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Social and Climate (In-)Equality Perspectives within the SDGs: Introducing the Inequality and Poverty Assessment Model for a Sustainable Transformation of Housing

Meike Bukowski
1,* and
Katharina Kreissl
Department of Sociology and Social Geography, University of Salzburg, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Department for the Theory of Society and Social Analyses, Institute of Sociology, University of Linz, 4040 Linz, Austria
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(23), 15869;
Submission received: 5 September 2022 / Revised: 23 October 2022 / Accepted: 3 November 2022 / Published: 29 November 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Urban Inequality and Exclusion)


In this paper, we bring issues of inequality as a cross-cutting principle to all SDGs with a critical perspective on power relations, exemplified through the relevant social question of housing. For this purpose, we have developed the inequality and poverty assessment model (IPAM), a systematic approach for streamlining problems and solutions within the SDG-framework in an inequality-sensitive way, serving as a guideline to screen topics for five dimensions of social and environmental justice: (a) distribution, (b) procedure and participation, (c) fairness in climate and environmental adaptation, (d) legitimacy and (e) recognition. Following a mixed-methods research design with expert interviews, stakeholder workshops, document analysis and an extensive literature review, we identify areas of concern, such as the interlinkage of energy efficient, affordable and climate-friendly housing, and elaborate on strategies and policy recommendations to support affordable and sustainable housing, in the specific context of urban (in)equalities in Austria. We recommend three sets of measures on the (I) De-commodification of housing by remunicipalisation, (II) De-commodification by spatial and building planning and regulated land use and (III) Strategies for more inclusive housing.

1. Introduction

In this time of overlapping crises, characterized by climate change, environmental degradation, resource scarcity or the ongoing pandemic, issues of distribution, burden sharing and (social) justice are gaining momentum as prevailing inequalities become ever more apparent on all levels. In this vein, issues of climate justice go beyond the international macro level [1], and demand that the urban level (meso and micro aspects) be considered, especially with regards to the increasing climate impacts on cities (see e.g., heat points, energy inefficient buildings etc.).
The long-lasting effects of these crises, with their impacts on economies and labor that may deepen structural and social inequalities for years to come, have also driven attention to the question of appropriate housing when it comes to livable and sustainable cities. The decreasing supply of reasonably priced and sustainable housing has reached dimensions, which are leading to an exacerbated housing crisis, especially in urban areas [2]. Access to “fair housing” as well as the concomitant process of poverty-driven internal migration, is a topic of ever-growing relevance. This means that, due to the increase in housing costs, certain areas are no longer affordable for particular groups of the population, hence these groups are forced to move residence within their countries, often within a state or city area. They also see displacements through gentrification processes. These developments additionally include issues such as energy poverty and growing levels of homelessness.
There are many drivers, impacts and issues that align with the question of appropriate housing supply, that are closely connected with questions of inequality and poverty, and thus at the core of the second principle of the UN’s Agenda 2030: to leave no one behind (LNOB). In this context, the SDGs serve as strong international consensus norms and offer the opportunity to provide a framework to develop solutions and action planning towards a more equal and sustainable future. However, although the inequality-related goals (SDG 1, 5, 10), in combination with the LNOB principle, have laid important foundations for approaching these issues, tools for a systematic and comprehensive integration of the different components of inequality and poverty are missing. We argue that this is precisely what is needed to develop legitimate and sustainable strategies under the SDGs that consider the various social, environmental, and economic aspects of housing, which cannot be addressed in their fullest sense without a systematic perspective on inequalities. Our aim is to further the scientific SDG assessments and models with the notion of social and environmental justice dimensions, categories and indicators and to provide a thorough basis for identifying policy recommendations that can put countries on track in achieving targets within the SDG goals.
Against this background, we are interested in strategies and instruments for affordable and sustainable housing in the specific context of urban (in)equalities in Austria, and how the SDGs can serve as a framework for developing and legitimizing these. We want to bring issues of inequality as a cross-cutting principle to all SDGs with a critical perspective on power relations, exemplified through the relevant social question of fair and affordable housing. We suggest the implementation of the inequality and poverty assessment model (IPAM) as a guideline to screen both the analysis and potential strategies for five dimensions of social and environmental justice: (a) distribution, (b) procedure and participation, (c) fairness in climate and environmental adaptation, (d) legitimacy and (e) recognition. We believe that the IPAM, a systematic approach to integrate (in)equalities into the Agenda 2030, creates opportunities for stakeholder collaboration to tackle urban governance, in terms of fair and affordable housing, by both serving as a shared framework and leaving room for local priorities. In this vein, the IPAM, first, contributes to solving the problem of comprehensively evaluating each SDG regarding inequalities and, second, to providing common ground for stakeholders to generate sound strategies that do not conflict with the UN’s “leave no one behind” idea.
In this article, we start with a historical overview of the political process of integrating inequalities into the Agenda 2030, and critically reflect on the opportunities and pitfalls of SDG 10 and LNOB. Next, we introduce the Austrian case with an overview of the housing situation in Austrian urban regions. We then present the IPAM and explain our methodological approach and empirical data, followed by an overview of identified areas of concern (R1). Finally, we present strategies, options and instruments for affordable and sustainable housing (R2) with three sets of measures on (I) De-commodification of housing by remunicipalisation, (II) De-commodification by spatial and building planning and regulated land use, and (III) Strategies for more inclusive housing.

