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The Politics of Housing in Post-war Sweden


Since December 1948, the right to housing has been universally recognised by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The ‘Declaration’ unanimously ratified by 48 of the 58 United Nations General Assembly members, including Sweden, sought to be a non-biased, international consensus on human rights, with Article 25 stating: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services.”


Unprecedented economic and social crises in capitalism, however, triggered by the severe global market crash and subsequent recession of the early 2000s, have exacerbated the long-term housing shortage created by an unequal market of public and deregulated systems across the supranational European Union (EU), of which Sweden has been a member since January 1995.


Gundström & Molina (2016) of urban research studies at Sweden's Malmö University and Lund University, respectively, identify housing in Sweden as “an important component . . . in shaping the Swedish welfare state.” The policy of Folkhemmet (the People’s Home or Home of the People), the Swedish welfare state, became the very symbol of 44 years of unbroken Social Democratic Party (SAP) government and formed the nation’s modern identity. Housing would play a pivotal role in Sweden’s advancement towards a socially egalitarian society. Its highly organised implementation by the state in design, construction, and supply, adhering to the motto ‘good housing for all’, attempted to shape society’s view of the home expressed by Folkhemmet’s chief architect Per Albin Hansson in 1928: “In the good home equality, thoughtfulness, cooperation, and helpfulness prevail.”


Figure 1: Per Albin Hansson (1885-1946), whose legacy of Folkhemmet defined the modern Swedish psyche and society (Aftonbladet, 2016).

In literature and research, Sweden’s modern housing crisis is repeatedly traced to the country’s financial crisis between 1990 and 1994, when a credit crunch, similar to the global crash in 2008, caused widespread impacts in banking, real estate, business and commerce (Jaffee, 1994; Jonung, 2009). The long-term political and social consequences of this housing bubble burst have often been described using the term “system switch” (Clark & Johnson, 2009, pp. 179–180), when traditional state intervention, known as ‘the Swedish model’, experienced significant reforms, noticeably the New Public Management (NPM) reorganisation, which has greatly influenced the function of government. Neoliberal market intervention in the delivery of goods and services has transformed the public into a consumer (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992).


Consequently, there is a contradiction: housing, a right enshrined in the Swedish constitution, is now a commodity in Sweden’s competitive economy.


Using three distinctive periods of Swedish post-war housing policy as a template, identified and discussed in depth by Grundström & Molina (2016) (1930-74, 1974-2006 and 2006-2016), this article will give a general, chronological overview of the ideology and politics of the home and housing in Sweden. These themes have been shaped by deeply rooted social democratic politics from 1945, when the country experienced a strong welfare state and rapid urbanisation and economic growth, until its demise in the 1990s with the financial crisis and election of a centre-right coalition. Subsequent neoliberal reforms implemented by successive centre-right and left governments continue to shape public attitudes towards housing, home ownership, and renting.


Figure 2: Råslätt, a Swedish Miljonprogrammet development in Jönköping, Småland, in 1968 (L,G/Jönköpings läns museum, 2014).

Folkhemmet

Amid historic shifts in Sweden’s social democratic democracy with the business like New Public Management (NPM) reforms implemented in the 1990s and the 2022 election of the conservative Moderate Party, supported by the right-wing Swedish Democrats (SD), the importance of the state providing housing as a social need and for personal wellbeing continues to be enshrined by Article 2 of the 1974 Swedish Constitution (rev. 2012): “Public power shall be exercised with respect for the equal worth of all and the liberty and dignity of the individual. The personal, economic, and cultural welfare of the individual shall be fundamental aims of public activity. In particular, the public institutions shall secure the right to employment, housing, and education and shall promote social care and social security, as well as favourable conditions for good health.”


The drive to provide public housing and liveable conditions for Swedish citizens accelerated with an urbanisation trend following the end of World War II in 1945. The Social Democratic policy of Folkhemmet, beginning in the early 1930s, sought to deal with a national housing shortage while simultaneously demolishing the existing slum housing with living conditions considered one of the worst in Europe (Maudsley, 2022). With state intervention and regulation (Castell, 2010), Folkhemmet’s ambitious target of housing for all, a principle tenet of a cradle-to-grave welfare system famously envisaged by the Social Democratic Party leader Per Albin Hansson in a January 1928 speech, not only eliminated the country’s housing shortage but created a surplus of well-built housing units by 1974 (Nesslein, 1982, p. 241).


