Housing minister to tame ‘unhelpful’ local leaders

Is Stefan Attefall getting his boxing gloves out? The housing crunch gets crunchier by the minute, and now the housing minister wants to look into how to manhandle or seduce the municipalities to start building. He tells The Local how.

Housing minister to tame 'unhelpful' local leaders
Housing Minister Stefan Attefall. File photo: News Oresund/Flikr

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.

"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 [email protected]

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Five tricks Swedes use to avoid the long wait for rental apartments

The official waiting time for apartments in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö varies between three and eleven years. But Swedes have their own tricks for jumping the queue.

Five tricks Swedes use to avoid the long wait for rental apartments

There’s no requirement for landlords or renters to use the queuing systems run by the municipalities in the big cities, but most of the big ones do, the intention being to reduce corruption and increase fairness in the rental market. 

The Stockholm Housing Agency, or bostadsförmedlingen, has a queue between seven and eleven years long. Boplats Gothenburg has an average wait of 6.4 years, and Boplats Syd in Malmö has an average waiting time of nearly three years.

According to Kristina Wahlgren, a journalist at Hem & Hyra, Sweden’s leading rental property magazine, the system puts foreigners and recent arrivals to Sweden at a significant disadvantage. 

“It’s extremely difficult if you are from another country. You don’t have any contacts, and it’s quite difficult to understand if you haven’t grown up in this culture,” she says of the system. “There are some quite subtle aspects, and there’s vänskapskorruption [giving special advantage to friends]. ” 

Listen to a discussion about Swedish queue systems on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Obviously, the biggest advantage faced by locals in Sweden is that they normally joined the queue the moment they turned 17, so by the time they’re looking for an apartment as a young adult, they’re already near the front. 

But even for new arrivals in Sweden, it’s possible to wait a much shorter time if you know the tricks, says Wahlgren, who has been nominated for Sweden’s Guldspaden journalism prize for an investigation into how Malmö finds housing for homeless people. 

Kristina Wahlgren, a reporter for the Hem & Hyra newspaper. Photo: Hem & Hyra

1.  Apply for more expensive new-build apartments to start off with 

If you’ve got a good enough salary, and are willing to pay high rent for your first few years in Sweden, this can make it easier to get an apartment, as there is less competition for more expensive, new-build apartments, Wahlgren says.

“If you’re willing to pay high rent, then you can get an apartment within a couple of months [in Malmö]. If you want a cheaper apartment, it can take years. So it’s quite a big difference.”

2. Rather than wait for your perfect apartment, take what’s available and then swap 

The rules recently got a little stricter, but it’s still relatively easy to swap between apartments once you have a first-hand contract. There’s even a website, Lägenhetsbyte, which acts as an interface. 

This means, if you use the method above, and decide to rent a more expensive new-build apartment with a shorter queue, you can then downgrade to a cheaper apartment with someone who is after somewhere newer and swankier.

Rental queues are also shorter in less desirable areas of Sweden’s cities. For example, the waiting list in Norra Hissingen in Gothenburg is only five years, half what it is in Majorna. It can be quicker to make do with living in a relatively dreary area, and then swap with somewhere better, than to insist from the start on an apartment in your dream location. 

“If you can’t wait for the right department, just take the one that you get, then you can keep on looking and when you do have a lease, you can change the lease with someone else,” Wahlgren says. 

To change apartment, you need to have a so-called “acceptable reason”, such as needing a bigger or smaller apartment. With any luck, your landlord should accept the swap. If they refuse you can challenge their decision at your local hyresnämnden or “rental tribunal”.  

3. Use the tricks for contacting landlords directly  

Landlords in Sweden are not required to use the municipal rental queues to find their tenants, and if a suitable tenant presents themselves just as an apartment becomes free, they may prefer to take someone they know.

This is particularly the case with the smaller, private landlords. It’s possible to find lists of private landlords online, such as here. But Wahlgren recommends putting in a bit of legwork.

“One way to find who owns an apartment block, is to just go around and check on the buildings for the names of the landlords, and look in the stairwells for the number of the landlord’s agent.” 

Once you have the number, you have to ring both regularly, at least once a month, and also strategically. 

“It’s important to call at the right time,” Wahlgren says. “Because normally apartment rentals end at the turn of the month, so that’s when you’re going to call. You don’t call on the 15th, you call on the 31st or the 1st of the month.”

4. Exploit all the friends and contacts that you have 

When someone hands in their notice on a rental agreement, they may try to shorten their notice by finding a replacement for the landlord, or they might find a replacement simply as a favour. This is why it’s important to ask your friends and work colleagues if they know of any apartments becoming free. 

“If they use the municipal queue, they have to follow the rules. This way, they can choose their own tenants,” Wahlgren says of the appeal of this to landlords. “If you’re a nice person, you might be able to just talk your way into an apartment.” 

5. Be a student 

“If you’re a student, there are special housing companies in the university cities, different foundations that rent out apartments,” Wahlgren says. But then you have to study.” 

Illegal ways of getting an apartment

All of these ways of getting a rental apartment are legal, but there are some ways of getting a rental apartment more quickly which are not.

1. Paying a fee

You may also find landlords or intermediaries on websites such as Blocket, who ask for a one-off payment to jump a rental queue, or get a rental apartment. This is illegal. “You can lose your money, you can lose the apartment, and in the worst case, you can go to prison,” warns Wahlgren.

2. Getting an illegal subtenancy 

It’s perfectly legal to rent out your rental apartment to someone else for a period, if you have a valid reason for doing so and your landlord agrees. But such is the pressure to get housing that a market has sprung up in illegal subletting. Before signing a contract for a sublet, make sure that the landlord who owns the property has agreed to it. 

3. Bribing someone running the queue 

There have been cases of people working for municipalities logging into the housing queue and altering it, either as a favour to their friends, or for money. This is fairly rare, and in the unlikely event that someone offers to do this for you, it’s best to decline.