Full interview - K. Schwertner

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Klaus Schwertner // Caritas Management and organisation of magdas hotel

„Generally to deal with the subject crowd funding: It is relatively new in Austria."

“There are only few projects - when I think about the web platform respekt.net - which I think are very interesting".

1) The hotel used to be a residential care home for the elderly, founded by the Caritas. Why was it relocated?

The Josef-Macho-Haus, as it was formerly known, was used as a residential care home for retired and elderly people for 40 years and was transformed to a health care facility over the years. Since elderly persons only use this special facilities when needing the appropriate care, the house was, according to the constructional condition no longer up to date. Despite ongoing investments an adaptations the bathrooms were not handicapped accessible therefore the Caritas and the fund „Soziales Wien“ decided to build a new rest home in another location, which happened in Kagran, near the SMZ Ost (Social medical Center East, Vienna). The residents of the former Josef-Macho-Haus were relocated to this new residential care home for the elderly, called St. Teresa, in early 2013. I was already there and the residents feel very comfortable there in the meantime. They were insecure of course, as a significant change, like a relocation, must be prepared and supported accordingly at this certain age.
Early last year (2013) the former rest home was converted to a emergency shelter and day centre for homeless people at short notice, therefore the ground floor was adapted within a few days. Shortly after the renovation the first homeless people moved in, as we and the city of Vienna want to offer more places in winter, as more space was needed short-term.
It's nice to see, that so many different uses of a building were made possible in such a short time.
Originally, there were already refugees accommodated in this house, in the Hungarian crisis, after that it was a residential care home for the elderly, a health care facility and now it's a hotel.

2) Since how long is the property under the ownership of the Caritas? It was bought in 1956, wasn't it?

Exactly, the house was bought in 1956 with means of Caritas USA. At that time it was a accommodation for around 50 students from 23 nations. Before that, until the 2nd World War, it was the mansion of the musicians' family Harnoncourt. In 1971, the conversion into a rest home was approved.

3) The building was supposed to be demolished after the relocation. Who set in for the preservation of the building? Whose idea was it to establish a hotel with integrated asylum flat share?

The original plan was to rebuilt the rest home on the same site. We have already had the idea a longer time ago, to implement a innovative project with refugees and at some point – it don't remember when exactly – we considered: what could we do? From many integration projects, such as the art and social space in the Brunnengasse, in the 16th district, where people are dancing and singing together, that where is encounter, integration works. There people are not questioning: „Where does someone come from? Where does one go?“, they just do everything together and therefore integration works. In Lower Austria there is, for example, a tandem project: Here a Austrian citizen and asylum seeker form a tandem, that got to the movies and cook together, jointly learn each others language etc. And I say consciously „the language“, because it's not about just asylum seekers learning german, but also Austrians learning the respective language and culture. Here we see that this is an enrichment for both and that diversity can be experienced as an enrichment.
With the magdas hotel we wanted to implement just an idea like that. We were searching for a site and the advantage of a rest home is the physical structure, as just comparatively few adaptations and renovations are needed. The rooms already exist and each rooms has its own wet room and these advantages lead the hotel project to be situated in the Laufbergergasse. In addition, the site offers other advantages: It is very centrally located, easily accessible by public transport, also from the airport and the building is directly located at the Prater Allee, which means it is both central and green.
Also, we were very pleased that the district leader was very much in favour of the project, so therefore we ultimately decided for the Laufbergergasse.

4) Actually more asylum flat shares were planed. Why were just two implemented?

The asylum issue regularly causes agitation. In 2012, a big asylum summit was held by the Chancellor and the Minister of Interior, where it was discussed how to assure a proper accommodation for asylum seekers in Austria. This was not only an issue in 2012, but also this year: Now and then tent cities were discussed. In general, we believe that tent cities in Austria and Europe, are an indictment of poverty for the accommodation of refugees and are not necessary of one bears in mind how the asylum statistics and dimension really looks like. In 2012, we have agreed that we will create further 100 places for unaccompanied minors on different locations.
The Caritas owns a refugee house in Neudörfl in Burgenland, one in St.Gabriel and some others in Vienna and on these sites the additional 100 places were spread. The unaccompanied minor refugees, who will now live at the magdas hotel, previously lived at the Wiedner Gürtel. We are looking for permanent locations for these 25 refugees, as they are expected to live at the magdas hotel for only one or two years. At the same locations there will be shared flats and the fixed location will probably be the one we had previously.

