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Housing in Sweden
'Fairness of Sweden's rental queues is a myth'

'Fairness of Sweden's rental queues is a myth'

Published: 26 Mar 2013 15:09 GMT+01:00
Updated: 26 Mar 2013 15:09 GMT+01:00

It's hardly an understatement to say that Swedish housing policy is a fiasco that creates and perpetuates segregation. For the left, Sweden's system of rent control is a sacred cow, while the centre-right Alliance government coalition claims that implementing market rents is too risky politically and instead busies itself with tweaks to the current system that have minimal impact.

As many people know, finding a place to live in Sweden's major cities is a nightmare. Worst off are families who arrive in the country and are unfamiliar with the Swedish system of queuing for rental apartments

They haven't accrued enough time in the housing queue to be able to choose where they want to live, and instead end up in unpopular and socially vulnerable areas like Hammarkullen in Gothenburg, Rosengård in Malmö and Rinkeby in Stockholm.

Obviously, the risk of social problems and lower-quality education is higher for children who end up in vulnerable areas. Opportunities for getting out of such areas are so hard that, in practice, it means that Swedish society doesn't provide equal living conditions for immigrant families and their children.

Today, there are basically two options for immigrant families to move out of socially vulnerable areas: either purchasing a flat within a cooperative housing association (bostadsrätt) or get access to an apartment through the rental housing queue (hyresrätt). And subletting an apartment isn't a stable and sustainable solution for anyone, especially not for a family. The chances of finding someone willing to trade a flat for one in a more vulnerable area is also minimal.

Buying a property requires solid finances. But for a family that has broken away from their home country and left everything behind, it takes years to start over from scratch and save enough money for a down payment. In addition, both parents need to have fairly well-paying jobs in order to buy an apartment. And we are all too well aware of the difficulties foreigners can have entering the Swedish labour market.

As a result, it's really not realistic for newly arrived families to buy an apartment during the time when their kids grow up and are of school age; a the time that is crucial to their children's ability to succeed in their new homeland.

For my mother, who has worked since she came to Sweden, it took 25 years before she managed to purchase her first home. Therefore, the market for rental apartments is the key to for helping newly arrived families move ahead in Swedish society.

In big cities, rent control and housing queues serve as road blocks for immigrants' social mobility. The purpose of rent control is allegedly to ensure that apartments are distributed fairly and that anyone can live anywhere. In practice, however, the regulation of a sluggish housing market ends up cementing social exclusion. According to recent statistics from Stockholm's own housing agency, which serves the entire county, it takes an average 15 years to get an inner-city apartment in Stockholm.

Sweden's sacred rent control ends up having a paradoxical effect. Rental apartments in Rinkeby often cost as much to rent as highly desirable rental apartments in trendy districts in central Stockholm like Östermalm, Södermalm and Old Town. In reality, therefore, the hardworking Rinkeby family's meager income, or the job seeker's housing allowance, ends up subsidizing the affluent middle-class residents in Östermalm and Södermalm.

It's easy for the fine people in the inner city to be in favour of open borders and look down on ethnic Swedes in the outer suburbs that support the Sweden Democrats. But the truth is that inner-city residents rarely, if ever, run into new immigrants from socially disadvantaged suburbs. Inner city residents never visit Rinkeby and immigrants they meet either clean the toilets at the office where they work or are immigrants who, after many years of effort, managed a degree of upward social mobility.

And the immigrants are taking the "Orient Express" (Stockholm's blue metro line) home to neighborhoods like Rinkeby and Tensta probably don't know any middle-class ethnic Swedes. In fact, the most socially vulnerable suburbs are more or less devoid of working ethnic Swedes. The consequences are devastating to society's cohesion.

The situation as it stands today is that we have children growing up in Sweden, but who speak Swedish - their home country's language - with an accent. They are less able to benefit from their education compared to other Swedish children, and their parents are powerless in their ability to change their family's housing situation and their children's upbringing.

It's certainly important to recognize and praise the various information and training initiatives available for immigrants. But problems of integration in Sweden need modern solutions and more action, rather than just words. In reality, the notion of equal opportunities in the housing market does not exist, but rather traps immigrants in socially deprived areas.

The suburbs of Sweden's larger cities need to be made more attractive to ethnic Swedes and the inner-city needs to be accessible to wider swaths of society. The best way to attract more Swedes to the suburbs is to start by lowering the cost of housing in the suburbs at the expense of the inner city.

Rinkeby shouldn't need to subsidize Södermalm. Let the inner-city residents pay for themselves.

Secondly more forms of home ownership need to be created in the outer suburbs, including owner-occupied apartments (äganderätt) and cooperative housing association flats, to provide a better mix of housing. Thirdly, civil society and especially the Swedish construction companies need to work with politicians to invest in renovations and improve the outer suburbs to make them more secure, aesthetically pleasing, and comfortable.

But investing in improvements in the suburbs isn't enough. The inner-city and inner-ring suburbs have an equally important role in contributing to the diversity of the suburbs.

The current system of rent control is a dead-end for immigrants. A portion of the rent-controlled apartments in inner city and the inner-ring suburbs should therefore be set aside for newly arrived immigrant families.

