A Letter from Stockholm

Growing up in Sweden was a dream — but today it has changed beyond all recognition.

The Storstugan tenant co-operative in the Tåby district of Stockholm.

On a recent trip back to Stockholm, I visited ArkDes, the architecture and design museum. The current exhibition, Public Luxury, is intended by newly-hired British curator Kieran Long to provoke debate about changes in the Swedish capital.

The first exhibit that caught my eye was a map, modelled on the city’s Metro diagram, with the station names altered to refer to public squares now owned by private companies. These squares were designed to be focal points for the new ‘Million Programme’ suburbs built in the 1960s. In their time, they were intelligent pieces of urbanism, and decades later, they are still well used by many residents. Most of them are built around metro stations, and have small shopping centres, libraries, and other community amenities. It is for this reason that most of the land and buildings, up until recently, were owned by the municipalities themselves and not the companies that owned the housing around them. But, to raise income, municipalities across Sweden, as in the United Kingdom, have been ceding these public spaces for private profit.

Rinkeby Centrum, in a famous immigrant suburb, is now owned by FastPartner, one of Sweden’s largest commercial real estate companies. The consequences will be depressingly familiar to British readers. During my visit, there was a protest by local shopkeepers who objected to the tripling of their rents, which functions as a means for FastPartner to evict local businesses. The square’s privatisation meant that these shopkeepers, butchers, barbers, stylists, and makeup artists were not allowed to protest in the once-public space next to their workplaces. Instead, they were relegated to the surrounding streets.

Not surprisingly, their demonstration got almost no attention in Stockholm’s media. Commentary about the suburbs focuses only on crime and rioting. The burning cars may make for good press photos, but the struggle of living in, or being evicted from, a segregated and increasingly neoliberal Stockholm is mostly ignored.

The second exhibit to draw my attention in Public Luxury is a heating rail, a flash of shiny metal, utilitarian and incongruous in the exhibition hall. It is part of an installation by SIFAV, an artist-activist collective. The heating rail was intended to symbolise the ways in which renovation can be used by landlords to evict tenants. Sweden’s regime of soft rent controls allows rents to be increased when buildings are renovated. For many landlords, especially those in the Stockholm region, the cost of carrying out renovations in bathrooms and kitchens is more than outweighed by the higher rents that can be charged in the resulting renovated homes. Neither the courts nor rental boards offer recourse for residents who can’t afford the increases — in nine out of ten decisions in the capital, they have sided with property owners.

It is this soft underbelly that allows many housing companies to displace their most vulnerable tenants. Ironically, most of the housing stock they manage was built with state subsidies on municipally owned land. Sweden has never had separate ‘social housing’ as such — its housing model aimed for a universal, tenure-neutral system. Municipal housing companies and tenant owned co-ops existed side by side with a privately-owned rental sector. Housing in this model was genuinely available to all regardless of income, family situation, and work. All units, including private rentals, were accessed through the same municipal waiting list. This system had its advantages — it built more than a million high-quality dwellings in a decade and a half. Social segregation was minimised, and by the 1990s housing conditions for Swedes were among Europe’s most comfortable.

The system has now changed beyond recognition. The ending of housing grants and state-subsidised credit signalled the new era in Swedish housing policy. Though there was no mass sell-off to sitting tenants as in the UK, the change has been similarly drastic. Municipal building companies have been sold to private investors or have been commercialised under public ownership. Housing allowances were also reduced and next to abolished for most. Rents have been increased where renovation and other circumstances allowed. This was accompanied, as in the UK, with a drastic fall in housing production. Stockholm’s housing shortage is now acute, reflecting its status as the Nordic version of Silicon Valley.

Every time I go back to Stockholm, I see more signs of its polarisation. My former comprehensive school is now almost 80 percent composed of working-class ethnic minorities, a statistic that captures the depth of the residential and school segregation in Stockholm. It is ironic that a genuinely comprehensive school system survives better in savagely unequal London than in the once social-democratic Stockholm. This can be blamed on the ease with which the more privileged parents are able to use the Free School system to corner advantages. While in Stockholm educational attainment has the highest ethnic gap in Sweden, London has the lowest gap in Britain.

As a child, living in suburban Stockholm was a dream. There were endless playgrounds and large open fields that were beautifully integrated into our housing estate. The landscape is one thing that stays with you when you leave Stockholm — so unlike the slapdash and harsh design of British urbanism. Many local authority parks in London are filled with metal rails, metal poles for CCTV, and metal benches that are hard to sit on. These places could never compare to the rolling fields that lie between Rinkeby and other suburbs. Conversely in the inner-city London neighbourhood we first moved to, traffic was unavoidable, despite the fact that none of us owned a car. The claustrophobic nature of much of London’s urbanism made for a hostile first impression that never left me as a kid. For the first time in my life I had to learn to be constantly aware of cars, which could be anywhere, even in minor roads. In Stockholm, cars were segregated from pedestrians through road cuttings, or hidden away completely in underground car parks.

The contrast between London and Stockholm’s built environment is a reminder of the gains of mid-century European social democracy. It also indicates how much we need to reclaim it — not only from those that seek to limit it to one race, but also from many social democrats themselves, who have long since lost any hope of making a better world.

Social democracy was never a foregone conclusion, but was driven by active social movements and trade unions. If we ever want to recreate and move beyond it, that’s where we should be looking.