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EDUCATION

Students face years in Swedish housing queue

Swedish and foreign students are set to start university in the coming weeks. But the experience will be marred for many as a report suggests thousands face up to a two-year wait for student accommodation.

Students face years in Swedish housing queue
Not all students will be moving into their own student room in Sweden this autumn. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SvD/SCANPIX

Conducted by Studentbostadsföretagen, the trade association for groups that own and manage student residences in Sweden, the report paints a desperate image of the housing shortage in Swedish university towns, with most expected to spend at least a year, if not longer, in the queue for student accommodation.

Prospective students in Uppsala in central Sweden face the longest waits: up to 102 weeks. But according to the report the figure is exaggerated because it is possible to sign up for the queue from the age of 18, at least a year before most Swedes begin their studies.

The situation is the most dire in the capital. Stockholm-based students have to queue at least a year for a room with a shared kitchen and common areas in a hall of residence, and on average three years to get their own student apartment. In the meantime they will be forced to explore other options such as living with friends, subletting or finding a short-term rental contract.

Studentbostadsföretagen have previously warned that in 2015, 20,000 people are likely to start their first term without formal accommodation, 3,000 more than five years ago.

Martin Johansson, Secretary-General for Studenbostadsföretagen, called for better coordination between education policy and housing policy on Tuesday.

“A link so that universities have a dialogue with municipalities about how many students will be coming in the next few years. (…) [The future] does not look very bright when we require a further 20,000 homes in the long term and just above 2,000, at most, are being built a year,” he told TT.

GUIDE: How to steer Sweden's crazy rental market

Lund in southern Sweden has introduced a new system giving priority to new and international students. A third of the autumn admissions will therefore be allocated to a place to live before or as soon as they arrive in the university town. But others are expected to queue for a year for a room in a shared corridor and two years for their own apartment.

Gothenburg on the west coast also reports average waiting times of more than a year (60 weeks). Even students heading to smaller Swedish towns, such as Växjö in the south or Luleå or Umeå in the far north, can expect to spend at least a year in the housing queue.

“Meanwhile, the number of students is increasing over time and the government is investing in creating 15,000 new places [at universities] for students in the next three years. That means that even more homes are needed,” said Johansson.

But it is not all doom and gloom. If you are about to move to Sweden, or have just moved here, check out The Local's handy guide to the top tips for how to navigate the Nordic country's intricate housing system.

An accommodation adviser in Lund told The Local in July that apart from joining the student housing queue, new arrivals should also consider couch surfing or sharing a room with several others when they first arrive in the city, before seeking out longer term sleeping arrangements.

“It is difficult for students. They all arrive at the same time. It is hard to get your first place but it is easier when you've been here a few weeks and have got to know people,” said Susanne Hansson, an accommodation co-ordinator who works with both Lund University and the local municipality.

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has promised that 150,000 new homes will be built in Sweden each year from 2016, focusing on affordable apartments for low earners and students.

“We have a have a great housing shortage in Sweden. Housing is a key part of the government's labour strategy,” he told a press conference in March.

“A housing shortage is one of the biggest obstacles to growth, such that people cannot move wherever they want,” he added.

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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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