When facing the challenge of building more than half a million homes in less than ten years, there are two roads that a country like Sweden can choose from. Eithter it learns from history or it builds itself a crisis. Daniel Movilla, architect, professor and researcher at the Technical University of Madrid analyses the Swedish housing policies.
A dark shadow is haunting Sweden: the shadow of short-term policies. Since the 70s, and especially in the early 90s, policymakers and stakeholders have begun a process of abandoning long-term horizons for housing policy. The desire for lucrative assets and the obligation to meet the demand for accommodation has led policymakers to short-term solutions, cutting down the time of their forecasts in their proposals and delegating responsibility to private companies idealizing the free market.
As a result, concerns over reducing inequality in living conditions have been increasingly replaced by the search for the highest and the quickest financial remunerations, the following distortion of landownership regulation and eventually, the degradation of housing as an object of trade.
A historic perspective
However, this has not always been the case. There was a time when Swedish housing policy offered an alternative approach. Throughout the 20th Century, the right to access to an adequate home by means of inclusive acquisition and payment patterns was considered to be one of the major tools to fight against social inequality in Sweden. The instruction then was clear: housing was to be kept out of the hands of financial speculators.
The permanent commitment to raise the standards of housing for all citizens, a growing tendency towards rent control and security of tenure and a periodically subsidized sector became three strategic lines merging into a single priority: better housing for everyone without exception.
In actual fact, specific public policies implemented after the Second World War led to an exemplary democratization of housing in terms of equality and inclusiveness. This was the case of the Million Programme adopted in 1964. This public housing agenda, despite the many challenges it has faced to date, represents a historic breakthrough! The numbers still speak for themselves: scheduling the construction of one million high quality dwellings in ten years in a nation with a population of eight million, represents not only one of the most remarkable city planning experiments in the last century, but also one of the most extraordinary acts of humanity for the benefit of social equality.
From welfare to market
Since the 70s, Swedish housing policies has made a journey from welfare-driven to market-driven. Today, the country is facing the challenge of building 700 000 new homes by 2025 and the happy capital owners must be rubbing their hands in glee. However, the ongoing housing crisis can also be very good news for the large majority of city‑dwellers, if the political discussion on the need to democratize housing regains the key role it had in 1964. The duel between these two positions, market‑driven policies versus welfare housing policies, thus represents one of the most crucial arenas in the country at the dawn of the 21st century.
Scenario no 1: Market-driven policies
The first scenario takes on housing as a financial product, marginalizing its utility value and drawing away from its direct implications in the life of city-dwellers and their communities. This practice of transaction, often termed commodification, represents a bold violation of the right to decent housing, where inhabiting is replaced by accommodating.
”The numbers still speak for themselves: scheduling the construction of one million high quality dwellings in ten years in a nation with a population of eight million, represents one of the most remarkable city planning experiments in the last century”
What is more, it is also profoundly questionable as a long-term financial strategy in a country. We should not forget that much of what happened in Iceland, Ireland, and Spain is impossible to explain without the progressive commodification of housing, where the credit crisis was in fact a housing crisis. Contrary to what one might think, this is a sign that market-driven policies are performing their duty properly, because it is precisely the private housing market system itself that produces these crises in housing. Dwellings for profit, not for people, a horizon ultimately portrayed by the country with the most socioeconomically stratified society: the United States.
Scenario no 2: Welfare policies
The second scenario assumes democratization as a necessary means for defining the role of housing in the construction of a welfare state –or rather, a social state– adapted to the 21st century. In the same way that the healthcare system does not primarily target supplying healthy workers to other sectors, the raison d’être of housing is not to provide financial benefits to other sectors. Standing on the shoulders of Piketty, for all human societies at all times, health, education, and adequate housing have an inherent value: being in good health, having access to knowledge, and living in adequate dwellings and neighbourhoods constitute the goals of civilization itself.
This model has played a key role in reducing social inequalities over the last century by providing better housing opportunities for all. A challenge which cannot be accomplished without a democratic legal framework, a solid management structure, and housing subsidies capable of granting large numbers of units for low-income households. This is the fitting expression of the inclusive, unique model built over 100 years –from 1870 to 1970– by the country with the most egalitarian distribution of wealth: Sweden.
Now, a new story needs to be written, and it seems that the actual question is whether to trade or not to trade. The fundamental lesson we have learnt from the past is that the promised natural equilibrium in the housing market has proved to be non-existent. Unfortunately, the public debate supporting market-driven policies still tends to be reduced to a few conclusive platitudes: recognizing individual merit, household wealth and financial standing. If we have gone this far it is due to the effectiveness of the neoliberal model and its irresistible need to give meaning to inequality.
Hence, it is necessary to go beyond simplistic and vaguely formulated discussions on individual merit and get right to the real core of the matter. The principle of equality –by means of which men and women are born and remain equal in rights– shall continue to be respected and protected by a real national housing policy. Those same long-term narratives that once taught the world an exemplary way of providing adequate housing for everyone without distinction.
For those who still pray for inequality, this should only be founded on the idea that inequality must benefit the most disadvantaged members of society. Both the principle of equality and the principle of distinction, enshrined in the first article of the Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, remain valid and provide a solid foundation for placing housing as a key factor in the journey towards an exemplary Swedish social state in the 21st century.
Daniel Movilla Vega