Homeless in Uppsala: a foreign student’s tale

More than a month after arriving in Sweden for the start of the academic year, many foreign students are still struggling to find permanent housing. Contributor Amy Keresztes, an American studying at Uppsala University, shares her tale of frustration.

Homeless in Uppsala: a foreign student’s tale
Students congregate on a lawn at Uppsala University

KAOS,” screamed the cover of “Ergo”, the Uppsala University newspaper, with a photograph of a jumbled queue in front of one of the student unions.

“Housing crisis worse than ever!”

I had been warned. “The system is impossible, even for us,” complained a native Swede who has been in the queue for the housing group Dombron for three years.

I’m used to finding apartments in Boston, which involves trawling through listings until you find one that seems decent and calling the landlord. I could probably find an apartment in Boston in less than a day, any time of year, and move in immediately.

Obviously, I knew things wouldn’t be that simple here. I’ve lived in Uppsala before as an exchange student, and housing was easy. My home university made all the arrangements; I simply had to show up and move in. (I miss those days.)

The problem with the international application process is that I didn’t receive my official acceptance to my masters programme at Uppsala until early May, which meant that my visa wouldn’t be approved until several months later. I had considered moving to Sweden immediately after my graduation and spending the summer traveling and looking for a place to live. But my visa wasn’t coming until the end of August, so I was forced to stay in Boston and attempt to do everything online.

I had registered for accounts with the major housing companies in the winter, in anticipation of outrageous queues and point requirements. But of course, when I’m in queues with native Swedes who have been registered for years, how much of a chance do I stand?

Every time I clicked “interested” on a room (absolutely any room) I would wait a few days and see the message (roughly translated) “this has gone to another seeker. Your place in the queue was 509.” I knew things were bad when I felt a jolt of elation at having a queue number that was under 100. Another problem; many websites don’t allow you to register unless you have a Swedish personnummer (personal identity number), which you can’t get until you have a Swedish address, which you can’t get until you have a residence permit, och så vidare.

In June, I thought I had found the perfect place from a local website, which turned out to be a scam. I was crushed, but relieved at having discovered it in time instead of showing up, all my worldly possessions in hand, to a nonexistent apartment. Back to square one.

In July, my Swedish friends asked everyone they knew for housing tips, and came up with a room for rent in an apartment near the university. But after I arrived on August 21st, I didn’t hear back from the girl I was supposed to contact for two weeks.

She replied with the following message: “My flatmates don’t want to live with someone under 25. Good luck finding an apartment!” (I couldn’t help but read that last line sarcastically.)

So crashing with my ex it was.

It will only be a few days. Something will open up, I told myself.

The next morning I went straight to the Student Union to inquire about my options. The woman I spoke to offered this gem of advice: to look at a website which contains postings for sub-letters and roommates, and “sit on it all day constantly refreshing the page.”

Do I get to have a bathroom break, I wondered.

She also informed me that the University was generously providing emergency housing for foreign students, but that there were “about 300 people in the queue” ahead of me. And as a last resort, I could “sleep in a church- but for one night only.”

On a positive note, my housing-related vocabulary has greatly improved. For the first two weeks I sent at least five e-mails a day to various people who were renting out rooms, desperately hoping to bypass the queue system and find the perfect place. I was lucky if I got so much as one “sorry it is already taken” message for every 20 meticulously checked-and-double-checked Swedish messages.

The hundreds of displaced students have been taking it remarkably well, maintaining faith that things will magically “open up.” I’ve been offered everything from couches to living room floors.

I know someone who has been regularly sleeping in the cathedral yet still manages to make it to class neatly dressed.

I met another guy who arrived in Uppsala, went to an orientation, and asked the first person he saw if he could sleep on his floor. Many students are living in trailers and tents on city camping grounds. We’re finding creative ways to cope.

There is some understandable bitterness: I’ve heard horror stories about foreign students who were accepted at Uppsala, only to withdraw after not finding housing. An exchange student friend bluntly remarked: “Uppsala is completely ridiculous. Why accept students you don’t have room for?”

It’s a great question. And students all over the country are asking it loudly, from Stockholm to Lund. But along with the bitterness, there’s a sort of resigned camaraderie. We’re all in it together, Swedish and foreign.

I have been encouraged to give up and fly back to Boston.

“Why would you want to stay somewhere without a home, and with no prospects for one?” asked one friend.

I have to admit I’ve considered it. I could defer admission from the programme for a year, work in the States and try to secure a real apartment here before coming back.

