Moral Economies of Urban Dwelling

Nonprofit Housing in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (20th/21st Century)

Tobias Bernet (PhD Project)

Shelter is a basic need and housing is thus considered a fundamental human right. Yet even in countries with comprehensive welfare systems, the provision of housing appears in different institutional guises: as a commodity, as a welfare benefit, and, in some instances, as something like a public or common good. These different modes of ownership and allocation were a key issue in struggles for affordable housing throughout the 20th century. The various social movements concerned with this cause often sought to decommodify parts of the housing stock. This has been a particularly pressing matter in the German-speaking area, as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are considered "nations of tenants", having some of the lowest rates of owner-occupied homes among industrialized countries.

Since the 19th century, nonprofit housing has encompassed two major institutional spheres: Public housing, which is built and managed by state entities or their subsidiaries, and housing organizations within the civil society sector, primarily cooperatives. In the wake of the post-Fordist transformations that have been taking place since the 1970s, new forms of collective living emerged: for example, groups of former squatters or tenants in various cities managed to become lawful (joint) owners of their houses.

This dissertation project examines the history of nonprofit housing movements and organizations in the three German-speaking countries, placing special emphasis on the revival of cooperative concepts and ideals since the 1970s. Employing a combination of ethnographic and historiographic methods, it seeks to explore discourses and struggles that constitute elements of a moral economy of housing: Which values and ideas have contributed to creating and shaping different kinds of nonprofit housing institutions? What meaning, for instance, do members of alternative housing projects ascribe to their "communal" way of living? By addressing questions such as these, the research project aims to enhance understanding of housing as a dimension of modern culture that reflects broader socio-economic and normative transformations.

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