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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.

Bonava, a construction company, building a new development at Kristinebergs slottspark in central Stockholm, back in 2019.
Bonava, a construction company, building a new development at Kristinebergs slottspark in central Stockholm, back in 2019. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest

It is not only Svante Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes him so interesting, but his own personal story as well, says David Crouch.

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest

Elite scientists are maybe not so high on our list of fantasy dinner guests. Too much homework before the conversation. But the more I find out about Svante Pääbo, the Swedish winner of this year’s Nobel prize for medicine, the more I am convinced he would be great company. 

A modest man with a delightful smile, who likes beer and schnapps with lunch and listens to rock band Talking Heads, Pääbo comes across as warm and approachable. When he won the Nobel, his colleagues at the university threw him in a pond. His book Neanderthal Man is peppered with praise for students and colleagues who helped him along the way. 

He is also skilled at explaining in simple and engaging terms what his research means for all of us. At a time when immigration is such a hot potato, Pääbo reminds us that the history of our species is one of movement and mingling of populations. 

It is not only Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes this clear, but his own personal story as well.

Aged 19, his mother Karin fled her native Estonia in 1944, joining tens of thousands who escaped the Soviet occupation. She worked as a cleaner and a cook in Kalmar, then studied chemistry in Lund, where she met Svante’s father. 

But he was married. Karin brought up her son alone in Stockholm. The father visited on Saturdays when his family thought he was at work.

Svante followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a researcher. A surreptitious experiment in the lab with a piece of liver from ICA set him on a path towards discovering how to extract and study DNA from long-dead animals. At Uppsala University he was also a gay rights activist, before he fell in love with the “boyish charms” of a female colleague at Berkeley, with whom he went on to share his life and have two children. 

Pääbo says it came as a surprise that his bisexuality was considered unusual, and the fact that it didn’t cause him any problems he contributes to the high self-esteem that his mother had given him. “The realisation that my feelings were not quite what the majority society expected forced me to change my rather complacent attitude and led over time to me becoming more open,” he said in a talk on Swedish radio. “Not only to myself, but also for the idiosyncrasies of others.”

Pääbo developed the ideas and techniques that enabled the DNA of our closest genetic relative, the Neanderthals, to be fully decoded and compared to human DNA. His work shows that, as early humans moved east and north from Africa some 70,000 years ago, they mingled and mated with Neanderthals, their mixed children living in human communities and passing on their genes. 

“From a genomic perspective, we are all Africans – either living in Africa or in quite recent exile,” Pääbo says. But many of us have Neanderthal DNA, around 2.5% of the total – we are more Neanderthal the further you get from Africa, in fact. “The lesson is that we have always mixed. We mixed with these earlier forms of humans, wherever we met them, and we mixed with each other ever since,” Pääbo says.

Swedish scientist Svante Paabo swims in a pool at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Photo: Matthias Schrader/AP/AFP

Pääbo’s research has relevance for modern medicine because he has enabled scientists to examine how viruses have changed with time. Last year, he and his team made headlines when they reported that people with a Neanderthal variant of their third chromosome were at a higher risk of suffering severe consequences from contracting Covid-19.

As a dinner guest, I think Pääbo would bring the outlook of a person who has experienced both east and west. The Stasi, the east German secret police, investigated after he was given tissue samples from Egyptian mummies at a museum in East Berlin. He moved from California to live and work in Munich, and then the former east-German city of Leipzig. Some of his seminal work is on samples found by Russian researchers in a cave in Denisova, a remote spot in Siberian mountains near the borders with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. 

It is wise to avoid politics at dinner parties, but Pääbo might also have something interesting to say about Sweden today. 

Julia Kronlid, newly-elected to the post of vice speaker of parliament, is a senior member of the Sweden Democrats and someone who does not accept the theory of evolution. In 2014, she said in a widely cited interview: “I do not accept the theory of evolution’s claim that humans are descended from apes. One can question the scientific nature of it because it is so far back in time.”

By all accounts, Kronlid appears to be a nice person, whatever you think of her politics or beliefs. Hopefully, she celebrates the Nobel prize for medicine as a great Swedish achievement. And wouldn’t it be nice if she and Pääbo could sit down to dinner together sometime soon?

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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