2. SDGs and the Question of Inequalities

The SDGs were the result of a complex policy process and therefore reflect conflicting and potentially contradictory interests embedded in the power relations of a variety of stakeholders (states, global institutions and actors, lobbying groups, NGOs, etc.). This is tangible, not only in the overall design of Agenda 2030 (divergent goals), but also within certain SDGs and their respective sub-targets. A particularly interesting example is SDG 10. For the first time, the UN has established a stand-alone goal on inequalities in and between countries and, with the LNOB principle, explicitly addresses the need for inclusion and the reduction of various forms of inequality as a guideline for the whole Agenda. However, this outcome was far from certain in the negotiation process around the SDGs that started in 2011, to formulate a successor agenda to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There was little disagreement that issues of equality and inclusion needed to be addressed somehow. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and prominent intellectual voices, including Thomas Piketty, drew attention to the growing inequalities and raised concerns that could not be ignored by the UN.
However, the debate on how to integrate inequality into the Agenda 2030 turned out to be “one of the most contested issues in the negotiations over the SDGs” [3] (p. 62). Two main controversies dominated the negotiations. The first was whether to integrate inequalities as a cross-cutting principle or as a ‘freestanding’ goal. The mainstreaming perspective was represented by the High Level Panel (HLP) of the UN Secretary General (SG), which advocated for a donor-driven successor agenda to the MDGs. In their counterpart, the Open Working Group (OWG) of the UN General Assembly (GA), the Global South had a greater voice and criticized the MDG agenda in terms of its narrow focus on poverty, the top down process and the omission of inequality issues. In alliance with NGOs, academic experts and the G-77, they finally agreed on a stand-alone goal and defended it against the Western block [3,4], representing a “considerable success and opportunity for the human rights movement” [4] (p. 1029). A residue of the cross-sectoral approach is the policy of “leave no one behind” that is supposed to guide the whole Agenda 2030 with all its 17 goals.
The second controversy revolved around the type of inequalities the goal should include. Some actors pushed for a radical challenge to the dominant economic model by addressing the distribution of wealth and power (vertical inequality). The HLP report mainly focused on the social exclusion of vulnerable and marginalized groups (horizontal inequality), leaving out issues of extreme inequality. As a strategic move, “[it] is an effective way of keeping out of the framework, the challenges of growing concentration of wealth and income and the political influence of the elites in national policy making.” [3] (p. 64). The final sub-targets of SDG 10 not only mirror these controversies, but also reveal who was able to most effectively secure their interests. The targets mostly encompass horizontal inequalities (empowerment and inclusion for all groups, equal opportunities by ending discrimination), inequalities between countries (enhance representation of the Global South, development assistance) and a special focus on migration. While vertical economic inequalities are represented as well, they do “shy away from the crux of the issue” [4] (p. 1031). This is illustrated well by the highly controversial target 10.1. (By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the population at a rate higher than the national average): the way it is formulated, it locks in the World Bank’s shared prosperity index as an indicator and thus takes alternative indicators, such as the Palma ratio or the Gini coefficient, off the table. Consequently, this target falls short in addressing wealth inequality and redistribution. The approach also defies the underlying principle of the SDG process: the separation of political negotiations of targets and the subsequent expert-driven work on finding respective indicators. “Under the guise of something ‘technical’ or ‘scientific’, a choice of indicator was made that would frame the inequality agenda and reinterpret the inequality norm.” [3] (p. 68).
This is not the only weak spot of SDG 10. While acknowledging the value of the stand-alone goal, scholars have raised concerns about unbalanced targets, imprecise language, vulnerability to political neglect, the lack of UN agencies or international institutions to push for action or evaluate measures [3,4,5] and the underlying neoliberal development project in line with the premises of modernization theory [6]. All criticism aside, SDG 10, together with the principle of LNOB, SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 5 (gender equality) legitimately puts a strong focus on issues of inequalities throughout the whole Agenda 2030 and can therefore shape consensus norms. The degree of vagueness, often perceived as problematic, might also leave room for interpretation and manoeuver by allowing countries or stakeholders to set their own priorities. Considering that, inequality issues need to be proactively promoted and systematically integrated so that LNOB is not reduced to a “rhetorical flourish camouflaging fundamentally exclusionary policies” [4] (p. 1031). For this purpose, we have developed a systematic approach for streamlining problems and solutions within the SDG framework in an inequality-sensitive way that proves to be particularly helpful when it comes to issues that are both socially and ecologically relevant, such as affordable and sustainable housing.

