per cent. Needless to say, this means more resources available for people with a strong redistributive impact.


Environmental issues also entered the Viennese model 

Yes, newly built social housing and subsidised housing have very high energy standards. The interesting policy, however, concerns workers’ buildings from the 1920s that need an energy efficiency upgrade. The municipality’s programme to adapt to the new environmental standards started a few years ago because the city would like to become CO2 neutral in 2040. I mention this plan because unlike in other cases the costs of the energy transition often fall on the tenant whose landlord has changed the boiler or improved the roof insulation. The goal of the City of Vienna is to avoid burdening these costs on the tenants.


For more:

Kazepov Y., Verwiebe R., Vienna still a just city?, Routledge, 2022 

Kazepov’s lecture in Florence: Territorial inequalities. Welfare systems, local contexts and policy Innovations