Making a bad housing situation worse

The housing shortage: a sensitive issue ahead of the nationwide vote on the Swiss People’s Party initiative “Against Mass Immigration” Keystone

The debate on the negative consequences of the free movement of people has shifted lately from the labour market to housing – a particularly hot topic in French-speaking Switzerland, otherwise known for its openness towards Europe.

This content was published on January 22, 2014

In the lead-up to the February 9 vote on its initiative “Against Mass Immigration”, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party has made affordable housing a central theme of its campaign. The party argues that the influx of foreigners – notably a result of the free movement of persons accord with the European Union (EU) – has led to a massive hike in the cost of housing and rental apartments in densely populated areas. 

“In 2013, around 85,000 people came to settle in Switzerland, a number equivalent to the population of the city of Lucerne,” says Guy Parmelin, a People’s Party member of parliament. “To meet that kind of demand, we would have to build between 30,000 and 35,000 new housing units each year. The pressure is enormous.”

According to Parmelin, immigrants with strong purchasing power are forcing the native Swiss to move to outlying areas where housing is cheaper, in turn creating more traffic problems and overcrowding on rush-hour trains.

Although the People’s Party is largely alone in pushing for its anti-immigration initiative, more and more left-leaning politicians are voicing similar concerns about the availability of housing. Some favour increased protection for tenants or designating areas for affordable apartments.

“The free movement of persons is making a bad housing situation worse,” says Carlo Sommaruga, a parliament member from the Social Democratic Party and head of the French-speaking section of the Swiss Association of Tenants.

“The existing housing crisis is being felt particularly in the major economic centres like the Zurich area and the Lake Geneva region,” he adds.

The high-density question

In campaigning for its initiative “Against Mass Immigration”, the Swiss People’s Party claims: “Given its habitable surface area, Switzerland today registers the highest population density in Europe.”

But Philippe Wanner, professor of demography at the University of Geneva, firmly rejects the idea that Switzerland is overpopulated. “In terms of density, Switzerland is not even close to being the most densely populated country in Europe,” he says. “In fact, it’s misleading to compare just the habitable surface area, since legislation varies from country to country. Switzerland, for instance, defines very precisely where new building zones are permitted.”

Regardless of the outcome, the debate will rage on after the February vote, as the Swiss head to the polls again next November to vote on the “Stop Overpopulation” initiative sponsored by the environmentalist group Ecopop. The initiative favours the protection of the environment and natural resources by limiting immigration to 0.2% of annual population growth.

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Price hikes in French-speaking Switzerland

Last year the economics minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann, caused a stir when he suggested that the ever-growing Swiss appetite for larger living spaces was to blame for the current housing situation, which he added was in any case “pretty good for the vast majority of people.”

The Swiss government has since acknowledged that there is a link between strains on the housing market and the free movement of persons.

The Federal Housing Office, which falls under Ammann’s ministry, estimates that home prices in Switzerland went up by 35% between 2005 and 2012, with the highest increase (52%) registered in the western part of the country. In a report, the housing office states: “In French-speaking Switzerland […] immigration appears to be a significant factor in this change. The number of foreign households has grown by 24% over this period, a much higher increase compared to Swiss households (2.4%).”

Although the frenzy has died down in recent months, the rental market continues to be a problem, according to Sommaruga.

“In Geneva, when apartments are about to change hands, rent will go up by 20% on average,” he says. “Still, it’s rare to see extreme cases like the four-room flat that was rented out for CHF5,000, up from CHF1,500. CHF3,000 was to be paid by the new tenant’s multinational employer.”

On January 15, just three weeks before the nationwide vote is to take place, the cabinet and the cantons announced their intention to make it mandatory for landlords to indicate the rental rate paid by the last tenant. Such a measure could help to put the brakes on skyrocketing rents.

Enough for a yes vote?

The government may have distanced itself from the February 9 polls, but it still wanted to show it shares the public’s concerns about housing.

According to a survey conducted last March by the real estate chamber in canton Vaud and the Swiss union of real-estate agents, 88% of people polled in the canton said the housing shortage was indeed a major worry. Among the respondents, 75% cited population growth as a factor, while 59% pointed the finger at the free movement of persons accord with the EU.

Still, such worries won’t necessarily convince urban voters who have traditionally favoured an open policy with the EU to side with the People’s Party and its isolationist initiative.

“For sure we cannot ignore the frustrations of the public,” says Xavier Comtesse, a director with the liberal think-tank Avenir Suisse. “But when the Swiss go on holiday in Italy or Spain, they realise that they’ve have it pretty good here for the last 15 years. Why would they go and shoot themselves in the foot?”

Poor immigration projections

Rather than blame foreigners for the current situation, Geneva demographer Philippe Wanner instead singles out the authorities’ inability to anticipate immigration numbers and react more quickly.

“Policies to develop infrastructure have been very slow in coming,” he says. “That’s where the focus should be, because with an aging population, there’ll be a greater need for immigration to Switzerland to help sustain the economy and maintain social cohesion in the future.”

However, Wanner admits that demographers didn’t anticipate the immigration boom either. Since 2002, Switzerland has welcomed some 700,000 migrants, 60% of them from the EU. That’s for a total population that surpassed the eight million mark in 2012.

Initiative is not the answer

People’s Party member Guy Parmelin knows that the anti-immigration initiative, which calls for the reintroduction of migrant quotas and renegotiating the free movement accord with the EU, provides no immediate solution to the thorny questions of housing and public transport.

For his part, Sommaruga believes the initiative, if passed, would only make things worse.

“Demand for foreign labour is not driven by administrative directives, but by the needs of the economy,” he argues. “When we had quotas back in the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of workers without permits were exploited by unscrupulous landlords. The same would happen if voters said yes to the People’s Party initiative.”

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