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HOUSING

Five unexpected things you learn when living with Swedes

Managed to tie yourself down accommodation in Sweden? With more one-resident households than anywhere else in the world, there's a high chance you'll be living in a small apartment which is part of a larger block. That means coming into contact with genuine Swedes in their natural habitat, and if you want to get used to the experience, there are a few things worth keeping in mind.

Five unexpected things you learn when living with Swedes
Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

1. Laundry is now the most important thing in your life

Remember those lazy Sundays where you put your laundry on, left the house, had a walk in the park and a coffee before casually coming home to hang out the drying? Remember them fondly, because now that you are moving to Sweden, they are dead.

Space is at a premium in Swedish apartments, and one of the first things you're likely to notice when you enter one is the lack of a washing machine. Residents instead tend to do their laundry in a communal washroom somewhere else in the building, with timeslots booked ahead of time.

With so many people sharing the same laundry space, getting a last minute booking is a rare thing, so unless you want to know what it feels like to reach Wednesday, realize you have no underwear left then rush hurriedly to H&M to buy more (and trust me, it doesn't feel good) you'd better get used to planning your washing weeks ahead.

On the positive side, “I can't, I have to do my laundry” becomes a nice alternative to “I'm washing my hair” as an excuse for not turning up somewhere, with the difference being that you genuinely can't come. You have to do your laundry. Or else.


The laundry room: where your social life went to die. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

 

2. The first rule of subletting is you don't talk about subletting

Unless you've been in the queue for one of Sweden's state-regulated apartments since you were born – and let's face it, you haven't – finding a first home in the country is likely to mean finding a sublet. Overcrowding and accommodation shortages mean renting “second hand” is a common way of living, particularly if you're young. Yet despite that, subletting is often treated like a deep, dark secret that should never be revealed.

Why? In theory, it shouldn't really be done, or at least not for long. Tight regulations mean that if someone wants to hire their rental apartment out in Sweden by the book, they will need to provide a valid reason for doing so (for example, going to study abroad). For the same reason, contracts tend to be frustratingly short.

The result? Well, we're not suggesting that some people choose to rent their apartments out through unofficial means, but… Put it this way: when your neighbour's tone of voice drops to a whisper and he or she starts looking around shiftily once you've told them you're subletting, you now know why.


Get used to signing secondhand rental contracts (but don't mention it). Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

 

3. Think you have storage? Think again

So you finally managed to find an apartment? Good news. The bad news is you're only renting half of it. Those handy looking cupboards in the kitchen are so handy that the contract owner decided to fill them with their horrible glassware while they left on a gap year. Ditto the large cupboard in the living room, which probably contains the world's biggest collection of blue Ikea bags – or worse.

Fortunately, many Swedish apartments come with loft or basement storage elsewhere in the building. Unfortunately, that's full too. After all, where else would the owner put his or her ski equipment, collection of childhood toys, or random junk? Renting in Sweden means traveling light. Get used to it.


The contents of your new cellar. And don't even think about touching them. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

4. The spring (and autumn) clean dilemma

Swedes have a reputation for being solitary types, but when it comes to looking after apartment buildings they're actually pretty collectively-minded. Twice a year the normally lonesome creatures can be seen out in their courtyards, raking leaves, brushing gravel together and even conversing as they take part in the traditional spring and autumn cleaning session.

You have two options here: either you're a good citizen and you take part, make a token effort to clean up some rubbish and make awkward small talk with Henke over a hotdog, or, you wait patiently and watch carefully for the right moment to leave the house, then sneak away while everyone has their back turned. The choice is yours, but remember: you'll be leaving for another apartment in six months anyway.


If you see this, run for the hills. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

5. Don't be fooled: that nifty-looking library is useless

Swedes hate to throw stuff away, and the proof is in their well-organized recycling schemes, meaning cans and bottles can often be taken to recycling stations in supermarkets and exchanged for money.

That reticence to waste things has its downside though, and nowhere is it more apparent than on the communal bookshelf. The location varies, but whether it's in the laundry room, recycling area, or in a room of its own, you're bound to find a shelf full of old books somewhere in your new apartment block, where texts are left “kindly” by other residents who are eager to share their latest great read.

It's a trap. Unless you find the Swedish equivalent of Mills and Boon enticing, or are desperate to read the 98th edition of Sven-Göran Eriksson's autobiography, then move along, there's nothing of interest for you here. Dress it up any way you like: but those books have been left there for a reason, and the reason is that they aren't wanted.