Housing: An Issue of (In-)Equality

Because housing issues are temporally and spatially differentiated, with complex economic histories and presents, they require a thoughtful and comprehensive assessment of their many dimensions—inequality is chief among them [7]. Yet they are so far insufficiently represented by the SDG 10 (targets), nor by the SDG 11 (sustainable city) or its target on affordable housing 11.1. In order to contextualize housing inequalities, a critical sociological broadening of the discourse which goes beyond mere economic parameters (reflecting the deeply pro-market orientation) is needed to identify social injustice, revealing related social consequences [8] and underlying social conflict potentials. Sociological thinking demands a change from mere economic approaches towards a consideration of systemic disadvantages and exclusion, in order to grasp the role of the housing (and political-economic) system in the reproduction and reinforcement of urban inequalities [8,9]. Housing is a human need and a human right, but is unequally distributed. It has the power to determine the socioeconomic status and possibilities for individual and collective developments. When it comes to the issue of housing as a foundation of well-being, the OECD identifies a wide range of channels, including access to “decent shelter, environmental quality, efficient use of scarce resources, type and extent of commuting, as well as its contribution to strong and resilient economic growth” [10] (p. 1). The lack of appropriate housing in areas of attraction (e.g., with a good infrastructure, job prospects etc.) can have adverse and severe consequences for individuals or groups [11]. Pryce [11] understands the inequality derived from inappropriate housing (site-specific, including neighborhood, and quality-specific) as directly related to other inequalities, such as social, racial, income and wealth inequality, which makes it a clear issue of the SDG 10. Housing inequalities are often the result of market forces, discrimination, and segregation, and are connected to poverty (SDG 1) as cause and effect.
The deep interconnections between housing and inequalities become especially clear when considering the severe impacts borne by families and children of low-income households. Whether these changes of residence involve a change of school, neighborhood, or an unsteady housing situation entails other psychological consequences, housing inequalities create stressful situations, particularly (but not exclusively) for adolescents. The inequalities of housing become particularly apparent when we take Amartya Sen’s definition of poverty as the deprivation of core capabilities [12] into account. Disparities in housing can be recognized as variations in the conversion of income into human capabilities in different social climates [13]. Income inequality can determine opportunities to access appropriate social services, such as healthcare, sanitation, education, but do not always translate into desirable outcomes. Housing quality is a factor, which determines if those outcomes are readily available to an individual [7].
The current global paradigm of urbanization, also called the “new urban age” [8], consists of several key factors, such as urban form, efficient urban infrastructure and spatial use, challenges in governance, transport (e.g., work commute, access to social infrastructure), impacts on the environment, public space and social inclusion, that can be risk factors leading to social conflicts [8]. Urban inequalities (including urban conflicts), in turn, have a severe impact on the well-being, livelihoods and economic prosperity of the city and metropolitan region [14,15]. The term ‘conflict’ is deployed here to refer to conflict potentials, and understands urban conflicts, according to Moser’s and Rodgers’ description as “situations where individuals and groups have incongruent interests that are contradictory and potentially mutually exclusive, but contained” [15] (p. 2). In this framing, violence is a potential but not inevitable result. Some of the conflict potentials include the question of affordable, climate-friendly housing supply, a question of livelihood security, especially due to rising rental costs, along with exorbitantly increasing energy prices, exacerbated in turn by climatic issues, such as the urban heat island effect. The recent housing referendum in Berlin, in which voters affirmed a demand to expropriate housing stock from large private corporations, such as Deutsche Wohnen, demonstrates that the area of housing affordability is hotly charged [16]. Failure to address voters’ demands could prove to be a source of substantial urban social conflict, as housing prices continue to rise.
However, there is also conflict potential regarding environmental initiatives and social issues. In this context, Anguelovski and Conolly [14] focus on the ‘green paradox’ within the issue of urban inequality, suggesting that “urban greening, while aiming to improve the environment and public health, often deepens social injustices” (p. 148). Comparing four urban greening projects as cases (Milan, Bristol, Valencia and Amsterdam) they find similar transformations, correlating with the historical references of gentrification processes. The housing and quarter development through capital resulted—and apparently still results—in the displacement of lower income residents (e.g., working-class, racial or ethnic minorities, creative artists etc.). These cases, and others show that urban greening measures, which require large investments, can lead to unpredicted social consequences.
Yet there is another aspect to be taken into account if we think about housing inequalities: the issue of energy poverty (also referred to as fuel poverty, e.g. in the UK [17]). A term that has no commonly agreed definition, energy poverty refers to the inability of a household or small business to afford energy services, such as adequate heat, electricity and transportation services (or other mobility) [18]. According to the European Commission (2021), energy poverty “results from a combination of low income, high expenditure of disposable income on energy and poor energy efficiency, especially as regards the performance of buildings” [18] (p. 1). Low income households already suffer from high rents in urban areas and are significantly more likely to live in buildings (built before 1960) that have not been refurbished with energy and insulation in mind [19]. Rising energy prices therefore impact vulnerable groups disproportionately (Ibid.). The sheer number of households inhabiting energy inefficient buildings is itself a major challenge to reaching climate protection goals, and the current approach is leaving many behind. In this way, low income households are quasi-excluded from the climate action process. It is estimated that already up to 125 million people within the European Union are prone to the effects of energy poverty on a daily basis [19], the latest energy crisis is not even included in these estimations.

