As real estate and business lobbyists launch a housing market “crisis committee”, The Local catches up with Stockholm shadow deputy mayor Tomas Rudin, city hall's “angriest man”, who's upset at the lack of homes in the Swedish capital.
Social Democrat Tomas Rudin is a provocateur, dubbed city hall's “angriest man”. He's angry at the lack of homes in Stockholm and plans to instruct the city's municipal housing companies to outdo private builders. If, and it's a big if, he wins next year's elections.
On Monday, the Swedish Property Federation (Fastighetsägarna), together with chambers of commerce in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö, launched the “Housing Crisis Commitee” (Bokriskommittén), tasked with coming up with proposals to reform the oft-criticized Swedish housing market.
As momentum builds for a fresh look at how to improve Sweden's housing market, The Local has set out to interview a number of different players active in the long-standing efforts to make it easier to find a place to live in Sweden.
First up, Stockholm's shadow deputy mayor Tomas Rudin of the opposition Social Democrat party, who offers his take on why Stockholm can't seem to provide housing for all of its ambitious citizens.
City Hall. August 2013.
There's map in Tomas Rudin's office, it covers a fair portion of wall and is covered in brightly coloured pins. One pin sticks out. A tiny flap of a post-it note is attached.
“Don't even think about it.”
The X marks the spot for a rough stretch of unnamed forest, behind a bus depot, and the southern suburbs' many row houses. Rudin has nicknamed it “The Bogs” (Sumpträsket). His colleague, however, who escapes to the overgrown outcrop to go jogging, protested – “It's called the May Rose Woods.”
Hence the angry post-it.
Rudin explains that while many Swedes may enjoy a leisurely jog through the woods, not everyone who lives in the surrounding area shares the same attitude.
“Swedes are taught that nature is safe; forests make us feel at ease. It's not the same for many immigrants, who can find them to be scary and foreboding,” Rudin says, letting his gaze travel south on the map, towards the green belt separating the now immigrant-rich suburbs of Bredäng, Fittja and Skärholmen from the Mälaren lakefront.
“You could never build here before, people would do anything to protect the woods. But the people who live there now don't like it at all,” he continues.
There are other things that a lot of Stockholmers don't like – be they immigrants or otherwise. Skyscrapers. Rudin plucks down a rough plaster mold of Stockholm from a pedestal. It was a gift from an architect and shows where you could build more houses while respecting the city's natural topography. Rudin's thumb lands on white elliptical blob in the middle of Slussen – the lock between Old Town and Södermalm island. It's a skyscraper.
“This, of course, is simple provocation,” Rudin growls, with a cheeky school-boy twinkle in his eye.
The battle for Slussen has raged for years. Slussen, which originally referred to the lock gate through which boats pass between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea, now refers to the complex concrete road structure that has eclipsed the sluice since the 1930s. It is falling apart, literally, with metal rods visible on tracts of tunnels where the cement has simple fallen off.
It's a key thoroughfare linking buses, the underground, suburban commuter trains, and provides a passageway between the inland waters and the archipelago.
Managing to erect a phallic symbol in the middle of whatever plan finally makes its way through proposals, planning, and any (highly likely) appeals, would be a feat. Yet it appears Rudin would rather provoke than smooth things over. Because smoothing things overall too often equals anonymous, or even ugly.
Outside his window, a bit of ugly is on display – a black box of a building sits like a wedge in the Stockholm skyline.
“Building engineers probably drew up plans for that hotel, but it adds nothing of value architecturally,” Rudin says, leaning back on his chair, looking more pensive than angry. He thinks that Swedish construction companies draft in architects far too late in the planning process. The results are aesthetically futile buildings that critics say won't stand any test of time, but at best breath a sense of revitalization into the cityscape – for a short while.
“That building wouldn't look out of place by any airport in the world, but it adds nothing to Stockholm.”
Rudin wants to tighten up the cityscape, fill in the blanks, but not in the haphazard “stamp model” way new buildings are appearing now – like isolated giant gingerbread houses claiming any leftover spaces, and often jarring with their surroundings.
“It's not surprising people react badly, they get nothing back from these new buildings. People don't primarily want new neighbours, they want services,” says Rudin, referencing the city planning heyday in the sixties and seventies when new neighbourhoods – Vällingby, Farsta, Högdalen – offered “the latest supermarket, the most beautiful swimming pools, the biggest libraries”.