Even as I write this, I have no home. I snagged a room in a small hostel near the center of town, but must move out tomorrow.

The thing is, I have a bit of a crush on Sweden. I love müsli with filmjölk, recycling, riding my bicycle everywhere, and walking a few kilometers out of the city and ending up in a forest. So I’m not giving up so easily. And if I can be this happy without a room of my own, imagine how I’ll feel when I manage to find one.

Postscript: Shortly after submitting her essay, Amy managed to find accomodation on a farm 8 kilometres outside of Uppsala and hopes to be able to call it home at least through the winter.

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INTERVIEW: International students ‘vulnerable’ to Swedish housing shortages

People moving to Malmö to study now have to wait as long as a year to receive accommodation, Milena Milosavljević, the president of the Student Union in the city, has told The Local. The situation, she says, is "urgent and acute".

INTERVIEW: International students 'vulnerable' to Swedish housing shortages

The Sofa Project, run by the Student Union Malmö, received 80 applications this year from students who wanted to rent short-term accommodation, showing just how acute the current housing shortage is.

These 80 applicants were vying for one of seven spots, ranging from a spare room to a sofa bed – from hosts who sign up to offer their spaces to new arrivals.  As the programme only had seven hosts registered this year, the project had to close its application page to others, otherwise the number would have surpassed 80.

“They are ready to come to Malmö and sleep on a sofa bed at a stranger’s house before they find accommodation,” Milosavljević told The Local. 

Malmö recently received a red designation from the Swedish National Union of Students, which publishes an annual report assessing the housing situation in university towns and cities across Sweden. A red designation means that finding suitable accommodation as a student takes more than one semester. The report found that 61 percent of students live in a city that has been designated a red ranking.

READ ALSO: Sweden’s student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester

“The reality of Malmö and the reason why it became red is that to find suitable accommodation you have to wait up to a year,” Milosavljević said.

Some individuals, she said might have to wait up to three years to find their own accommodation, making do with second-hand contracts, long commutes, and living with family members in the meantime. For newly-arrived international students, who lack personal numbers when they move here and so cannot join Swedish housing queues, looking for suitable housing becomes a complex task.

“International students are more vulnerable because they don’t have a personal number to enter the system before they come to Sweden,” Milosavljević explained.

Milosavljević herself moved to Malmö as an international, fee-paying student. Because she paid tuition, she was offered housing by Malmö University. Based in part on her own experience, Milosavljević explained that the housing issue cannot be reduced to a shortage in the number of flats and rooms. There is also a shortage of appropriate housing options for different needs.

“They offered me accommodation in a student building,” she said. “Not an apartment, but a room – and I came with my husband. The room was not enough for two of us.”

Student accommodation must accommodate the different needs of different members of the student body, Milosavljević said, including those who move with partners or spouses, or even with their children.

In the past year, one new student apartment building was built in Malmö, with 94 new spaces for the city’s student body. This is inadequate, Milosavljević said. While Malmö is growing, and there is residential construction being carried out around the city, it is unclear how many of those new buildings will prioritise the city’s student population.

The city’s student population, too, is growing. As the pandemic era ended in Sweden, students returned to campus. And new students joined them. While student ranks grew, housing options remained stagnant.

“From our perspective from the Student Union, we have talked about, in the previous years, how the situation after the pandemic is going to get even worse for the students,” Milosavljević said. “There’s an increase of students coming back, new students, and already not even enough housing.”

Milosavljević has fielded calls and emails from students who say that they cannot move to Malmö because they cannot find housing.

“They are already working on it,” Milosavljević told The Local of the university’s response.

There are plans to create more housing for international students, but these proposals focus mainly on students from European Union, leaving other international students out. All international students should be given priority for student accommodation, Milosavljević said, because none of them have access to the Swedish housing market.

“I do believe strongly that the City of Malmö and Malmö University need to have urgent negotiations and start building straight away,” she said.

Because Malmö University is a public university, it must follow the lead of the Ministry of Education and Research. Milosavljević acknowledged that in the aftermath of Sweden’s recent elections, which put the right-bloc in power, student housing shortages might not rank highly on a list of national priorities.

“The Student Union Malmö considers this situation quite urgent and acute,” Milosavljević said. “We are more than prepared to sit down and talk so we can actually do something, instead of just having meetings. The students will continue to suffer if the living conditions and the bostad [housing] situation in Malmö is not improved.”