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Sweden’s student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester

Students in Sweden are facing acute problems getting flats and rooms this year, with shortages of student housing returning to pre-pandemic levels, according to a new report by the Swedish National Union of Students.

Sweden's student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester
Some 383 new student flats have been built at Fäholmaskogen in Kärrtorp in southern Stockholm for this autumn semester. Photo: Chris Anderson/TT

The housing squeeze follows a few years of temporary relief during the pandemic, when more students were studying remotely and not moving to their university towns and cities. But according to the annual housing report from the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), as on-campus studies have returned to pre-pandemic levels, so have student housing shortages.

Of the 34 university or college locations where SFS maps the student housing situation, six areas received a worse result in this year’s report than it did last year.

The changes are tracked using a colour-coded system: green means students can receive an offer of accommodation within a month, yellow means that an offer comes within a semester, and red means a housing offer takes more than one semester. The report found that 61 percent of students live in a city that has been designated a red ranking.

International students are not insulated from this shortage. Hülya Bakca, a Turkish woman studying at Lund University, cancelled her student housing in Malmö, which she received through the university’s accommodation provider.

She had moved to Malmö late, because her classes in the first half of the autumn 2021 semester were online, and she could not afford to pay rent for an apartment she was not using.  While she then found a room in an apartment shared with two other people, she said her rent, at 5,400 kronor, not including wifi, is too high.

“I have the smallest room,” she told The Local. “The room is facing a busy road and it is noisy. I am not happy about it.”

There is no privacy, she added, as insulation problems mean that sounds from both outside and inside the apartment are audible, while the landlady lets herself in whenever she wants without prior warning. 

Bakca tried looking for a new place to live in the summer, when she expected it to be easier to search for an apartment as students left Lund and Malmö. She looked once more for shared accommodation to lower her costs. One apartment was covered in the toys of the prospective flatmate’s child.

“All the shared place was just his kid’s toys and stuff,” she said. “It was everywhere, you could just step on it. Legos, dolls.” Rent was 5,000 SEK, and did not include electricity.

Another potential flatmate was an older man, whose living room was strewn with alcohol bottles, and who told Bakca about his previous tenants, including a 19-year-old woman and a 25-year-old-woman. Rent here was 4,500 SEK, all included.  

After months of searching, Bakca gave up on her housing search, and now plans to move in with her partner when her current lease expires.

According to the report, student housing across Sweden was converted into other types of housing during the pandemic, when demand for student accommodation dipped. Rising construction costs are also contributing to the student housing shortage, as is the removal of governmental support for the creation of low-cost housing.

Meanwhile, a secondary housing market, in which first-hand leaseholders sublet their housing, pushes up rental costs further, eating into students’ already tight budgets.

As well as a housing shortage, students are also facing high rents.

“Students are among the societal groups who spend the highest share of their income, about half, on housing costs,” the report found. 

This year’s downgraded locations include Borås, Jönköping, and Eskilstuna, which have gone from green to yellow, and, Karlskrona, Malmö, and Uppsala which have gone from yellow to red. Lund, Gothenburg, and Stockholm have never received anything but a red rating since 2009, even during the pandemic, highlighting a persistent lack of housing in the three cities, all of which are popular destinations for international students.   

In its report, SFS demands action to address the housing shortage. This call for action is divided into three points: a reintroduction of government subsidies for new construction, a reform of housing allowances for students, and more streamlined checks to ensure that student housing is allocated to active students.

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INTERVIEW: International students ‘vulnerable’ to Swedish housing shortages

People moving to Malmö to study now have to wait as long as a year to receive accommodation, Milena Milosavljević, the president of the Student Union in the city, has told The Local. The situation, she says, is "urgent and acute".

INTERVIEW: International students 'vulnerable' to Swedish housing shortages

The Sofa Project, run by the Student Union Malmö, received 80 applications this year from students who wanted to rent short-term accommodation, showing just how acute the current housing shortage is.

These 80 applicants were vying for one of seven spots, ranging from a spare room to a sofa bed – from hosts who sign up to offer their spaces to new arrivals.  As the programme only had seven hosts registered this year, the project had to close its application page to others, otherwise the number would have surpassed 80.

“They are ready to come to Malmö and sleep on a sofa bed at a stranger’s house before they find accommodation,” Milosavljević told The Local. 

Malmö recently received a red designation from the Swedish National Union of Students, which publishes an annual report assessing the housing situation in university towns and cities across Sweden. A red designation means that finding suitable accommodation as a student takes more than one semester. The report found that 61 percent of students live in a city that has been designated a red ranking.

READ ALSO: Sweden’s student union warns that housing shortages are back this semester

“The reality of Malmö and the reason why it became red is that to find suitable accommodation you have to wait up to a year,” Milosavljević said.

Some individuals, she said might have to wait up to three years to find their own accommodation, making do with second-hand contracts, long commutes, and living with family members in the meantime. For newly-arrived international students, who lack personal numbers when they move here and so cannot join Swedish housing queues, looking for suitable housing becomes a complex task.

“International students are more vulnerable because they don’t have a personal number to enter the system before they come to Sweden,” Milosavljević explained.

Milosavljević herself moved to Malmö as an international, fee-paying student. Because she paid tuition, she was offered housing by Malmö University. Based in part on her own experience, Milosavljević explained that the housing issue cannot be reduced to a shortage in the number of flats and rooms. There is also a shortage of appropriate housing options for different needs.

“They offered me accommodation in a student building,” she said. “Not an apartment, but a room – and I came with my husband. The room was not enough for two of us.”

Student accommodation must accommodate the different needs of different members of the student body, Milosavljević said, including those who move with partners or spouses, or even with their children.

In the past year, one new student apartment building was built in Malmö, with 94 new spaces for the city’s student body. This is inadequate, Milosavljević said. While Malmö is growing, and there is residential construction being carried out around the city, it is unclear how many of those new buildings will prioritise the city’s student population.

The city’s student population, too, is growing. As the pandemic era ended in Sweden, students returned to campus. And new students joined them. While student ranks grew, housing options remained stagnant.

“From our perspective from the Student Union, we have talked about, in the previous years, how the situation after the pandemic is going to get even worse for the students,” Milosavljević said. “There’s an increase of students coming back, new students, and already not even enough housing.”

Milosavljević has fielded calls and emails from students who say that they cannot move to Malmö because they cannot find housing.

“They are already working on it,” Milosavljević told The Local of the university’s response.

There are plans to create more housing for international students, but these proposals focus mainly on students from European Union, leaving other international students out. All international students should be given priority for student accommodation, Milosavljević said, because none of them have access to the Swedish housing market.

“I do believe strongly that the City of Malmö and Malmö University need to have urgent negotiations and start building straight away,” she said.

Because Malmö University is a public university, it must follow the lead of the Ministry of Education and Research. Milosavljević acknowledged that in the aftermath of Sweden’s recent elections, which put the right-bloc in power, student housing shortages might not rank highly on a list of national priorities.

“The Student Union Malmö considers this situation quite urgent and acute,” Milosavljević said. “We are more than prepared to sit down and talk so we can actually do something, instead of just having meetings. The students will continue to suffer if the living conditions and the bostad [housing] situation in Malmö is not improved.”