“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'.”
STUDYING IN SWEDEN:
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.”
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.”