3. The Case of Austria

Although the global financial crisis impacted the Austrian economy to a lesser degree than it did other European countries, this development has not led to a stagnation of housing costs, which have significantly increased in its aftermath, and have been rising ever since [20]. The global financial crisis then resulted in a European sovereign debt crisis with expensive bank rescue operations that also took place in Austria. To reduce national debts, a wave of privatization followed. Several formerly state-owned infrastructures, as well as common goods, such as land, properties and housing, have been commodified [21]. The overall insecurity of the financial markets and the supply of commodified real estate has led to a reallocation of investments and savings into the real estate and housing sector. This development has been enhanced by the ongoing urbanization. The result of this process is a ‘general disequilibrium’ between supply and demand in the rental sector in the main urban centres [21].
One of the outcomes of this development is a significant increase of (rental) housing costs, especially around several urban centers, cities and tourist regions in Austria [22]. This is particularly dramatic, as it has contributed to a decline in housing affordability for lower and middle-income groups whose incomes are stagnating in a relatively poor economic environment (Ibid.). Measures to increase the supply of affordable housing, such as by increasing new housing construction by state and market actors have been, so far, rather less successful. Housing prices are still rising; the market has failed to balance the supply of sufficient units of affordable housing in response to substantial demand. Thus, other approaches are needed to soothe the situation, particularly those involving the state. When it comes to housing policy in a welfare state, such as Austria, it is essential to acknowledge its federal system and the devolved responsibilities of the federal provinces. Overall legal housing regulations are the authority of the federal state (e.g., rental laws, tax regulations and collection, condominium laws etc.). However, housing subsidy schemes, regional planning, building regulations, etc., are a matter for the federal states. This situation leads to quite varied regulations, which are subsequently reflected in differing regional conditions.
Studies [23,24] on moratoria around construction, as well as considerations on building land paradoxes [25] substantiate the fact that despite sufficient real estate and building land inventories, rental and construction prices continue to rise {25]. The published figures on housing use (vacancies, second or vacation homes, etc.) also suggest that there would already be enough building land and living space available in many regions, especially in cities (Ibid.). Furthermore, there has been no complete and comprehensive survey on vacant housing units in Austria’s urban areas [26]. There are, however, individual studies on vacant housing units at the local level [27]. In this vein, a socio-spatial analysis of short term renting (AirBNB) in Salzburg shows a significant correlation between the lack of affordable housing and short-term renting (vacation homes) [28].
When it comes to a climate-friendly and energy efficient housing supply, the building sector in Austria mitigated about 8.1 m. tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, representing approx. 10% of Austria’s total CO2 emissions [29]. Residential dwellings contribute an 8.2% share in total emissions [30]. To reduce these emissions and reach the Paris Climate Agreement, the Austrian government is aiming to improve the renovation (energy rehabilitation) rate from 1.4% to 3%. However, the modernization of existing and new buildings towards climate-friendly and energy efficient housing, is cost-intensive and will most likely raise housing prices and rents, thus exacerbating the difficult housing situation for low- and middle-income households. The Austrian Court of Auditors classifies Austria’s existing climate protection measures and approaches, particularly focusing on energy poverty and the participation in climate friendly housing, as insufficient and recommends an overall national strategy against energy poverty that goes beyond mere financial support [31].
Various housing policy measures, such as rent regulation (which already affects 70% of rental housing in Austria) have so far hardly provided a solution to the housing problem [32]. The OECD Housing Sector Country Snapshot reports on large differences in the tenure structure across the OECD and key partner countries [9]. Their analysis indicates that homeownership in Austria is lower than the OECD average (Ibid.). Despite the fact that this data shows that Austria has a relatively high share of social housing as a percentage of the total dwelling stock, among OECD countries, at 24% (2019), there is still a gap between supply and demand of affordable housing. Additionally, the data are driven mainly by Vienna, with social housing comprising 44% of the total dwelling stock. The situation is different in the other federal states, with significantly lower rates in social housing [9].
Non-profit housing, as currently practiced in Austria, also seems to generate a solution only to a limited extent, as it competes with private competitors for affordable land to build on. Although about 20% of all Austrians and about 45% of Viennese currently live in a communal or cooperative apartment [33,34], the social housing supply nevertheless does not meet the increasing demand for affordable and environmentally or climate-friendly housing (Ibid.). A recent study conducted by the Technical University Vienna for the Arbeiterkammer, the organization that represents Austrian workers and consumers, explains this gap in two ways: as a result of a fast population growth (urbanization) on the one hand, and on the other, an overproduction of expensive, exclusive housing units built as investment properties–not to meet the housing demands of the city’s population [34]. The increase of housing units for investment in Vienna reveals that there is also a tendency to further housing commodification in a city that is actually known for its socially friendly housing policy.
Furthermore, existing segments of funded (social) housing and housing subsidies in Austria, are often not affordable for people with a lower income or special needs [32]. In this context, the commoditization and rent-seeking in the housing sector also poses the risk of playing off the social concerns against climate protection and other ecological concerns [35,36]. Therefore, strategies for affordable and sustainable housing need to be developed from a comprehensive perspective on various levels of inequalities, in order to not cause unintentional detrimental effects. For that, we suggest the inequality and poverty assessment model as a comprehensive tool of analysis.