5) Whose idea was it to use crowdfunding as financing method/tool? What's your personal opinion of crowdfunding?

Generally you have to say about crowdfunding in Austria, that its still in its infancy, since there are only isolated projects – when I'm thinking of the platform respekt.net, which I personally find very exciting. Concretely, the BAWAG PSK Bank launched the crowdfunding platform crowdfunding.at and was looking for projects, which they found innovative and exciting. They became aware of the Magdas hotel project and we considered a reasonable reachable goal. So the 25.000 € were planned to finance the extension of 5 rooms. We are currently at about 84 % and I am very confident that we will reach the aim of 25.000 € until the opening in February 2015. I wish that more projects would be financed via crowdfunding in the future. I have to say self-critically that I initially didn't see through that you get a voucher for two people worth 70 € when donating 100 €, so you are giving a 30 € donation. You also had to register at first in order to participate at all. Here, the access must be simplified, so that the project is well accepted by the population. We note that wherever we talk about the project, it is embraced very positively. There are also lots of requests concerning the project and I believe that this is a positive approach to the issue of integration – not this negative focus – the opportunities and talents of those people, who can't do anything for month or years, who bring in their skills, are now seen. At the Magdas project it will be different, because 30 training and work places will be provided largely for unaccompanied minor refugees. This means that there are Convention refugees and subsidiary protected refugees on the one side and on the other side four – up to six are planned – apprenticeships for unaccompanied minor refugees are intended.

6) Would you see crowdfunding as a helpful or hindering instrument in the project?

I think that many different facets of the project lead to so much interest. There are also lots of people who say they want to do something, who want to participate. I remember that recently, the company Samsung has worked at the hotel for a day, that was the „Lange Nacht der Flucht“ („long night of escape“), but that is just one example. Also people of the direct neighbourhood want to participate, and I think that crowdfunding was an important element in the perception of the project so far, which helped to involve more people. This is a basic principle of us as Caritas, especially with „Caritas & Du“, not to say I just donate to an organisation, who does good things and I can lean back, but to try to involve and reach as many people as possible, that implement projects collectively with us. These can be very specific projects, very complete, just one day or long-term, for several months or years.

7) How is the funding of the facade considered?

The facade is also intended a bit like crowdfunding. If I am not mistaken the facade should be made out of copper plates which can be purchased and are then mounted on the facade. What remains is – should the site be later used differently – that the donation can be used again or rather can be sold again. I like this approach a lot.

8) Did you reckon with so much supporters?/expect to have so many supporters?

If we do a project in the field of refugees there are always two different perceptions. On the one hand there are those, which have great fears – and I don't mean this judgemental at all – but you simply have to acknowledge and handle it accordingly and inform, and on the other hand people who are very committed and show solidarity and want to do something for others. Sometimes I feel that the first group, those who have fears, are much louder and it is believed that it is larger number of people. The other group takes more concrete actions, but they do that more quietly and in the public perceptions the first group is received as significantly more larger than the second one, but I don't think so. But maybe that's because I work for the Caritas and am therefore more concerned with the second group.
We didn't expect, that the project is accepted so positively. What I'm particularly happy about is that the hotel is already fully booked one week after the opening. I'm especially pleased to see the encounter between people from all over Austria, international guests, the accompanied minor refugees, the people who work there and the direct neighbourhood. Some nice and exciting things are planned, a co-working space, where people can rent a temporary office, a garden which can be used, it is considered whether there should be a bicycle workshop.. many things that cause dialogues and encounters and I like that a lot.