Apartment buildings in Stockholm. Photo: Getty Images
Apartment buildings in Stockholm. Photo: Getty Images

SocietyDecember 20, 2019

Good housing is considered a privilege in New Zealand. In Sweden it’s a human right

Apartment buildings in Stockholm. Photo: Getty Images
Apartment buildings in Stockholm. Photo: Getty Images

Thirty per cent of the Swedish population live in public housing. New Zealand could learn a lot from their system, argues a former Auckland renter.

After many years living in rented flats in Wellington and Auckland, I’ve found myself living in public housing in Gothenburg, Sweden. I’m writing home to tell the tale of a very different way of renting. One that’s underlined by the understanding that housing is a basic human right, fought for by a mighty tenants’ union, built by waves of massive government funded projects, and a joy to live in as a tenant.

Before I moved to Sweden four years ago I lived in a villa in Grey Lynn. We packed the house with six people to afford the $910 weekly rent that went up each time it could. I loved living with my flatmates; it’s a special culture of living collectively that we’ve built out of necessity in New Zealand. I believe many Swedes would benefit from having a flatmate to be with through the long dark winter months.

Our home was beautiful. It had a claw-foot bath, mature olive trees and a gas stove. It was also cold and damp and my Swedish boyfriend was horrified at the condensation that built up on the single-glazed windows.

Every three months we would spend a day cleaning before the quarterly inspection fret about general and reasonable wear and tear. I felt like a kid who might be in trouble but not sure what for. The expectations felt high and mysterious. We would return home from work to find a message from the landlord, a star chart with two stars out of three. Didn’t dust the windowsills. Oven needs a clean. While inspections are necessary for landlord insurance, they feel invasive and authoritarian, and are symbolic to me of our renting culture in New Zealand, a private sector culture where we treat every tenant like a potential criminal who has to prove they deserve shelter.

My current apartment is, in Swedish, ‘lagom’ – just right. Not too big, but spacious, airy, warm in winter and cool in summer. The municipality of Gothenburg has so far been a great landlord. When we moved in we were asked to pick out what wallpaper we would like, as the old wallpaper was stained and needed to be replaced. I told everyone back home about that. Imagine, at no cost to yourself, being asked to choose a favourite pattern of quality (Swedish made) wallpaper for your newly rented apartment. For me, that encapsulates what it’s like living here. Feeling at home in a place you don’t own; being expected to stay a long time and make it a home that suits you; feeling confident that when something goes wrong you can call the property manager or landlord and they’ll fix it.

There are no inspections. We knocked at least 15 holes into the walls to put up our artwork without asking anyone. Of course we’ll fill them back up when we move out, that’s our responsibility.  I don’t feel pitted against my landlord here. I’m living in a well-maintained, affordable, efficient apartment that will be home to another family when we don’t need it anymore.

The author and her son at home
The author and her son at home (Image: supplied)

In the 1930s, New Zealand built state homes in response to a housing crisis, and now Kainga Ora plans to build 10,000 houses in 10 years to address the housing crisis the country faces today. While that’s of course welcome news, housing is still seen as a commodity in New Zealand – we as a nation believe the market should decide how much it costs to have a roof over your head.

In Sweden, housing is seen as a basic human need and it is accepted that society should bear the responsibility to house its citizens. The Swedish welfare state is also called ‘folkhemmet’ – the people’s home. The government funded municipalities to build homes for their citizens following the post-WWII baby boom and again in the 1970s. Public housing in Sweden is available universally. Approximately 1.5 million Swedes (about 15%) live in municipality-owned public housing.

In the 1970s, under Social Democrat prime minister Olof Palme, the Swedish government funded the building of over one million homes across a ten-year period in response to a growing population and lack of housing. The Million Home Project, Miljonprogrammet, improved the quantity and quality of housing stock.

Today we have a tenancy union to thank for keeping rents reasonable. A property owners union and Hyresgästföreningen, the tenants union, collectively negotiate rent at the district level. Negotiating rent individually, as in New Zealand, leaves tenants in a weak position. In Sweden, the tenants union’s power lies in its numbers – they have the ability to call a rent strike from their 500,000 members. For the landlords, the negotiations are an efficient way to handle rent increases for a large number of tenants.