Folkhemmet advocated Swedish society behaving like a good home based, primarily, on Hansson's beliefs of equality and social cooperation (Bergman, 2007; Feltenius, 2007). With unbroken Social Democratic Party control from 1932 to 1976, the policy became symbolic of a modern, egalitarian, and democratic Swedish society as a whole, with housing continuing to play a pivotal role in social advancement and reform: “the social and economic gaps should be erased, social care would evolve and democracy implemented.” (Lövgren, 1999, p. 251, quoted in Baeten & Listerborn, 2015, p. 256).


Figure 3: A post-war family in their house on the island of Reimersholme, Stockholm (Dala-Demokraten, 2020).

The discontent of rising expectations and Miljonprogrammet

In 1950, having avoided the bloodshed and crippling financial losses of two destructive world wars, Sweden was the fourth richest economy in the world. Economically and socially, the pre-war Swedish state had undergone a dramatic transformation (Tilton, 1990, p. 177). The wealth to implement social reforms had significantly raised the living standards of Swedes, but the lack of public housing still posed a problem to Folkhemmet’s core tenet. The Social Democratic Prime Minister Tage Erlander (1946–69) famously expressed the "discontent of rising expectations" to describe the new role of the state as a service provider required to satisfy the needs of its prosperous citizens (Tilton, 1990).


To deliver the pledge of good housing for all, the large-scale Miljonprogrammet (Million Programme or Million Homes Programme) between 1965 and 1974 continued the Social Democratic trend of Folkhemmet to provide modern, healthy public housing for a then-Swedish population of eight million. It proved to be an ambitious goal to tackle the country’s severe housing shortage.


Figure 4: Tage Erlander (1901-1985), Social Democratic Party Prime Minister between 1949 and 1969 (Wikipedia, 2018).

While it coincided with a prosperous economy—the record years (rekordåren) in Sweden’s post-war economics (Mack, 2019)—reaching its peak by the commencement of the project in the mid-1960s (Castell, 2010), the Million Programme was a government initiative to tackle the rapid urbanisation and demands of a prosperous population with a sufficient housing supply. Albeit in response to an existing problem, the government’s reactive actions typified Folkhemmet's core belief in the social right to housing for all citizens (Baeten & Listerborn, 2015; Emilsson & Öberg, 2021) and not just those considered most in need (Terner Center for Housing Innovation, 2017).


The state achieved a total of 1,006,000 modern apartments (multi dwellings), 100,000 apartments per year (Borgegård & Håkansson, 1998; Borgegård & Kemeny, 2004), protected against speculation (Elander, 1991, p. 30) and distributed based on the principles of universalism, i.e., without discrimination. The ideology of housing policy in Sweden is described by Tilton (1992), Professor Emeritus, Political Science, as “public and cooperative building," which the architectural layout and societal template of Miljonprogrammet sought to achieve by providing estate amenities and services for all residents to work, socialise, and learn i.e. carefully-designed "folkhemmet urbanism”, a term of Dr. Ann Maudsley of spatial planning at Blekinge Institute of Technology (Maudsley, 2022, p. 106).


However, criticisms such as “monotonous design and technical defects” (Hedman, 2008, p. 16; quoted in Christophers, 2013, p. 891) continue to dominate the debate and public opinion over the legacy of the Million Programme (Hall & Vidén, 2005; Mack, 2019). A mere two days after the optimistic vision expressed during the inauguration of Skärholmen, a Stockholm suburb, in September 1968, the most vocal criticism appeared in the Dagens Nyheter national newspaper with the cry of “Demolish Skärholmen!” (“Riv Skärholmen!”) (Mack, 2019). Its stark statement about the architectural and social values of the new estate would characterise the heatedly debated housing policies (“Skärholmsdebatten”) of the future (Hall & Vidén, 2005, p. 46).


Figure 5: The inauguration of the Stockholm suburb Skärholmen on 8 February 1968 (Simomsson, 1968).

Housing decline

The termination of the Miljonprogrammet in 1974 came amid the "oil crisis" beginning the previous year. The unprecedented action of an oil embargo by the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) shook the global energy market and economy. The financial implications of the crisis in Sweden resulted in the cancellation of large-scale housing projects, a decision that “led to a marked deterioration in its much-lauded housing model” (Blackwell, 2021). The focus of the housing sector shifted from construction to reducing the oil dependency of existing buildings through substantial renovation and alteration (Femenías et al., 2023, p. 4). Government actions taken during the decade, notably the introduction of rent control legislation (Wilhelmsson, 2023) and a decline in the construction of multi-dwellings (Bergrenn & Wall, 2019), are considered by Gundström & Molina (2016, p. 9) as “the beginning of a process of neo-liberalisation of Swedish housing policy.” A similar view is expressed by Bengtsson (2016), today a Professor of Political Science at Uppsala University, Sweden, who describes a “corporatist system” of landlords in the “competition” of rent negotiations.


