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.
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