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Housing minister to tame 'unhelpful' local leaders

Ann Törnkvist · 15 Nov 2013, 08:00

Published: 15 Nov 2013 08:00 GMT+01:00

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Let's get down to some basic naming and shaming. Reports are released over and over again trying to explain Sweden bestial housing crunch, not least in the capital region. Some say it's the fault of misguided rent control, others, like shadow deputy mayor Tomas Rudin says it's the fault of the conservatives in city hall for selling off land piecemeal rather than planning, building, and making life easier for municipal housing companies.

The blame game can go on indefinitely, but who ultimately gains? 

"Anyone who owns," Sweden's Housing Minister Stefan Attefall responds when the The Local poses him the question. "Which I think is also an indirect reason why many people oppose new housing, because they have nothing to gain. There isn't much pressure from the voters when it comes to construction."

But why? When the housing crisis in Sweden's major cities regularly makes headlines?

That, the minister underscores, is symptomatic of a structural Catch 22. If you live in a municipality then you, well, have somewhere to live. If you don't have somewhere to live, or if you're hopping from one sublet to another, who has the time to become what Attefall calls an "ambassador" for building more?

"We have to speak for those who haven't found a place to live. They have too few voices," the Christian Democrat politician Attefall says.

SEE ALSO: Rent control blamed for housing shortage

It's not just the average John and Jane (or Sven and Ulla-Britt) putting, as the Swedes say, sticks in the wheels of new construction. Let's talk about Sweden's municipalities. They're not always very helpful, if the minister is to be believed, not out of malice but through a lack of coordination and some good old-fashioned "Nimby" (Not in my backyard) attitudes. 

"For municipal politicians, it's expensive in the short-term to build, with added costs for preschool, schools, cycle paths, stations....you name it," Attefall adds. "The added tax revenue comes much, much later." 

READ ALSO: 'Angry man' dreams of Stockholm's Fifth Avenue. The Local speaks with shadow deputy mayor Tomas Rudin

The answer could be regional planning to help reduce the clutter that comes from coordinating efforts across Sweden's 290 municipalities. In Stockholm County alone, there are 26 municipalities. 

"A municipality can choose not to help solve the regional problem," says Attefall, who has launched an inquiry into whether it is time for Sweden to introduce regional planning. "Do we have to legislate in order to make sure they take these matters into consideration?"

Much of the conservative government's policies on stirring movement on the housing market has been to ease subletting rules, allowing people to actually make a bit of cash or at least actually cover their mortgage cost, when they rent out their homes (in essence, pure free-market ideology). Top of the agenda, however, is to make sure there is also proper financial incentives for the building companies to get going. At present, Sweden has some of Europe's longest planning times: a decade from idea to getting a shovel in the ground. It has observers worried, and not only in Sweden. In May, the European Commission said Sweden had to get its act together.

It was time, the official recommendation from Brussels read, to introduce "prudent lending, reducing the debt bias in the financing of housing investments, and tackling constraints in housing supply and rent regulations".

READ ALSO: 'Sweden must avoid long-term housing bubble: EU'

Attefall has examples close to hand to help him fix some things. In Norway, smaller cooperatives where owners actually invest in new home building, for example. When it comes to his regional planning idea, he cites the model in Finland where the county and the municipalities negotiate a deal. Local politicians sign up to build, and county politicians promise to help with, for example, infrastructure. There can also be penalties for non-compliance.

The review should take a year and a half, by which time Attefall may be out of a job. Elections are slated for September 2014 and polls indicate the current four-party coalition that has held power since 2006, is in danger of being shown the door. Not to mention the fact that polls repeatedly indicate Attefall's own Christian Democrats may not meet the four-percent threshold required for parliamentary representation.

To say the centre-left opposition is less than impressed by Attefall's tenure in office would be an understatement. In the spring, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) leader, Karl-Petter Thorvaldsson, had this to say at the Social Democrat party congress:

"Stefan Attefall. He goes in to work, maybe he has a cup of coffee. Then he probably reads the papers. But I, for the life of me, don't know how he fills up the rest of his day."

SEE ALSO: Check out the latest home listings in The Local's Property Section

While Thorvaldsson doesn't come up in The Local's interview, Attefall has structural explanations for the housing crisis which stretch back to the nineties (when, it's worth noting, the Social Democrats were in charge). The task at the time was cleaning up the crisis-ridden Swedish economy in the wake of a crippling banking crisis.

Story continues below…

"We moved a lot of taxes from labour to housing and construction," the housing minister explains, which he argues cost the country not only the impetus, but also the capital and competence, to build. 

"It pulled the rug out from under the builders," Attefall explains. "Since then, we've built about half as much as our neighbours."

Sweden's housing minister spends much of the interview relaxed, leaning back into his chair. He stays sanguine even when the topic of who has gained from Sweden's perennial housing crunch comes up. Then it's time to go. But The Local has one more question.

And then the contrast: Attefall perches on the edge of his seat, eager to answer, but the recorder suddenly malfunctions inexplicably. His apparent keenness to answer isn't just about being halfway out of the door, but appears to be because he is relishing the invite to play politics and go on the attack. The question that has Sweden's oft-staid housing minister suddenly chomping at the bit: If the opposition takes power next year, what is the worse thing a left-wing government can do? 

"They could take Sweden back to a time when builders where chasing state subsidies rather than increasing competition on the market." 

DON'T MISS: Housing crunch worries city-loving Stockholmers

The Local Sweden's Housing Hell article series looks at the housing crunch, trying to explain it and examine new solutions. In December, The Local will speak with some of the country's top architects to find out if construction companies take innovation seriously or are more interested in short-term profits and anonymous quick-fix homes? If you'd like to tell your story about housing in Sweden, email the reporter ann.tornkvist@thelocal.se.

Ann Törnkvist (ann.tornkvist@thelocal.com)

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