For the Benefit of Everyone? : Explaining the Significance of Swedish Public Housing for Urban Housing Inequality

Sammanfattning: Housing has a special place in the Swedish welfare state. Ever since Gustav Möller, Minister for Social Affairs, in 1945 was handed the result of Bostadssociala utredningen, a state investigation on housing from a social perspective, housing has been a bearing pillar in the Swedish ‘Folkhem’. Since the post-war period, Swedish housing policy has been universal in the sense that housing consumers have not been categorized by income or living conditions. Instead, the policy has had the aim of ‘good housing for all’. The main instrument for achieving this goal—the figurehead of the universal housing policy—has been allmännyttan, the national model of public housing, constituted by municipal housing companies with the task of offering rental housing of high quality, for the benefit of everyone. This PhD thesis analyzes allmännyttan based on the observation that the contemporary housing situation is largely characterized by inequality. The housing consumer is to a lesser extent independent from inherited conditions: Access to housing and the characteristics of housing are increasingly dependent on economic resources. The dissertation highlights the role of public housing in this development. The municipal housing companies and the context they exist in have changed over the past decades through gradual political reforms and alignment with European competition law. Such a development might influence the ability of allmännyttan to contribute to keeping housing inequality at bay. The purpose of the thesis is thus to study the potential and actual significance of allmännyttan for housing inequality in Swedish cities. The thesis is grounded in critical realist ontology and analyzes how and why (or why not) allmännyttan’s latent mechanisms to counteract inequality are actualized. Through studies of municipal housing companies throughout Sweden, including eleven in-depth case studies, the thesis seeks to answer whether the contemporary allmännytta counteracts housing inequality, or if it rather contributes to a more unequal housing provision. The dissertation consists of three peer-reviewed papers. Together with the framing chapter of the dissertation, the papers highlight how housing inequality could be understood from a national context and in terms of multidimensionality; how events triggered by allmännyttan counteracts or contributes to housing inequality; and how allmännyttan’s discretion to counteract housing inequality is identified and used by the municipal housing companies. The results indicate that, despite a gradual shift towards businesslike conditions and demands on return on investment, allmännyttan still has a latent and potential ability to counteract housing inequality. The core of universalism consists, so do the expectations of social benefit. However, the contextual conditions have changed: The state-organized housing provision has gone from state-financed to financialized, i.e., dependent on financial motives, institutions, tools and financial capital. Allmännyttan exists in a state of financialized universalism. In spite of this development, the thesis identifies ample discretion for municipal housing companies to actualize underlying mechanisms which contribute to counteracting housing inequality. However, how this discretion is perceived and used varies from city to city. The discretion is interpreted—consciously or unconsciously— in different ways, depending on the local political governance, but also on the local institutional path-dependence, i.e., its past decisions, its culture and traditions. How the discretion is identified has implications on the events that affect housing inequality. The conclusion is that public housing is more than ever locally diversified. An imaginary of financialized economy has been adopted by many municipal housing companies, but this imaginary is challenged and negotiated by other companies. Given this variation, allmännyttan simultaneously—and contradictory—contributes to both reduced and increased housing inequality. The character of the ambiguous allmännytta is thus determined at local scale, a conclusion which stands in contrast with national objectives of a state-organized housing provision based on good housing, for the benefit of everyone.

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