4. The Inequality and Poverty Assessment Model (IPAM)

Designed and applied to analyze SDG-related issues of concern, the IPAM follows a multidimensional approach that is based on a previous design of a Conservation Justice and Conflict Modell (CJC) [37], with the emphasis on five recurring justice dimensions mentioned in the relevant scientific literature to reduce poverty and inequality. Using different methods from a qualitative content analysis (supported by a computerized comparative data analysis), statistical analysis to a literature review, we have narrowed down the vast quantity of scientific publications, and filtered the most frequently appearing and most agreed upon dimensions that are relevant for inequality and poverty. Additionally, the indicator sets include environmental management and governance research [38,39], which play a key role in the theoretical framework of this model and serve as guidance and foundation for the development of the analysis framework. These indicators are partly derived from Ostrom’s et al. ‘design principles’ for a sustainable resource management that lowers social conflict potentials [40,41]. The triangulation of different justice theories and approaches allows a closer examination of socio-environmental and economic problems and inequality potentials, with regards to SDG action implementation and institutional performance.
These dimensions are (see Figure 1):
Distribution (distributive justice) deals with the distribution of social, economic and ecological goods (e.g. resources) and environmental effects (sinks, pollution, climate change impacts etc.). It therefore not only includes financial aspects, but also access to social infrastructure, climate adaptation capacities, etc. It orientates itself along the influential theories of social and environmental justice, concerning the distribution of the different resources and services each SDG and its targets address [40,41,42,43,44,45]. Therefore, it also assesses the impact of affordable housing efforts (SDG 11.1), in light of reducing inequalities (SDG 10) and poverty (SDG 1).
Participation (procedural justice) here means the inclusion of local stakeholders in the processes of decision-making, including perceptions and actual ‘roles of different people’ (such as representation, responsiveness, consistency, etc.). These were adapted to housing as an essential social resource. In this vein, procedural justice, i.e., participation in decision-making, accounts for all parties involved. Further indicators of this dimension include the arrangements of collective decision-making, conflict-solving mechanisms and communication strategies [40,41,44].
Legitimacy relates to legal aspects, trust, or general agreement in the institutions (rules, laws and its application), which in turn correlate with the willingness to cooperate and the social conflict potentials. Although the concept of legitimacy lacks an overall definition, it is here interpreted as “any behavior or set of circumstances that society defines as just, correct, or appropriate” [46].
Recognition is a dimension that represents the acknowledgement of people’s distinct identities and how they relate to categories of inequalities. It also includes the individual level of how it feels to be deprived or left behind, treated unequally, viz. identified psychological aspects of poverty and inequality (such as shame, resulting existential anxiety) [41,42,44].
Fairness in climate and environmental adaptation relates to the environmental and climate justice debate, focusing on urban climate justice aspects [47,48]. This dimension serves to identify the challenges and capacities to adapt to urban environmental impacts and climate change in a ‘fair’ and ‘just’, or ‘equal’ manner, i.e., in balance with the above-mentioned dimensions [37,48].
Yet another important factor plays a role, the notion of justice, which is difficult to grasp and might be differently interpreted by stakeholders. Therefore, we included the question on the perception of justice (on a certain subject), as it is a relevant sub-dimension, describing the different notions of justice and psychological issues correlating with inequalities and poverty, in correlation to the multiple interpretations of the same values, etc. It is thus necessary to consider issues of perceived ‘just’ treatment, as well as the varying notions (understandings) of justice, for research on ‘perceptions of justice performance’.
In sum, the goal of the IPAM is to identify the social/environmental justice implications of certain areas, plan and enable a pro-active and/or preventive action planning to address (potential) problems and conflicts, with the desired outcome of a less severe impact on inequality, in balance with societal needs. In the next step, we will show how we applied the IPAM to the issue of affordable housing.