The initial achievements of the Million Programme—a plentiful and organised housing stock—would become synonymous with a failed state project that, by the 1980s, had been accused of creating ethnic segregation and social divisions of the growing number of refugees and immigrants arriving in the country who filled the many empty apartments (Egorova et al., 2020). By the early 1980s, 40,000 multi-dwelling rentals were empty: “Sweden was in the novel position of having too much housing, or, at least, too much of the ‘wrong’ type of housing” (Blackwell, 2019). Construction of new housing fell considerably “from 110,000 units in 1974 to 30,000 units in 1980,"  report Gundström & Molina (2016, p. 10), and attention shifted to the more profitable renovation of city centre buildings (Blackwell, 2019). Housing had become a lucrative investment.


Figure 6: The Haga district in Gothenburg was substantially renovated in the 1980s (Det Gämla Göteborg, 2018).

System switch

By the beginning of the 1990s, further deregulation and dismantling of Folkhemmet policies were initiated by a centre-right coalition, formed after a dramatic ideological shift in the 1991 election with the conservative Moderate Party leader, Carl Bildt, becoming Prime Minister (1991–94). Although the Social Democratic Party remained the largest single party in the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament), their hegemony had ended.


Influenced by the divisive, neo-liberal policies of the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979–90) (Christophers, 2013, p. 892), the new government’s major reforms—a “system switch” (Clark & Johnson, 2009, pp. 179–180)—included closing the Department of Housing ministry (Bostadsdepartementet, Bo), in operation since 1974, and reducing subsidies given to the poorest households. Rising costs and the privatisation of essential public services had a noticeable impact on construction and housing (Blackwell, 2019; Gustafsson, 2021), with the number of new apartments amounting to just 10,000 by the middle of the decade (Hedin et al., 2012).


The Swedish property crash of the early 1990s and its economic repercussions accelerated the implementation of New Public Management (NPM) reforms in the Swedish administration (Hall, 2013), which continued with the Social Democratic administration elected in 1994. Today, NPM reforms greatly influence the political and ideological direction of the country (Wollmann, 2004; Lowndes & Pratchett, 2011; Karlsson & Montin, 2013).


Figure 7: Carl Bildt, in June 2009, Prime Minister of Sweden between 1991 and 1994 (Nyman, 2009).

Under the guise of “innovation” (Petersen & Hjelmar, 2014, p. 4) or “decentralisation” (Alonso et al., 2011), NPM aims to reorganise local authority public services and their delivery based on market procedures (Erlingsson et al., 2008). The devolution of Swedish municipalities meant they could easily convert public services into both municipally owned and private companies (European Commission, 2014). The Local Government Act 1991 gave local authorities greater freedom to decide how services ought to be delivered, with outsourcing being an option (Wollmann, 2004, p. 649). Sweden's municipalities were now subjected to the laws of the market, which increased their pressure to be more competitive.


Today

The stay-at-home restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in early 2020, exposed Europe’s preexisting, multifaceted socioeconomic and health inequalities (Colomb & Gallent, 2022, p. 625) and inflicted further economic hardships and uncertainties, especially the prospect of unemployment. For low-wage earners and renters already struggling with wage stagnation, this worst-case scenario would increase the struggle to afford the decade-long rent increases in the EU, nearing 20% by late 2022, or to buy affordable housing.


The situation is desperate in Sweden’s urban centres of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö, with the wait on housing waiting lists lasting years, especially for rental accommodation. Since the introduction of deregulation in the 1970s, “the neoliberalising wave has washed away most, but not (yet) all, of the regulatory frameworks put in place in the post-war era” (Christophers, 2013). Further criticism is given by Gundström & Molina (2016) who believe housing is now a “privilege.”


The enshrined right to be housed has become a dire situation of the need to be housed.


Bibliographical references

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Since December 1948, the right to housing has been universally recognized by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The ‘Declaration’ unanimously ratified by 48 of the 58 United Nations General Assembly members, including Sweden, sought to be a non-biased, international consensus on human rights, with Article 25 stating: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services.” Unprecedented economic and social crises in capitalism, however, triggered by the severe global market crash and subsequent recession of the early 2000s, have exacerbated the long-term housing shortage created by an unequal market of public and deregulated…

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Ewan Waugh

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