While politicians sit on the sidelines, many immigrant families take the hit. Segregation is increasing and immigrants end up trapped in deprived suburbs while ethnic Swedes are living in other, often more affluent, suburbs or in the inner city. A change is necessary to ensure all Swedes have the same opportunities and that the Sweden Democrats don't get stronger.

As both the Social Democrats and the Alliance seem to agree that rent control is here to stay, publicly-managed rental housing should play a role in contribute to integration. It's a challenging concept from both a legal and equality perspective.

But we are facing major integration challenges and it's important that the whole of Swedish society take responsibility to ensure that newly arrived children have the same chance to succeed in Sweden as ethnic Swedish children. These immigrant children can then serve as bridge-builders for a more integrated society where diversity keeps us together rather than keeps us apart.

Robert Hannah is a local Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) politician who grew up in the Gothenburg suburbs of Gårdsten and Tynnered. He now lives in the Stockholm suburb of Bromma.

This article was originally published in Swedish on the opinion website Newsmill.

Your comments about this article

16:14 March 26, 2013 by intrepidfox
Folkpartiet are a bunch of idiots. They are in the government that has made housing more difficult. There are lots of flats being built but few for rental. What chance does a youth in this day and age of getting a job and leaving homw? virtually 0
16:29 March 26, 2013 by engagebrain
The proposal is to increase rents for the inner city - but this will further exclude the economically disadvantaged not help them.

A major part of the logjam are secondary contracts, people who have other accommodation and make money from subletting. While this is OK for a short period, while you try moving in with someone or work elsewhere, there is no attempt to stop longterm subletting. while this in itself does not create new flats, ending longtern subletting would greatly reduce the time it takes to move to the top of a legitimate rental queue.

While queues affect immigrants they equally affect anyone who moves within Sweden - from Kiruna to Stockholm or Stockholm to Gothenburg or new graduates looking for a home, so to frame the housing problem as one uniquely affecting immigrants is wrong - with the obvious rejoinder that population increase quite clearly makes the housing problem worse. Any solution that favours immigrants over citizens is clearly not going to work politically - equality yes, special treatment no.
19:05 March 26, 2013 by grandmary
On the one hand, good for this guy to bring up a subject he seems to care about. its much easier to criticize than to construct. On the other hand, his ideas as presented here are so limited and simplistic. Housing is just one aspect of an overall immigration policy. You can't address housing without addressing employment. You can't truly address employment unless there is some correlation between the number of people let in and the labor force requirements.

The idea of setting aside urban housing for underfinanced immigrants is highly problematic. It reinforces the current subsidized model but does it on a basis of national origin. Would it apply to all immigrants or only those from certain countries and continents. Could I as a canadian sign up? In fact, I think Hannah's solution would only strengthen SD counter to his intent. The best solution to the problem here is a long term one of economic empowerment, and not residential redistribution. It may take time but lasting solutions are worth waiting for.
21:02 March 26, 2013 by johan rebel
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
09:19 March 27, 2013 by engagebrain
On the positive side housing in Sweden is of a high standard, there are very few homeless people and rents are affordable - contrast this with the UK or America. In London house prices and rents make it almost impossible for those on average incomes to buy and rents can consume half of a couple's income. The free market shows no interest in building to meet demand but is more than happy to watch rents and prices rise while many on average or below average incomes live precariously in increasing squalor.

Don't wish away Sweden's imperfect housing arrangement without taking a close look at th alternatives.
10:20 March 27, 2013 by juicyjuice
To the above - you couldn't be more wrong. Housing in the US is incredibly affordable. The free market shows great interest in building more housing where there is demand. In fact, there has been overproduction. Manhattan in expensive and parts of certain other cities are expensive, but overall housing is cheap because of the free market. My cousin lives in a mansion in Oregon for a third of the price on my place in Sodermalm. Sweden's problem is that it is trying to fight natural economic and market forces and over time those forces naturally become overwhelming.
10:36 March 27, 2013 by matressmonkey
This guy is out of his mind. I don't think he understands housing, economics or basic human nature quite frankly. Does he really think restricting certain prime downtown apartments to immigrants who can't afford them, and having the Swedes who aren't allowed to live there subsidize the immigrants' rent will reduce the polularity of SD? Huh?
10:41 March 27, 2013 by engagebrain
juicyjuice

houses are cheap at the moment in parts of the US because the whole market collapsed after the bankers nearly destroyed the whole banking system - gambling and absurd loans to US house buyers, loans that could never be repaid.

Millions of people in the US lost or are losing their homes and money.

renting in New York is a bit difficult.

housing is just to important to society to be left to the for profit sector.
11:08 March 27, 2013 by matressmonkey
No, housing is really cheap now because everybody gambled. Before that housing was still cheap, just not as cheap as it is now. Cheap to very affordable housing was also available in every single market, even Manhattan if you went up to Harlem where many of my friends went. There is not a single city in the US remotely comparable to Sweden where you have to wait for 15 years for a rental. The reason is that the private sector builds and builds which keeps supply up and prices reasonable. Your point that the private sector shows no interest in this could not be more wrong. Housing is just too important to be left to government bureaucrats.
11:51 March 27, 2013 by engagebrain
matressmonkey

look at London if you want to see what the private sector can achieve- massive profits and misery.