Data Sources and Methodological Approach

The sample selection process focuses on five Austrian cities (Vienna, Salzburg, Graz, Innsbruck, Linz). We chose the cases, first, according to the differences in housing policies, prices and rental costs, striving for a high level of heterogeneity, and, second, in terms of accessibility to expertise in these regions through our project partners. Rental prices are particularly high in Salzburg (incl. operating costs EUR 10.1 / m2/excl. operating costs EUR 7.7 / m2) and Tyrol (incl. operating costs EUR 9.3 / m2/excl. operating costs EUR 7.7 / m2) and significantly lower in Styria (incl. operating costs EUR 7.9 / m2/excl. EUR 5.9 / m2) and Vienna (incl. operating costs EUR 7.7 / m2/excl. operating costs EUR 6.3 / m2) [33]. The numbers also show a variation in the operating costs that are especially relevant in the current situation of the energy crisis. In the context of different housing policies and situations, e.g., Vienna (state and capital city) offer a significantly higher percentage of social housing, community housing and other public subsidized housing units (44%) than the rest of Austria (24%) as well as lower rental costs per square meter. This is also partly the case in Styria (Graz). Moreover, federal states, such as Salzburg or Tyrol (home of the regional capital of Innsbruck) demonstrate a lower share of social, public or community housing units, and as tourist regions, have significantly higher housing and rental costs. There are also geographical reasons for the different housing situations. The tourist regions of Austria (including Salzburg, Tyrol, Vorarlberg) are very attractive for second and holiday homes, and thus for investors, leading to a high competition for land and higher prices.
The survey period took place between 2019–2022 within the UniNEtZ 1 (a university network to scientifically support the Austrian government in reaching the SDGs) period and focused on the overall research question: What are the main issues and challenges when it comes to the question of housing and (in)equality in Austria and what needs to be accomplished (policy recommendations and other forms of solutions)? The research design entailed a mixed-methods approach where we applied the IPAM as a tool of analysis. First, we carried out an extensive literature review and analysis of documents on the topic of affordable and sustainable housing in Austria and identified areas of concern and, if provided, the potential solutions and recommendations. Second, we conducted 35 expert interviews and five stakeholder workshops (altogether approx. 37–42 members of the key stakeholders). One of the quality criteria for the stakeholder selection was the inclusion of the main controversial positions trying to prevent the focus on a single point of view. Thus, the identified experts belong to the following stakeholder groups: (A) NGOs, other non-governmental groups, including business representatives (e.g., associations of tenants and proprietors, NGOs, homeless federation, etc.), (B) Austrian authorities and institutions (e.g., representatives of social housing departments), (C) researchers. The expert interviews mostly focused on the specifics of affordable and sustainable housing, some of them also included a more general view on inequalities and poverty in Austria. In the workshops, the experts discussed areas of concern and policy recommendations.
In a final step, we structured the results of the empirical data, according to the IPAM. The IPAM works twofold. First, we identified and prioritized problems, according to the IPAM dimensions, as well as the relevant SDGs within this dimension, and defined further problematic system dynamic interrelations. Stakeholders were challenged to rate and prioritize the areas of justice in housing that are in need of immediate action. The outcome and results of the first step, the problem diagnosis, are summarized in results 1 (R1). It is based on a numeric evaluation system from 0–10, where zero depicts low inequalities and poverty potentials and 10, the highest urban inequality and conflict potential. Second, we created solutions and policy recommendations on the basis of the problem diagnosis that we present in results 2 (R2).

5. Results

5.1. Problem Diagnosis and Relevant Dimensions of Justice (R1)

Using the IPAM, several so far neglected problems regarding urban (in)equalities and conflict potentials could be identified.
In this regard, the surprising outcome (see Figure 2) is the prioritization of the dimension entitled fair climate and environmental adaptation, and the problem identification of affordable climate/environmentally friendly housing supply (89%) as essential to tackle the urban inequality and poverty impacts (including conflict potential). This was especially relevant, with regards to rising housing costs in urban and suburban areas, as well as the increasing energy prices that sometimes equal an extra month’s rent, as displayed in the blue quarter of the model image, illustrating the fair climate adaptation dimension. The second highest ranking concerns the distributive dimension with the identified main driver of the mere profit-oriented distribution of housing as such (76%), illustrated by the orange IPAM dimension. The stakeholder (including groups) rated the relevance of the dimension legitimacy with 67% and identified problems within spatial planning and land development regulations, and other housing regulations (frameworks, measures and policies). The dimension of procedural, participative justice issues (62%) (green dimension) revealed that tenants and people with special needs and a low income, in particular, have few opportunities to participate in the processes relevant for housing policies. Last, but not least, the recognition (63%) of special needs and capabilities [41,45], represented by the black IPAM dimension, have been identified as relevant to find gaps and barriers in housing policies and regulations that discriminate against marginalized groups (elderly, people with disabilities, single parent families, etc.). Thus, all IPAM dimensions have been ranked as relevant by the participating stakeholders and experts, where the relevance threshold is reached above 50%.
R1: Analysis and interpretation of the results.
Through the ranking of inequality and poverty (impact) dimensions and problems, many drivers, challenges and problems of current housing prices and urban inequality have been identified as relevant for Austria. There is, for example, a growing urban population in need of housing near areas of interest (mostly urban and suburban) and the growing popularity of housing as a real estate investment, not meant to supply the masses with living space, but for profit- and/or investment security reasons. This is a result, inter alia, of low interest rates on savings, the financial crisis (followed by the Euro crisis), as well as an accompanying wave of commodification of public goods (such as land and buildings), constraining the government’s ability to take countermeasures. Since the housing sector is responsible for significant CO2 emissions, the urgently needed move to decarbonization, regulation of the housing sector and profit-orientated housing demands, drive housing prices even higher. This development often results in high rates of vacant units, a poorly regulated private rental sector and gentrification. These are becoming more and more relevant and are, meanwhile, even reaching middle-income households. Reforms to housing-related benefits, particularly in the course of the financial crisis 2008, have not only reduced incomes, but also reduced the supply of social community housing and state subsidies for social and community housing. This has increased the failure of the housing supply to meet demand, which is itself exacerbated by the need to reduce the CO2 emissions of the housing sector and volatile energy prices.

