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HOUSING

Homeless in Uppsala: a foreign student’s tale

More than a month after arriving in Sweden for the start of the academic year, many foreign students are still struggling to find permanent housing. Contributor Amy Keresztes, an American studying at Uppsala University, shares her tale of frustration.

Homeless in Uppsala: a foreign student’s tale
Students congregate on a lawn at Uppsala University

KAOS,” screamed the cover of “Ergo”, the Uppsala University newspaper, with a photograph of a jumbled queue in front of one of the student unions.

“Housing crisis worse than ever!”

I had been warned. “The system is impossible, even for us,” complained a native Swede who has been in the queue for the housing group Dombron for three years.

I’m used to finding apartments in Boston, which involves trawling through listings until you find one that seems decent and calling the landlord. I could probably find an apartment in Boston in less than a day, any time of year, and move in immediately.

Obviously, I knew things wouldn’t be that simple here. I’ve lived in Uppsala before as an exchange student, and housing was easy. My home university made all the arrangements; I simply had to show up and move in. (I miss those days.)

The problem with the international application process is that I didn’t receive my official acceptance to my masters programme at Uppsala until early May, which meant that my visa wouldn’t be approved until several months later. I had considered moving to Sweden immediately after my graduation and spending the summer traveling and looking for a place to live. But my visa wasn’t coming until the end of August, so I was forced to stay in Boston and attempt to do everything online.

I had registered for accounts with the major housing companies in the winter, in anticipation of outrageous queues and point requirements. But of course, when I’m in queues with native Swedes who have been registered for years, how much of a chance do I stand?

Every time I clicked “interested” on a room (absolutely any room) I would wait a few days and see the message (roughly translated) “this has gone to another seeker. Your place in the queue was 509.” I knew things were bad when I felt a jolt of elation at having a queue number that was under 100. Another problem; many websites don’t allow you to register unless you have a Swedish personnummer (personal identity number), which you can’t get until you have a Swedish address, which you can’t get until you have a residence permit, och så vidare.

In June, I thought I had found the perfect place from a local website, which turned out to be a scam. I was crushed, but relieved at having discovered it in time instead of showing up, all my worldly possessions in hand, to a nonexistent apartment. Back to square one.

In July, my Swedish friends asked everyone they knew for housing tips, and came up with a room for rent in an apartment near the university. But after I arrived on August 21st, I didn’t hear back from the girl I was supposed to contact for two weeks.

She replied with the following message: “My flatmates don’t want to live with someone under 25. Good luck finding an apartment!” (I couldn’t help but read that last line sarcastically.)

So crashing with my ex it was.

It will only be a few days. Something will open up, I told myself.

The next morning I went straight to the Student Union to inquire about my options. The woman I spoke to offered this gem of advice: to look at a website which contains postings for sub-letters and roommates, and “sit on it all day constantly refreshing the page.”

Do I get to have a bathroom break, I wondered.

She also informed me that the University was generously providing emergency housing for foreign students, but that there were “about 300 people in the queue” ahead of me. And as a last resort, I could “sleep in a church- but for one night only.”

On a positive note, my housing-related vocabulary has greatly improved. For the first two weeks I sent at least five e-mails a day to various people who were renting out rooms, desperately hoping to bypass the queue system and find the perfect place. I was lucky if I got so much as one “sorry it is already taken” message for every 20 meticulously checked-and-double-checked Swedish messages.

The hundreds of displaced students have been taking it remarkably well, maintaining faith that things will magically “open up.” I’ve been offered everything from couches to living room floors.

I know someone who has been regularly sleeping in the cathedral yet still manages to make it to class neatly dressed.

I met another guy who arrived in Uppsala, went to an orientation, and asked the first person he saw if he could sleep on his floor. Many students are living in trailers and tents on city camping grounds. We’re finding creative ways to cope.

There is some understandable bitterness: I’ve heard horror stories about foreign students who were accepted at Uppsala, only to withdraw after not finding housing. An exchange student friend bluntly remarked: “Uppsala is completely ridiculous. Why accept students you don’t have room for?”

It’s a great question. And students all over the country are asking it loudly, from Stockholm to Lund. But along with the bitterness, there’s a sort of resigned camaraderie. We’re all in it together, Swedish and foreign.

I have been encouraged to give up and fly back to Boston.

“Why would you want to stay somewhere without a home, and with no prospects for one?” asked one friend.

I have to admit I’ve considered it. I could defer admission from the programme for a year, work in the States and try to secure a real apartment here before coming back.

Even as I write this, I have no home. I snagged a room in a small hostel near the center of town, but must move out tomorrow.

The thing is, I have a bit of a crush on Sweden. I love müsli with filmjölk, recycling, riding my bicycle everywhere, and walking a few kilometers out of the city and ending up in a forest. So I’m not giving up so easily. And if I can be this happy without a room of my own, imagine how I’ll feel when I manage to find one.

Postscript: Shortly after submitting her essay, Amy managed to find accomodation on a farm 8 kilometres outside of Uppsala and hopes to be able to call it home at least through the winter.

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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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