It is also a little sad about the millions in the US who have been bankrupted by the housing market fiasco. You are right in the sense that those who were not in the housing market but have recently moved in can get a good deal but the body count is high.

The US being a free market economy has somehow pursuaded the tax payer to pay for the much fiasco - privatise profits and socialise the risk. And before that there was the savings a loans debacle, another masacre for the taxpayer.
13:06 March 27, 2013 by matressmonkey
Look, if you want to keep changing the subject and arguing new subjects, go ahead. Your first point was that that rents in the US and the UK are unaffordable. Not true. Much of London and Manhattan, yes. But if there was a systematic problem with the private economic economic model it would apply to the entire country(ies), not limited urban areas. Then you argued that US housing is suddenly cheap because of the crash. Not true. Finally, you moved to the private sector being responsible for the US bailout. Not true. The US system of publicly financed campaigns (with lots of bank money) is largely responsible for that. And none of this has anything to do with my original point that Robert Hannah's argument is naive and a platform for terrible policy.
14:17 March 27, 2013 by riose
Very good article. The Local should translate and publish more things like this.

I saw in the queue a flat in Vasastan, 150m^2, 16.000:-.

A 120m^2 in Rinkeby is 12.000:-

In the first case, the required a minimum yearly income of 800.000:-. In the second, 0, which means that people who make 800.000:- a year (or more!) only have to pay a 24% of their income to live in a super apartment in the fanciest parts of town. Very, very wrong.
15:33 March 27, 2013 by recklessrashid
did this guy really open his article by saying that the current system of rent controls is a fiasco, and then argue for more rent control? does he even believe what he is writing or is he just looking for an excuse to give things to immigrants because his mom had a tough time and he relates to them.
16:38 March 27, 2013 by engagebrain
matressmonkey

are your seriously arguing that the banking collapse was not down to private institutions which get a public bailout ?

The housing problem in the UK is pretty systematic, not just London.

So by comparison Swedes live in decent flats at reasonable cost and it is reltively good. i also argued that a major part of the problem in Sweden is dodgy secondary rentals which keep unused, by the primary renter, property out the the hands of the legitimate queue.
21:28 March 27, 2013 by AfroSwede
I have have been in the queue to get accommodation for the past five years. Since I am married I still don't have a fixed place to live. I have moved every 6, 9 months. This is INSANE!! Now I am telling friends not to come to Stockholm because there is no accommodation. I have never seen this before... A so called developed country with an undeveloped housing market.
22:29 March 27, 2013 by wathithi
Well said Afro swede, i live in västeras and the lines are too long here also.The housing companies also look at your skin colour to qualify you to a certain area if indeed there is a flat!.Racism is still a big issue in the housing sector in sweden.

I hate to believe it, but ,i just hope it will change some day and make this nation a more beautiful place.
05:57 March 28, 2013 by matressmonkey
enragedbrain

Please show me where I said that - I can not respond to words you put in my mouth. Regarding the original article, I agere with the above two posts. I think that Hannah's idea of taking some of the already few apartments off the market and reserving them for immigrants will only make the waiting time longer for everyone else. This is a terrible idea as are most of his ideas.
13:34 March 28, 2013 by lauraagustin
Another xenophobic foot in the mouth from a Swedish politician: 'The situation as it stands today is that we have children growing up in Sweden, but who speak Swedish - their home country's language - with an accent.'

'Accents' are not a crime, exist amongst those born here and imagining a society in which those learning 2nd, 3rd and 5th languages manifest *no* trace of roots elsewhere is repulsive.
16:15 March 28, 2013 by Amadeus8888
Abolishing rent controls should be a no-brainer, but until the Folkpartiet stops persecuting home school families and violating human rights nobody can this party seriously.
12:59 March 29, 2013 by kingrupert
For reasons stated above, this article convinces me of nothing except that this man has no business making public policy.
21:46 April 1, 2013 by djmarko
Social or economic segregation more like it, you need to have a good income and 15% deposit saved, inner city apartments are becoming out of reach to many, people say there are housing shortages but companies like JM are building thousand of apartments around the inner city but for who??? People with good jobs and income, so practically you get a social segregation by default, its tough, no way out really, seems the system was designed to keep the high income people around the inner city and low income way out of sight!!! Even the kommuns in central stockholm only want high income people living there, not just in Sweden, just about every affluent neighbourhood in most European capitals, even London worse, certainly not a chance!!!
13:34 April 2, 2013 by oldgreygoose
Of course the more desirable areas cost more to live in. Better restaurants cost more too. So do nicer clothes and nicer vacations. Should St Moritz be forced to offer cheap ski vacations to poorer people so it wouldn't be segregated? Should the Grand Hotel have to offer cheaper rooms to low earners? Come on. And its not just Europe, its the world. Its the way the world should work and its the wasy the world does and will always work. Sweden tried to outsmart this natural order and wound up with 20 year queues. There are more important things than having stuff, but if you want to have stuff you have to be able to pay for it.
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