Housing is one of the biggest talking points in Sweden at the moment. The Swedish union of tenants estimates that nine out of ten Swedes now live in a municipality with a housing shortage, while in capital city Stockholm, more than half a million are on the housing agency's waiting list for a rental apartment.
Meanwhile, Sweden's urban-rural divide is growing: the cities are booming while rural areas shrink. Two thirds of rural municipalities in Sweden have seen a population decrease since 1985.
According to Tobias De Pessemier, who moved to Sweden in 2012, the housing crisis is arguably “a myth” however, as there are “hundreds of thousands” of homes in the Swedish countryside without a permanent resident. To prove it, he is now crowdfunding a report looking into the number of empty houses in the Nordic nation and how to use them to help repopulate the Swedish countryside.
“The biggest problem the Swedish countryside is facing is empty housing,” De Pessemier told The Local. “In the last elections everyone said that what we need is more jobs in the countryside, but it's the contrary, we need people first. When there's people there will be jobs.”
“I live in the countryside, in the most beautiful village I think in southern Sweden. Of the nine houses around mine there are eight that stand empty – Statistics Sweden calls them fritidshus,” he adds.
Sweden's official stats agency Statistics Sweden defines a “fritidshus” as a small house where there is no one registered as living there. Their most recent statistics show that there were 575,384 such houses in Sweden as of 2015.
Those are only the smaller buildings. De Pessemier's hope is that through his crowdfunding campaign he will be able to research the total number of empty houses in Sweden full stop, and offer a solution for how to make sure more of them are occupied, particularly in the countryside.
It could be argued however that new generations simply don't see the countryside as an attractive place to live, and are instead drawn to the cities. De Pessemier counters that there are plenty willing to live outside of urban areas, but it isn't made easy enough for them.
“I had a small advert in a newspaper a few years ago with just three lines: 'Hi, we want neighbours'. Immediately I got 50 responses from people who wanted to move here. The next thing I did is I contacted every single house owner of the empty houses in the area. They all said 'no, we don't want to rent, we don't want to sell'.”
Reasons varied from the houses being in the family for several generations, to a reluctance to rent out holiday homes while they are not being used, he claims.
“Those houses are in the middle of the village – that's the best way to kill a village.”
As a solution, the media professional points to measures in both neighbouring countries and further afield which could be adopted, such as in Denmark, where if you do not live in a second home for at least 180 days per year, you are obliged to rent it out.
In northeast Spain meanwhile, the Catalan government passed a law in 2015 meaning that housing left unoccupied for more than two years without justifiable cause incurs a tax based on its size in square metres. As the size increases, the tax per square metre increases.
“The hope is to finally fund a proper research project into this. How many houses are we talking about? What do we start with? Taxation? Something else? What revenue could it bring to the government at the same time as solving the problem with empty houses in the countryside?” De Pessemier explained.
“On the one hand Sweden says it needs thousands of houses in the next few years, on the other, they're there.”