5.2. Policy Recommendations (R2)

We now present instruments for affordable and climate-friendly housing that are based on the problem diagnosis (R1) and bundled in set of measures.

5.2.1. Set of Measures 1 (IPAM Dimensions: Fair Climate Adaptation and Distribution): De-Commodification of Housing by Remunicipalisation

This set of measures focuses on the reclamation of the municipal scope of action, options and levers for just housing. This could be implemented by several IPAM-deduced measures, for instance by a consistent enforcement of public preemptive right to buy land and buildings, apartments (possibly with interest-free loans), participatory decision-making, if possible, with the co-creative integration of local citizen councils. Furthermore, tax incentives rededicating urban areas in the vein of climate friendly and affordable housing or public green areas, parks, biosphere reservoirs, etc., can support climate and socially just housing and district development. One of the outcomes also promotes the idea of a stronger network between urban and suburban areas, especially focusing on the enforcement of regional planning and the ballot level, as one of the measures that could reduce, for example, land usage for joint commercial areas. For this, the municipal tax system needs to be reformed (e.g., detachment from income and business tax, or a regional financial compensation), away from a competitiveness of areas, districts, etc., towards a pro-climate and socially friendly urban space and housing. The promotion of residual environment funds to improve climate friendly design/building (with the focus to reduce energy poverty and unequal conditions, such as confined living space and pollution) is recommended. The funding strategy could also targets innovative architecture, such as designing recyclable buildings, or other novel approaches to LNOB.

5.2.2. Set of Measures II (IPAM Dimensions: Procedure/Participation and Legitimacy): De-Commodification by Spatial and Building Planning and Regulated Land Use

This set of measures targets the reform of land use regulations and construction moratoria, (meaning that construction would be halted for a certain period of time, usually by official agreement) to open scopes of action against rising rents, land and building costs, which are increasing, despite sufficient real estate, property, building and land portfolios [21,22,23]. Public (governmental) initiated surveys, studies and the monitoring of urban consumption and property need to be implemented, in order to at least identify urban vacancy rates (including holiday and secondary residences). In order to fight vacancy rates in urban areas, a temporally and regionally differentiated building construction moratorium, particularly with regard to holiday or second residences, is necessary. A penalty tax for vacant units or holiday/second residences can be used as an incentive too. The aforementioned measures would increase the focus on housing as a social and cultural right, support the utilization of extant and vacant housing or space units. Alternatively, it may show disproportionately high rates of holiday and second residencies. Even if this measure supports investment in social housing, it is not sufficient to ensure that this focus would result in new, affordable and climate-friendly (viz. decarbonized) housing units. There are many system dynamic imponderables and drivers to be taken into account. For example, land use restrictions may prevent the exploitation of dedicated areas, since many areas that are supposed to become building land are not used (mostly for speculative purposes). Measures may include the enforcement of an obligation to build for dedicated areas, rezoning and prioritizing multi-family housing over single-family housing.

5.2.3. Set of Measures III (IPAM Dimensions: Participation, Legitimacy and Recognition in Correlation of Fair Climate Adaptation and Distribution): Strategies for More Inclusive Housing

Support mechanisms and instruments can make a contribution towards de-commodified housing that is also socially and climate-friendly. More just and anti-discriminatory climate funding strategies and concepts for urban areas are needed to further access socio-ecological friendly housing that leads to more participation for neglected groups or households (LNOB). This funding approach can be applied to existing policies concerning social and other subsidized housing, which can be improved by the prioritization of object funding (supply-side) before subject funding (demand-side) [34,46]. The dominant subject-funded housing paradigm is often connected with relatively high equity resources that prove to be unaffordable for low income households. Subsidies, in light of climate-friendly and socially just housing, need to be adapted to bridge the gap between high housing costs (including energy costs) and low household income (removing financial barriers for low(er) income households, e.g., by means of funds for security deposits). The establishment of climate justice funds for decarbonized housing (viz. climate friendly housing) to prevent energy poverty in the housing sector enables participation of low- and lower-middle-income households. In a first step, this includes initiating a ‘one million solar roofs’ program (including energy storage facilities), particularly in urban areas with a high rate of low-income households to fight vulnerability to energy poverty and volatile energy prices with a decentralized energy supply. Targeting the allocation instruments of subsidized housing is another area for improvement. Access to subsidized social housing is mostly connected to pre-conditions, such as a minimum occupancy and period of employment in the urban area of interest, making it very difficult or impossible to access social housing if a person/household moves to another city or cannot show the necessary duration of employment (e.g., mothers). This includes the improvement of inclusion and funding strategies towards a more independent living, housing and care for the vulnerable and elderly, as well as people with disabilities. Another option of action the stakeholder groups and model evaluation points out are measures for the creation of housing for homeless people, based on the model of the institutionalized ‘housing first’ concept. Unlike other programs, this approach does not require the homeless to ‘qualify’ for independent and permanent housing through various levels, but instead allows them to move directly and first into their own apartment.
The three sets of measures serve as policy recommendations and to further research on climate friendly housing, from an urban inequality and poverty perspective. The sets are based on each other, and hence are difficult to separate, particularly if it is meant to unfold its transformative character.

