Housing, once the bedrock of Swedenʼs welfare state, now needs radical intervention, says Rasmus Wærn
Sweden’s development of the welfare state was admired long after it ceased to live up to expectations. The absence of social housing was a cause for pride. Instead of housing for specific categories of people, such as those who can’t afford market prices, every home met a set standard in terms of planning and construction. Any extra cost was paid by taxes. This eventually led to the most generous housing standards in the world. A costly strategy, of course, but as long as the state could afford subsidies, housing was a pillar in welfare politics and an industry that involved most of the nation’s architects.
The whole set-up vanished decades ago, but its legacy remains, with a relatively large housing stock still encapsulating the vision of a welfarestate. However, the gap between vision and reality has now become painfully obvious.
Sweden’ s growing cities have a huge demand for homes that the market can’t meet. Sweden and the Czech Republic are currently the only countries in the European Union without any non-commercial alternative to the housing market. And a large-scale industry and complex building regulations have made housing a costly affair. The government is now looking for cost reductions in all areas, as further state funding seems out of the question. Architects fear the return of poor housing for the poor, a spectre Sweden has avoided for almost 90 years.
Architects fear the return of poor housing for the poor, a spectre Sweden has avoided for almost 90 years.
Yet as long as the effects of the US sub-prime loan crisis are still being felt, it’s very unlikely that increased building activity will lower the cost of new homes, or that new subsidies will make them affordable. As the Swedish housing industry is one of the most, if not the most, industrialised in the world, making savings while maintaining decent quality will be tricky. Housing design is back in the hands of a few large construction companies, reminiscent of the infamous ‘million programme’ of 1965-74 aimed at building a million dwellings in a decade. Quality, diversity and dignified environments were not the main concern then. The current gap between supply and demand has generated intense discussion about what to do and calls for radical solutions. Cheap social housing could well be about to descend on Sweden. Still, it is not the worst case scenario.
Frustration over a segregated housing market has already sparked increasing desperation over the segregated cities that follow from it. In May, violent protests in Husby, a low-income suburb of Stockholm, emphasised the lack of inclusiveness. Burning cars sent a message that housing will be a political issue again.
Though the protests were against authority in general, rather than specific development plans, as at Istanbul’s Taksim Square (AR July 2013), no politician could refrain from bringing them into the larger context of housing and planning policy. But the real issue is how to solve a huge problem without government engagement. There is no lack of building. But there is a lack of housing for those that can’t afford new homes. And due to a massive transformation of rented flats into condominiums, older housing stock has now become an investment, changing the image of the home as well as the city. For a growing pool of home owners, the city is a piece of common real estate, and a shortage of housing protects their expensive investments. So a big new subsidised housing programme is not only politically inconceivable, but also threatens this economy of vested interests.
It looks like large cities will continue to build expensive houses, smaller cities less expensive ones, while the housing industry continues to flood the countryside with affordable homes that no one wants. In 1966 the Swedish Prime Minister advised a young couple to move out of Stockholm. I doubt they listened. And with the global rise in city living, this strategy seems even more obsolete. So the market and government end up trying to do things on the cheap, with architecture the inevitable first sacrifice in this crusade.
Rasmus Wærn is a Swedish architect, historian, lecturer, curator and critic.