They left it on that shelf for a reason. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

Article first published in 2016, and updated in 2020.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s ‘historic investment’ has failed to solve the housing crisis

Five years after Sweden's government promised to solve the country's housing crisis with a "historic investment", things are as bad as ever, David Crouch argues. Radical action is needed.

OPINION: Sweden's 'historic investment' has failed to solve the housing crisis

Forced to move house 20 times in the past eight years, Maria’s situation was desperate. She and her daughter had arrived in Stockholm from Latin America in search of a better life. She found work, no problem – but housing was impossible.

“Sometimes I was paying 12,000kr in rent and it was very hard because I only had 15,000kr in monthly salary,” says Maria (not her real name). So she took a high-interest loan of 240,000kr and tried to bribe someone in the Housing Agency to get to the front of the queue for affordable housing.

But she was caught. Her fate is unknown. And she didn’t even get an apartment.

This recent story, in the excellent newspaper of the Tenants’ Association, sums up the problems facing people who move here to work. The market for rental accommodation is tight as a drum. Finding a home means competing with Swedes, but with all the disadvantages of being an outsider. So people find themselves pushed into short-term, insecure rental contracts at inflated prices.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Five years ago this month, the government announced a “historic investment in housing”, including subsidies for construction companies, easing restrictions on building permits, and making more land available.

The housing situation at the time was grim. Spotify had threatened to leave Sweden if things didn’t improve – how could the company attract skilled young people to a city where there was nowhere for them to live? More than half Stockholm’s population – 600,000 people – were in the queue for a coveted rental apartment, because strict regulation meant these rents were low. But it took as long as 20 years to get to the front of that queue.

The result was a thriving rental property black market, with large bribes changing hands. Many tenants exploited the situation by sub-letting their homes, or parts of them. “It is almost impossible for immigrants and new arrivals to penetrate this market – it is all about who you know and how much money you have,” said Billy McCormac, head of the Fastighetsägarna property association, in 2015.

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So what has been the outcome of the grand promises the government made five years ago? House-building at the time was already rising steadily, and it has continued to do so. Look around you in the big cities and you will see that new apartment blocks have sprung up here and there.

But we shouldn’t go only on appearances. To understand the reality, we need to look at some numbers.

The gap between demand for housing and the existing housing stock has indeed started to shrink. “As housing construction has gradually increased and population growth has begun to slow down, the gap has decreased since 2017,” Stockholm’s Housing Agency noted in December.

The Agency has broken records four years in a row for the number of rental homes it has provided. The proportion of young adults living independently has also increased somewhat, the Tenants’ Association found, probably due to the pace of construction.

But this smidgen of good news is outweighed by an avalanche of bad.

The average queuing time in 2021 for a Stockholm apartment was more than 9 years; for somewhere in the city centre you have to wait 18 years. Only 936 homes came with a waiting time of less than one year. More than three-quarters of a million people are now registered in the queue for housing – a big increase on five years ago.

The rate at which the housing shortage is shrinking is nowhere near fast enough to alleviate the huge accumulated demand.

Assuming that the current pace of construction can be maintained, it will be the end of this decade before any significant dent is made in the deficit of homes, according to Boverket – the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning. The current rate of construction is “only marginally more than the long-term need”, it says.

The challenge is even greater when it comes to producing affordable housing, Boverket says, especially for the young and those entering the housing market for the first time. Almost one in four young Swedes up to the age of 27 are forced to live at home – the second-highest figure since the measurements began.

There are already signs that housing construction is actually slowing down, owing to higher building material prices, rising interest rates and an incipient labour shortage. Construction prices rose by more than 8 percent last year, and there is concern in the industry that war in Ukraine will further affect costs, in turn slowing the pace of building.

There is another fly in the ointment, a consequence of the collapse of Sweden’s governing coalition in November. The new, minority administration was forced to adopt the opposition’s budget, which halted investment subsidies for house building, throwing the construction industry into confusion.

In short, the “Swedish model” for providing people with a roof over their heads is failing. The folkhemmet, or “people’s home”, has not enough homes for its people.

Swedes themselves understand this: in a survey last month, nine out of ten voters said they thought that politicians did not take the housing shortage seriously.

We have waited too long. It is time for fresh thinking and radical action to solve the housing crisis.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University

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