The Million Program’s billion challenges

Alice writes*

Sweden’s Million Program (MP) aimed to address 1960’s housing shortages, but it worsened socio-economic segregation. MP areas are now associated with high crime rates, low socio-economic status, and educational disparities. This post explains the origins of the MP, its current troubles, and suggestions for reform.

In the 1960’s, there was a looming housing shortage in large cities in Sweden, particularly in the two biggest cities: Stockholm and Gothenburg. In Stockholm, over 100,000 people were queuing for public rental housing (Länsstyrelsen, 2004). The Social Democratic government was criticized for the lack of housing and as a response, the party adopted a motion to build “one million homes in ten years”, starting in 1965 (Allmännyttan, n.d.).

MP homes were primarily three-story buildings, but also small villas and high-rise buildings in the suburbs. These buildings were designed in accordance with functionalist architecture, a style that had previously been criticized by Stockholm’s mayor for compromising the city’s aesthetic values (Lindhagen, 1930). Merely two years after the reform was adopted, the housing shortage turned into a surplus, and those with fixed incomes saw tax advantages in buying a home instead of renting (Boverket, 2007). The monotonous architecture and sterile environment of MP neighborhoods repelled citizens who could afford to move elsewhere, leaving low-income, socially disadvantaged residents behind. Socio-economic segregation increased.

Million program house in Fittja, Stockholm county

In 2015, as a response to a surge in organized criminal activity in the suburbs of Stockholm and Gothenburg, the police mapped particularly vulnerable areas with high crime rates and low socio-economic status. In 2022, eighteen out of nineteen of these areas were MP neighborhoods (GP, 2024). The negative reputation of MP areas means that middle-class citizens do not want to move there, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of high unemployment and low education levels (SvD, 2018).

The future of the MP areas is highly debated. Some suggest that areas should be torn down and rebuilt to conform with modern social planning (SVT, 2022). Others suggest that the municipalities should invest in replacing concrete with more green areas (SvD, 2019). No matter what choices are made, there is an urgent need to renovate 400 000 MP housing units at a cost of SEK 300-500 billion (EUR 30-50 billion) (SVT, 2019).

* Please help my Real Donut Economics** students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

** Why “Real”? In short, because (a) Raworth’s claims to being a “21st century economist” denies that all of her ideas were presented by others in the 20th century and (b) she presents no viable mechanisms (besides “be nice”) for achieving equality and sustainability. My students are more realistic. In long? Read this.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “The Million Program’s billion challenges”

  1. Great read! Very interesting example of an ambitious postwar housing project that failed in the long-run. It also raises the question of how severe socioeconomic division in cities can be and how it can be avoided. Social housing developments will naturally and rightfully house larger numbers of lower income citizens than are present in other districts. Is a different plan for social housing needed, where it is not built as a district but instead social housing is built in existing districts or existing buildings are repurposed. Alternatively I wonder if things like public transport access, quality of public services and access to commons/public goods like parks where many people interact from different backgrounds is more essential.

    1. Hi Kuba, thank you for your thoughtful comment! There’s an ongoing debate about how to address the issues stemming from the Million Program in Sweden. However, there’s a consensus emerging that improving public transport access, increasing access to green spaces, and enhancing the quality of public services can play significant roles in promoting equity and social cohesion across neighborhoods in general. However, with many areas now designated as vulnerable, it’s becoming increasingly clear that tailored social planning, which involves consulting with communities and addressing their specific needs, is crucial. Ultimately, a comprehensive approach that considers not only housing distribution but also broader infrastructure and services within neighborhoods is indeed essential.

  2. Do you think the problem is inherent to large scale social housing since it would have to be affordable and thus built on cheaper land and of lower quality? I am also curious if the negative impact is exaggerated by the program concentrating poverty and thus crime in specific neighbourhoods. This would mean that while the MP quarters saw increased crime and poverty, the overall impact of the program was to lower both on a national scale by significantly reducing both outside.

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