Rent is based on utilities, and on the union’s stance that tenants with comparable apartments should pay comparable rent. One of the union’s objectives is that tenants should not pay more than 25% of the average income after tax in rent. The union also works to shape public opinion in the interests of tenants, agitates for increased housing supply to meet demand, provides tenants with legal services, and builds renters’ communities through events and activities.

My building is 10 storeys high and has four sister buildings on an area of land the size of a small golf course. These apartments were built in the 50s and have been well maintained and operated by the council since. That’s 150 dwellings in my estate paying rent to the council for 60 years. There are about 500 residents in these buildings. Also on the estate are a community vegetable garden, car parks, a kindergarten, a hairdresser, a dairy, a paddle pool that turns into an ice rink in the winter, and a half-size soccer field. All of this is in a wider suburb full of many more of these public housing estates.

Public apartment housing blocks in Sweden
Public housing in Sweden (Image: svt.se)

Middle and high density apartment blocks are not cool in New Zealand, and I can already hear the shouts of ‘not in my back yard!’. But they can be attractive, efficient, and environmentally friendly alternatives to free standing structures on sprawling quarter acre sections. The World Population Review measures Gothenburg’s current population density at 1,300 individuals per square kilometre. Auckland had 312 people per square kilometre in 2013, the most recent year I could find figures for. The same report explains that higher density in urban areas has been linked to better public transport and more effective use of rural areas outside the city, which in turn means lower greenhouse emissions.

Gothenburg’s housing, along with its impressive public transport, light rail, and buses running on methane sourced from residents’ food waste, make it one of the most sustainable cities in the world.

New Zealand has two budgets to work with now. The $7.5 billion surplus, and the carbon budget. Let’s invest this wealth and carbon into green homes and transport and set ourselves up for a sustainable future. Yes, Swedish taxes are higher than in New Zealand. The average income tax is 32% and the capitals gains tax is 30%. Some Swedes may think their taxes are too high, but if you ask what social service they’d live without, many struggle to answer. The 400+ days of paid parental leave? The heavily subsidised day care? The family benefits? The child allowance? The stipend for high school students? Free university? Free school lunches?

It is easy for me to wax poetic about Swedish public housing, but of course there are problems. The European Union’s neoliberal values come head to head with Sweden’s social democratic ones when it comes to housing, creating a foothold for centre-right parties to argue that Sweden should privatise housing or bring in market rents.

There is also a lack of housing in big cities. It’s a long wait to get a ‘first hand contract’ for an apartment in a city like Stockholm. It took my partner eight years to move to the top of the queue to get our apartment. Gentrification of public housing happens when apartments are renovated and the rent goes up to reflect the new utilities’ value. Whole apartment buildings are flushed of their old tenants and refilled with new, wealthier ones.

New Zealanders can recognise these problems. Our housing crisis is built from the same neoliberal assaults on public assets. However New Zealand embraced neoliberalism far earlier and wider than Sweden did and therefore our crisis looks much more bleak. Symptoms include people sleeping in cars, families living long-term in motels, tenants being harassed by landlords, children hospitalised due to living in crowded, damp, mouldy homes, and it being considered a rite of passage to live in disgusting, cold, and unhealthy student flats.

Swedes have benefitted from the practice of treating housing as a human right. Combined, a strong tenants union and the long reign of the Social Democrat party have invested time, effort, and funding into new builds and maintenance. Tenants feel they belong in their homes and can stay for life as long as they pay rent and do not disturb their neighbours.

New Zealand used to have much in common with the Swedish welfare state before a shift to neoliberalism in the 1980s. Now our housing crisis calls for a return to ambitious public investments like the Miljonprojam, a strong tenants union to keep landlords accountable, and the hardest thing of all – a shift in public opinion to create a culture where we view housing as a basic human right and homelessness as a failure of the state.

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