‘Stockholm has to fix its housing problem’

With the clock ticking on the lease for her current home in Stockholm, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt reflects on how Sweden needs to improve the housing situation for visiting students, researchers and other skilled workers.

'Stockholm has to fix its housing problem'

I read a recent piece in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (also run on The Local) arguing that the government bureaucracy plays a large role in discouraging foreign talent from moving to Sweden.

In this article, the Swedish Institute (SI) argues that students, researchers and other skilled workers are an important part of Sweden’s economy, innovation and future; however, they are being held up by the bureaucracy of visas, taxes and rules.

While bureaucracy is no doubt a significant hurdle, I can think of another problem here in Stockholm that causes frustration and panic once these foreigners cut through the red tape: housing.

The student housing crisis in Stockholm has made the news quite a lot lately, but the incredibly tight rental market reaches farther than just students. All of these visiting researchers and workers Sweden wants to attract also have to find rentals as they settle in.

So what does it take to rent a place in this city? I can tell you it takes more than time and patience. These past two months, we got our own taste of the housing shortage.


Two years ago we arrived in Sweden assuming we’d just rent a place for a few years before made our Big Decision. Actually, we didn’t have that much of a choice— without a few Swedish tax years under our belt, the banks we checked with were reluctant to loan us anything near what we’d need to buy something in Stockholm.

We just didn’t think renting in Stockholm would be dramatically harder than in other cities around the world.

We had been warned by other expats that the rental market would be tough, and it was. We signed up for a couple of the housing queues when we first arrived and still haven’t heard back.

But since we were open to living anywhere in the Stockholm area, we eventually found a house in a great little neighborhood and settled in.


Just how lucky we were became much clearer when, this summer, just after signing onto another year in the house (and right in the middle of our vacation), we got an email: the family we are renting from wanted their house back.

Their overseas plans had fallen through, and they were coming back to Sweden. Now. How soon could we be out?

When we looked for housing two years ago, we were open to just about any neighborhood within a reasonable commuting distance to work. But now our family has settled in to this community. We have a school, daycare, friends and neighbours that we want to stay reasonably close to.

And to make the house hunt even more exciting, our move-out date is rapidly approaching. I love the fact that summer in Sweden is truly vacation time —generally speaking, things shut down, and many people get time off work. But this made finding a new place to live next to impossible.

After two months of replying to listings on Swedish buy-sell site Blocket and other rental sites, we have gotten only a handful of responses. One was from the owner of an absurdly expensive townhouse unable to get his asking price but unwilling to go down. Another response looked like this:

“I’ll only be in town for one day, so I want to make sure you’re serious about the place. If you want me to hold it for you, immediately deposit 7,500 kronor ($1,150) into my account.”

Hmm…We’re not that desperate. Yet.

I’ve heard friends blame the tight rental market on many things, including rent control, environmental concerns, geography and politics. But one thing they all agree on is this: the problem has been around for as long as they can remember. And it’s not likely to change any time soon.

Now, with the clock ticking on our current house and no prospects in sight, we’re suddenly faced with our Big Decision earlier than we were ready for: do we buy something here in Stockholm, or do we move back to California? Do we dare enter the notoriously difficult buyers’ market? I’m not even sure it’s possible to buy before our move-out date.

Every immigrant family we know has struggled with this same issue. If Stockholm wants to encourage the influx of visiting professors, students, researchers, and colleagues, these need a place to live.

Sorting out Stockholm’s housing problem is just as important as addressing the bureaucracy that the Swedish Institute criticizes.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

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Why I chose to say goodbye to Sweden

In her last column for The Local, US-native Rebecca Ahlfeldt explains why she is saying goodbye to Sweden for San Francisco, and how having a bi-cultural family influenced The Decision.

Why I chose to say goodbye to Sweden

The movers came today. Again.

Looking on the bright side, we still haven’t unpacked all our boxes from our move last October, which means fewer boxes to worry about. Of course, if we went without the contents of these boxes for the last eight months, there’s a good chance we don’t really need them. My inner minimalist wants to just get rid of all this stuff we’ve been lugging around, and yet my inner sentimentalist, so conscious of living an ocean away from my birth country, wants to hold on to it all.

So we have a large heap of boxes. I’ve been advised that if I can’t remember what’s in them, I should just give them away, unopened. I’m tempted, but I peeked in the first box anyway: My deceased mother-in-law’s hand-embroidered linens which we do, in fact, use (when they’re in sight). Enough of that idea.

Instead, I sat down on my staircase and contemplated how I got here, so far from home, in the middle of yet another move. That’s right — I fell in love. And I am still very much in love. But marrying and having a family with someone from another country is much more complex than I ever imagined. I failed to really grasp one the most obvious facts inherent in this kind of relationship: Marrying someone from another country means that one of us will always be living in a “foreign” country. At 26, that idea sounded more fun than anything else, but now, a little farther down the road, with kids and aging parents, things are a little more complicated.

We all have our alternate lives, our roads not taken. What if I had married my college boyfriend and stayed in Nebraska? What if I had followed my dreams and pursued a career as a rock star/actor/professional wrestler instead of wasting the last few years as a campground manager/corporate middle manager/7-11 cashier?

But as a bi-cultural family, our particular road not taken still exists — in fact, we can visit it: what if we lived (in our case) back in the US? And unlike the college boyfriend, our alternate life is still waiting for us, even calling us: “Try it, just for a little while. Your life might be better here.”

After our unexpected move last fall, my husband and I have spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating our future. The new rental we found would hold us over for a while, but it was time to make The Decision: Do we buy a house in Sweden and plant ourselves here for the foreseeable future? Do we move back to the US and do the same? Or was there some sort of middle road that didn’t require independent wealth and wouldn’t traumatize our kids forever?

We made the chart, with pro-Stockholm on one side and pro-San Francisco on the other. We put down everything we could think of: schools, walkability, diversity, acceptance of difference, friendships, future work possibilities, relationships with relatives, climate and many other factors, large and small. But when we finally finished the list, there was no clear winner. If anything, the chart showed that, after experiencing both countries, our decision had become more complicated. We now knew we could be happy in both places for very different reasons.

When we moved here over three years ago, I assumed that the answer to the puzzle of our family’s future would become clear to us. The chart would show us an obvious answer. All lingering what ifs would be resolved. We would then make The Decision and then live happily ever after. Of course, real life doesn’t work this way. Even after we had come to an answer, new information kept cropping up, clouding our resolve.

We finally came to our own Existential conclusion, though admittedly a little more mundane than Sartre’s version: In the end, whether we choose San Francisco or Stockholm matters less than the fact that we’re (finally) making The Decision.

So we just did it. We made a choice. We are saying goodbye to our alternate life forever.

But that’s not the hardest part. Most painful is the knowledge that, in choosing San Francisco, we will cut ourselves off from the close and deeply rewarding relationships we have formed here. I will always feel the ache of missing my Stockholm friends in the same way I still feel the absence of the people I left behind in San Francisco, New York and Michigan so long ago.

This was all part of the package when my husband and I got married; it’s a piece of every bi-cultural family we know. At a cocktail party we attended a few weeks ago, every couple there had their own version of this same story. And even the “lifers”, as one woman called herself, still felt the pull of their family and friends in their country of birth long after The Decision.

The pulls of both countries will always be there. It’s time for our family to make peace with this knowledge, put one foot in front of the other and take the next step forward.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American expat writer, translator, and editor who is now saying goodbye to Stockholm after three years. Follow Rebecca on Twitter here