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HOUSING

Swedish student housing: ‘More a privilege than a fairly allocated resource’

For international students, finding a suitable place to live in Sweden remains a major challenge. If a student is not eligible for a home through the university, an uncertain process starts with long queues and scammers. The Local talked to a number of international students about their experiences on the Swedish housing market.

Swedish student housing: 'More a privilege than a fairly allocated resource'
The housing market is particularly tricky to navigate for foreign students. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

“Our accommodation provider landscape is this: university housing, student housing association, nations [a type of student society in Sweden which often provides accommodation], other housing communities, private owners,” Lund University student Aleksandra, from Eastern Europe, tells The Local.

In 2018, 410,228 students were registered at Swedish universities, around 4,700 more than the previous year. There are 96,990 student rooms or student apartments available all across Sweden.

Lund student housing company AF Bostäder allocates a certain number of rooms for first-year students every year, but it is not enough to secure you a place, explains Aleksandra.

“For the desperate and the ones in need, the association organises a 'housing lottery' which starts on the arrival day in August. Assuming you haven't found anything, you can participate in a game of chances to 'win' a housing contract.”


Did you find a student room immediately? Congratulations, you're one of the lucky ones. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The story of Aleksandra shows the difficult situation that international students in Sweden have to deal with. A jumble of organisations that all have to contend with the same problem: a enormous lack of accommodation.

For the 740 apartments that AF Bostäder raffled during this lottery in 2019, there were 2,400 interested students. Students who are not lucky with this lottery are dependent on the also highly competitive public housing market.

“I cannot stress this enough,” says Aleksandra. “Do not offer more places at the university than you can reasonably accommodate. You cannot expect people with limited financials to 'sort things out themselves'.”

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Nikolas Theofanous is head of Lund University accommodation and in charge of housing for international students. “I think that's a fair point.” he replies. “It's especially exchange students that have problems with housing. We know that we have more students than we have housing for.”

“There's a rigorous information campaign with all universities that we have agreements with regarding the housing situation in Lund,” he adds. “No one should be surprised that there is a housing shortage in Lund because we are communicating it many ways. All exchange students also get this information as they are accepted at Lund University that it is hard to find housing.”

Imbalance in supply and demand due to the education system

The current Swedish education system consisting of two fixed semesters, with autumn being the most popular term for short-term students, contributes to an imbalance in the market for student housing.

“It's hard for both private and public companies to adapt to the housing market because most of the students are only here for six months,” says Theofanous.

“Most of them come during the fall term. It's not possible to meet the demand in the fall term if you then have massive vacancies during the spring term. One solution to the problem would be to have a more balanced application agreement. If there would be more equal amount of applications coming in both in the fall and spring term, there would be a better possibility for these companies to build housing. Then there is a balance.”


The Swedish university, and university accommodation, year is divided into two semesters. Photo: Emil Langvad/TT

The fixed rental periods of six months also means that students who study an even shorter period, or finish early, at the university face additional costs. The housing also must be paid for in the months that they do not study at the university. That while the space could have been available to other home seekers.

“My main problem is the fixed rental period and the high prices,” says Lea Marie from Spain, currently studying in Uppsala. “My classes started last week and will be over by mid-May. I am still obliged to pay for the whole period from mid-January to mid-June. With a price of nearly 540 euros a month, that is quite a problem. I think it would be way better to be more flexible with the dates to be able to accommodate more students and reduce the financial burden.”

Negative impact on focus on study

Student organizations are also seeing students getting into trouble with their studies due to the problems on the housing market. Hanne Nordqvist is a political secretary at the Stockholms Student Associations' Central Organisation. This organization represents 80,000 students in Stockholm and aims to protect and develop Stockholm as Sweden's leading place of education.

“Many students report that the housing situation affects their focus in their education,” Nordqvist says. “The second and third-hand options they end up getting are unstable, often short-term and likely to change with little to none notice. We hear students feeling forced to have a part or full-time job besides the studies to make ends meet.”

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Housing via student nations, traditional student societies particularly popular in Lund and Uppsala, is often not an option for international students due to a lack of network within the associations, says Aleksandra:

“The student nations own a lot of real estate and are allowed to create their own rules in 'awarding' flats to their members or other students. As a newcomer, an international, my personal experience is that nation housing was not an option for me due to the lack of personal contacts from within.”


Student housing in Stockholm. Photo: Izabelle Nordfjell/TT

Meanwhile, scammers eagerly make use of the scarcity on the housing market. With fake profiles on social media they try to scam home seekers with non-existent homes. These scammers are especially active in Facebook groups focused on the housing market for the international students.

“We spent half a year finding a flat online and submitted about 200 applications,” says Aleksandra. “We had to give our LinkedIn profile, mentioning the availability of references, account statements, work experience and overall responsibility. We receive less than a dozen answers, and those included scams too.”

Together with the municipality of Lund, the university manages a website for student housing on the public housing market called 'Bopoolen'.

Lund University is actively trying to tackle scammers on this website, states Theofanous. “Since last year we have regulations that people who put up ads have to enter their Swedish personal number and a Swedish phone number,” he says.

“Then the organisation also checks everyone who puts up an ad there to minimise the risk of scammers. The problem is when students are going to look for housing on other websites where there are scammers active.”

Swedish law also does not make it easier for universities to solve the housing problems themselves.

“We are a governmental body and tied to laws and regulations for universities”, says Theofanous. “Universities in other countries have the possibility to control their own student housing. They own the whole issue, we don't. We have to rent buildings second-hand. We don't have the same possibilities as other European universities to solve the housing issue.”

Solutions for the future

“All this experience makes you feel like housing is more of a privilege, rather than a fairly allocated resource,” says Aleksandra in a concluding remark.

Hanne Nordqvist from Stockholm's Student Assocations' Central Organisation thinks that Stockholm has to increase the supply of housing if it wants to maintain its status as an internationally attractive city for students.

“The construction rate of student housing needs to increase, which may need regulatory simplifications and reliefs,” she says. “We lack a well thought out and long-term solution that enables the market to reach a well needed balance, a breathing space, if you will. Someone needs to assume the overall responsibility in making sure that we cater the need of student accommodation both today and in the future.”

And Theofanous of Lund University does not expect any improvement in the coming years as long as the system does not change.

“In the best situation the private market would solve the housing situation,” he says. Right now I would say that the education and internationalisation strategy that the Swedish government has set, cannot be achieved without the universities being able to arrange their own housing. Not right now or within the next ten years.”

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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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