6. Conclusions

The research community identified a clear demand to move away from simplistic representations of the environmental, social and economic systems and their connections to more holistic concepts and models to understand their interrelations and resulting dynamics [46,47,48,49,50,51,52]. Many economic, social and climate and integrated assessment models (IAMs) for different scales (local, national and global) have been developed to understand and evaluate the effects of various climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, within an SDG context [48,49,50,51,52]. Yet, today hardly any quantitative simulation models capture the systemic nature of the SDGs, meaning that complexity is not accounted for, which is also true in terms of affordable and climate friendly housing [36]. Therefore, the IPAM was designed to integrate the most prevailing SDGs (incl. targets and indicators) in the LNOB debate, qualifying questions of SDG1, SDG 5 and SDG10. Furthermore our model is adaptable to system dynamic approaches (system images, causal-loop-diagrams) combining stakeholder and expert collaboration and transdisciplinary knowledge integration to provide better insights into SDG compatible transition pathways [53,54]. Our approach is unique, as we combine not only stakeholder collaboration methods with modeling approaches, but also social and environmental/climate justice approaches. Such a triangular approach ideally considers aspects that might be overlooked if only one of them were to be taken into consideration. Additionally, applying the IPAM model helps to identify factors and interactions that may not have received adequate attention in stakeholder and scientific collaboration processes, and vice versa. Yet there are limitations to the model as it is a qualitative approach, and thus not quantitatively representative. It is also limited to the perspectives of the stakeholders and experts who participated in the process. Furthermore it does not reveal the system boundaries—tradeoffs and synergies. It could, therefore, be advantageous to combine the IPAM with a causal-loop approach and qualitative-quantitative comparative data analysis.
In this paper, we have developed the IPAM as a systematic approach for streamlining problems and solutions within the SDG-framework in an inequality-sensitive way. Following a mixed-methods research design, we identified areas of concern and elaborated on strategies to react to the intensifying lack of affordable and sustainable housing in the specific context of urban inequalities in Austria. Our results show a clear priority not only on the aspect of affordability, but also on energy efficient, climate friendly housing with correlated problems, such as a housing market that is predominantly focused on profit-maximization. The three presented sets of measures (I) De-commodification of housing by remunicipalisation, (II) De-commodification by spatial and building planning and regulated land use, and (III) Strategies for more inclusive housing, link concerns of social and climate justice issues in a comprehensive way that is owed to the model’s analytical potential. Of course, case studies generally cannot be transferred one-to-one to different contexts and cultures but we believe that our study can be of value to other cities dealing with the crisis of socially and environmentally just housing. Our findings are relevant not only to policy makers, but also to other scholars who do research on SDG-related topics at the interface of science and concrete implementation, or policy advice.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.B. and K.K.; methodology, M.B and K.K.; data curation, M.B. and K.K.; writing—original draft preparation, M.B. and K.K.; writing—review and editing, M.B. and K.K.; All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Inequality and poverty (Impact) Assessment Model (IPAM) [49].
Figure 1. Inequality and poverty (Impact) Assessment Model (IPAM) [49].
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Figure 2. Cumulated IPAM Outcome (R1) [50].
Figure 2. Cumulated IPAM Outcome (R1) [50].
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Bukowski, M.; Kreissl, K. Social and Climate (In-)Equality Perspectives within the SDGs: Introducing the Inequality and Poverty Assessment Model for a Sustainable Transformation of Housing. Sustainability 2022, 14, 15869.

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Bukowski M, Kreissl K. Social and Climate (In-)Equality Perspectives within the SDGs: Introducing the Inequality and Poverty Assessment Model for a Sustainable Transformation of Housing. Sustainability. 2022; 14(23):15869.

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Bukowski, Meike, and Katharina Kreissl. 2022. "Social and Climate (In-)Equality Perspectives within the SDGs: Introducing the Inequality and Poverty Assessment Model for a Sustainable Transformation of Housing" Sustainability 14, no. 23: 15869.

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