Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Switzerland’s biggest city clamps down on 132 millionaires currently living in public projects.
Anyone who thinks public housing is only for the truly desperate should visit Zurich. In Switzerland’s largest city, housing specifically built to rent out at cost has become so popular with people of all classes that it’s actually… well, too popular.
In a city of 400,000 people, 132 millionaires (in both dollars and Swiss Francs) now live in municipal rent-controlled housing. That may speak volumes to the quality of this housing, but it also means homes built for lower-income tenants don’t always reach those who need them. That’s because, while the city has created strict laws to manage affordable rental units, it hasn’t controlled who could live in them—until now.
With new rules announced this week, Zurich hopes to rein in its affordable housing sector. Soon, if you make a lot of money and live in public housing, you might be getting an eviction notice.
This is partly because of Zurich’s unusually high quotas for affordable housing. Since 2011, the city has required that at least 33 percent of all home developments built in the city are rented out at prices no higher than needed to cover the cost of construction and maintenance. Most of these non-profit apartments are built by private developers, who can still get lucrative profits on the remaining two-thirds of their units. Some non-profit units, however, are built and controlled by city-owned housing companies. Since the 33 percent quota was introduced, the city itself has built 1,500 non-profit units, bringing its total number to 9,000.
Increasingly, it seems these 9,000 homes aren’t reaching the right people. Beyond those 132 millionaires, many tenants earn enough money to find homes on the private market. And soon, they may have to. New rules will dictate that, in order to get a non-profit municipal housing contract, prospective tenants can’t earn more than four times times their rent each month. It can rise above that while they live there, but if it exceeds six times the rent, they may be asked to move on. Tenants will be reviewed every two years to see if they still adhere to the regulations, which also include longstanding requirements that every bedroom has an occupant and that the home is the tenants’ sole residence.
There’s a soft compromise built into the rules. People earning six times their monthly rent will be allowed to remain in up to 15 percent of the city’s non-profit housing, possibly to prevent a sudden upheaval in the housing market. Currently around 20 percent of these homes have tenants deemed wealthy under these terms, so some of the richest in this group should soon be moving on, even if the majority get to stay.
Even those who leave will get help finding new homes. The city will hunt down and offer up to two decent private alternatives before evicting these tenants. Indeed, non-profit tenants will need to earn a whopping 230,000 Swiss Francs ($233,000) a year before they’re forced to move on without an alternative. Currently 190 tenants fall into this category.
If this is a fight for the soul of the city’s affordable housing, it’s arguably more of a pillow fight than a barroom brawl. Some commentators say that the 15 percent tolerance rate is toothless, adopted by the city’s governing center-left coalition because it’s afraid of alienating affluent members of its base. It’s still cautiously encouraging to see one of Europe’s wealthiest cities taking an interest in the wellbeing of its less wealthy citizens. Building genuinely affordable housing is vital, but it has to go to the people who genuinely need it.