As I wrote in a previous blog; informal and formal policies are developed in response to the current housing situation. The formal policies are related to the national planning and building codes while the informal policies refer to people’s own housing strategies. This can for example be the acceptance of crowded living conditions. These strategies set by individuals might not be in line with the government’s srategies and is therefore also referred to as illegal, irregular, informal, trajectories of self-help, heroic entrepreneurship (a la De Soto) etc … all depending on your position on this.
One distinct informal strategy that the newly arrived often ‘choose’ is locally known as the trade in addresses and mattresses.
The ‘trade in addresses’ refers to people paying for the use of c/o addresses or PO boxes. Since the mid 1990’s – when Sweden last received many asylumseekers – asylum seekers have the right to house themselves as long as they can be contacted by post by the Migration board, the Tax office, etc.
The ‘trade in mattresses’ refer to people paying for precarious housing; either in the form of unreliable agreements/ contracts or housing that is substandard in some way.
For more flexibility in how and where you actually house yourself, you organize for your post to arrive at someone’s address for a fee or in a PO box in a shop like the one in the photo below, while you live elsewhere.
photo: a shop selling addresses in Malmö, credit: author, 2016
As long as there is a housing shortage and people are willing to pay above market rates to assure housing, then there will be others who will be willing to make money out of this. (Gustafsson A., Hanson M., El Mahdi J., et al (2009) in a six part series on the trade in addresses and mattresses in the swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet)
A perplexed system
Although frequently highlighted in the media, the Swedish system as a whole stands perplexed. The housing corporations and the police have not decided how to deal with this establishing informal system. It seems that the Swedish system is confused as it is based largely on a providing state not individual entrepreneurship as this. Above this, the deals are done informally according to language connections and it is by enlarge other newly arrived to Sweden that organize ‘the addresses and mattresses’ for other newly arrived, parallel to the formal systems. The Swedish system is a highly formalised and relies on being able to plan. Here everyone has a personal identifications numbers and the system assumes it is linked to places of residence.
Is it illegal?
It is illegal to deal in housing contracts, facilitate the jumping of housing queues, etc . It isn’t however illegal to sell addresses, but you have to pay your taxes on your earnings, which is often doesn’t happen. (2009, SvD) It is increasing as nothing much is being done to mitigate – the supply of housing is not meeting the demand – nor is it penalised – the police is not rarely investigating and the systems are not tightened. (source: investigative journalism programme on Swedish TV; Uppdrag Granskning, 2016, SVT)
Enormous amounts of money are made from vulnerable groups, in particular the newly arrived, as Boverket – the Swedish Government Agency on housing and the build environment. – wrote in a report in the latter part of 2015. Even though, the Swedish government sees this activity as organized crime and has even linked some murders to the trade, it remains largely risk free for the criminals as journalist in Sweden keep pointing out. (2016, Uppdrag Granskning, SVT as above among others) The risk lies however with the people seeking housing this way; all from being cheated in terms of money and promises to having to accept bad living conditions.
Why do newly arrived buy their addresses and mattresses?
The overarching reason why newly arrived buy their addresses and mattresses is of course the shortage of housing. For many then it becomes necessary to get creative and in the process to accept lower standards for a higher prices.
Also there might be other barriers. It is too difficult to enter the housing market. You need a personal identification number, a credit rating in Sweden, proof of income, language skills, some do not understand Swedish, the websites of the housing corporations, the system of waiting lists, etc.
Maybe some don’t want to be found for a variety of reasons, but the majority just want to start their new lives in a place of choice and as soon as possible.
As an asylum seeker, if you don’t organize your own housing / addresses yourself, you will be allocated housing by the government. Then you can end up far away from work opportunities and your networks. On top of this an address is required for successful asylumseekers to receive an etablerings plan (the government provided integration plan for successful asylum seekers). (source: migrationsverket, the swedish migrationboard)
Many choose self-determination, formally up to to 4000 in Malmö municipality alone (source: migrationsverket, the swedish migrationboard) have opted out of the formal systems in which the government leads and provides. Albeit maybe more risky and much more expensive, the incremental steps that informal living allows are more attractive. As one former asylumseekers told me that if you follow the formal housing steps organized by the government you have to passively wait for decisions for undetermined amount of time. His friend expressively put it: “you feel like a monkey, just sitting still, waiting.”