Rudin wants to create new commercial centres outside the city – why not build the new opera (note, opera – not sports arena) 20 minutes from the central train station and let it breathe life into an entirely new neighbourhood, he ponders.
But can he convince Stockholmers?
“I think Stockholm is very much a place where many people are happy with their lot, people aren't very enamoured by the idea of filling in the gaps, at least not in their own backyard,” Rudin says. “Please build, they say, but not here.”
“They just experience that their green areas are disappearing, and they get nothing back.”
There's another resource, both financial and demographic, that may help Rudin's housing vision for the city to come to life: the children of the middle class, many of whom need mummy and daddy to cough up an enormous deposit to help them fulfill their dreams of buying a flat in Stockholm.
“The people who turned a property profit when the government allowed rental cooperatives to turn into owned cooperatives, they kept silent for a few years, but now their kids are growing up,” Rudin points out. “Of course, they could tell their kids to wait eight years in the rental queue to get a flat in the outskirts of the city.”
Rudin's master plan is to instruct the three municipally owned rental cooperative companies (allmännyttigt bostadsföretag) to start building – 20,000 apartments, to start.
“We are these construction companies' owners, we give them instructions, they still compete with private construction companies so there is no EU free competition dilemma,” Rudin says. “The conservatives in power now said 'don't build'; we'll say 'build'.”
“The municipal companies will be the plough; the private builders will be too scared of being left out to not follow in their furrow.”
While the conservatives in charge in Stockholm sell spare land, Rudin plans to offer long-term land rental to new co-ops in parts of the city. A lower start-up price because the land is cheaper means more financial incentive to build.
Rudin, as is a left-leaning ideologue's wont, doesn't put much trust in the free market. While Stockholm – the single household capital of Europe – has barely any studios or one-bedroom apartments being built at the moment, private construction companies also shy away from bigger apartments – four or even five bedrooms – which are needed in areas like Rinkeby, where some immigrant groups have large families and need space. It's simply easier to sell a medium-sized flat, he explains.
It's thus little wonder that it's cramped in Rinkeby, where Rudin has felt a popular groundswell of support.
“Partly it's because they know they are physically segregated and want to connect with nearby neighbourhoods; partly because we're gonna build a beautiful swimming pool,” Rudin says. “Great for the kids, and as it backs onto the areas with single family homes nearby neighborhoods. A great integration intersection,” he says.
“The aquatic centre was the catalyst, all of a sudden people just said 'Yes!'.”
So why is Rudin – who in person gives the impression of being a poster child of temperance – self-styled as “City Hall's Angriest Man” on his blog? Simply a nickname given to him by a reporter for doggedly opposing the conservative majority's plans at every turn. He plans to find a new slogan for next year's elections, adding that he's not particularly angry by nature, but was just doing his job.
Asked if Social Democrat headquarters has since sent out media instructions to its politicians to be nicer, Rudin denies being muzzled.
“Absolutely not, no,” he says.
Rudin is, on the face of it, a classic Social Democrat in the mould of current leaders Stefan Löfven rather than slain former primer minister Olof Palme – muscular, slow-talking, well-informed, white and male – but he isn't sure he can sell his vision of Stockholm to the Stockholmers even if, and only if, Rudin takes power after so many years of conservative rule.
“When, and it is a question of when, we take power,” Rudin underlines.
His iPad background pic sports, unsurprisingly, skyscrapers – shooting into the air in the newspaper area on the western tip of Kungsholmen island. As he carries the picture around with him constantly, Rudin sometimes catches himself looking up at the horizon and reacting to the lack of skyscrapers there in the real world.
“It makes me sad,” he says, adding that he sometimes walks along Sveavägen and Götgatan imagining what it could be. It's there, the central vein of Stockholm which was once the granite ridge Brunkebergsåsen before developers blasted the rock into smithereens, that he feels and has been told by topographically minded architects that it would be natural to let the city grow – upwards.
“It could be Stockholm's Fifth Avenue.”
In October, The Local will meet Housing Minister Stefan Attefall to talk about his plans for the future. We will also speak with architects, house-hunters and economists about the housing shortage. If you'd like to tell your story, email the reporter [email protected]