Switzerland's new plan to tackle the housing crisis explained

Switzerland's new plan to tackle the housing crisis explained

With the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) warning that the number of available apartments to rent in Switzerland is continuing to fall, the government has announced a number of measures designed to ease the shortage of housing. The plan involves making it easier to build more homes, but critics have already called the proposals “window dressing.”

Swiss housing shortage going from bad to worse

It’s an image that many expats will know: trying to attend an apartment viewing in Zurich, Geneva, Basel or further afield and finding yourself at the end of a long queue just to get in. One house viewing in Zurich Seebach last week, covered by Blick, saw a 150-metre queue form, with one of the visitors telling the newspaper that there is “no doubt” that Switzerland is in the midst of a housing crisis.

This is backed up by data from the FSO, which found that only 1,15 percent of apartments were vacant in Switzerland last summer - in Zurich, the rate was 0,06 percent. More recently, bank and investment firm Raiffeisen recorded a total of 34.000 listings on all Swiss real estate platforms at the start of February, the lowest number recorded in 10 years and half the number available just two years ago.

Swiss government creates housing action plan

To try and ease the situation, Minister for Economic Affairs Guy Parmelin (SVP) announced that he would host two roundtable discussions with Swiss cantons, developers and interest groups. The second discussion occurred on February 13, with the "Housing Shortage Action Plan" being unveiled soon after. 

Speaking at a press conference on the day, Parmelin said that discussions have been "frustrating", conceding that the housing shortage remains a complex and difficult issue to solve. When asked whether the government was moving too slowly to tackle the crisis, Parmelin assured that “wherever possible, things should go faster" from now on.

How is Switzerland planning to tackle the housing crisis?

Sadly for those trying to find affordable homes, the Federal Council wrote in the action plan that while “the provision of housing is of great importance for the economic and social development of our country”, nobody, “especially the federal government”, could solve the crisis alone. “Those who expected miracles will be disappointed,” state councillor Jean-François Steiert (SP) told Blick.

Instead of taking direct control, the government submitted 30 new measures to be debated and implemented on the local, cantonal and federal levels. Instead of controlling rental costs, the focus of the plan is to increase the supply of housing in Switzerland.

Mixed-used residential areas

First, the federal government will work with cantons and individual municipalities to allow homes to be built in some industrial and commercial areas. Federal officials argued that many of these areas no longer produce harmful pollutants, making it more possible to build housing. They also hope to convert existing buildings into homes - officials used the example of converting disused offices and hotels into apartments.

Scrapping height restrictions on homes

Next, the government will look to scrap height restrictions on residential buildings “in suitable locations.” Minimum distance requirements between buildings and compulsory parking capacity will also be relaxed or done away with entirely in select areas.

Make sure all available land is being used

Federal authorities will also push cantons to do more to utilise building land that is not being built on. Currently, some landlords refuse to release their building land to developers because they either lack the financial resources to build or are keeping their land as a financial asset. 

The new rules would force cantons to make sure that all available building land is being used - something they already have the right to do in law. Suggestions include providing financial incentives to build, or creating rules on minimum usage of land.

Streamline the approvals process

To shorten the time between when a building project is proposed and built, officials will make it more expensive to appeal a housing project. This will also include discussions as to how to reduce the number of people who oppose new housing to begin with. To further speed up the process, the federal government said it would give support to those who propose ways of building quicker, cheaper and simpler.

Possible restrictions on Airbnb and other apps

Finally, the government recognised some cantons and cities’ efforts to restrict holiday home-sharing apps like Airbnb, which they argue restricts the number of available apartments. While it didn’t advocate for a full ban, the Federal Council did encourage all cities to look into restrictions in the future. 

The report concluded all of the measures were “fundamentally sensible”, adding that many of the more dramatic measures were left out due to the “tense financial situation" that the government faces. The plan will now be debated further, before being implemented as legislation.

Critics call housing plan "window dressing"

Before the plan was even officially released, the Swiss Association for the Defense of Tenants (ASLOCA) said in a statement that the proposals were “window dressing”, adding that none of the ideas proposed by tenants’ associations were added to the plan. For instance, the government did not approve a proposal to create a fund that would buy disused buildings that would then be used for public projects.

Speaking at the same conference as Parmelin, State Councillor Eva Herzog (SP) said she was “largely disappointed” with the plans as they stand. She argued that the measures don’t go far enough and that instead of suggestions and proposals, concrete action needed to be taken as soon as possible.

Swiss government ignoring sky-high rents, association claims

Others were more forceful, with Swiss Tennants’ Association president Carlo Sommaruga telling Blick that the plan completely ignored the problem of higher rents. He claimed that the housing crisis should be treated in the same way as the possible energy crisis in 2022 - an event which saw the Federal Council take decisive action to secure the power supply. Instead of a plan to solve the crisis, he said that Parmelin’s proposals were a “to-do list without ambition.”

Rebecca Omoregie, vice director of the Swiss Association of Housing Cooperatives, agreed with Sommaruga, noting that while everyone wants to take action, the plans reflect the fact that no one can agree on what to do. With the Federal Council choosing to take a back seat role, she called “on the cantons to take action against the housing shortage.”

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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