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The Million Program — The Past and Future of Social Housing

Lessons from the Swede's massive post-war housing boom
By Willy Blackmore|
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With two sweeping bills put forward in Congress by Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, there is now a new and unapologetically supportive vision for public housing in the United States. Rep. Omar’s $1 trillion Homes for All Act would see 12 million affordable units built over a decade, the majority of them public housing. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Sanders focus on existing units, many of which are in severe disrepair, in their Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. The bill would devote up to $180 billion over 10 years to retrofit 1.2 million federally administered homes with energy-saving structural and systems upgrades—such as new cladding to make buildings airtight, or replacing oil-burning furnaces with high-efficiency electric heat pumps—putting a significant dent in overall emissions from buildings, which account for a third of U.S. greenhouse gases. Both bills would overturn the Faircloth Amendment, a rider attached by Republicans to President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill that capped public housing at 1999 levels.

Not only do these bills seek to expand and improve the built infrastructure of public housing, they aim to increase the quality of life for residents too; the Green New Deal bill, for example, would fund on-site childcare centers, senior centers, and community gardens. It’s an approach to public housing that for some may seem almost impossible, considering how neglected the stock is—there’s a $26 billion backlog of deferred maintenance—and the racist cultural and political disdain the too often drives housing policy. 

As such, the history and legacy of programs in countries that have embraced so-called social housing can be instructive, showing what could truly be possible in the United States as well. Chief among them is Sweden’s Million Program. 

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Mid-century Sweden brings to mind a very specific aesthetic for most Americans. The era would seem to be almost completely defined by the long, low lines and curving wood of Scandinavian furniture and industrial design. For those living in Sweden, however, the most consequential—and most divisive—undertaking related to design was arguably the Million Program, which remade urban life in the country. Conceived by Sweden’s left-wing Social Democrats in the years following World War II, when the country swifty urbanized and industrialized, the Million Program was one of the most ambitious housing programs ever undertaken. Nearly one quarter of the housing stock in Sweden today was built under its auspices between 1965 and 1974

Tensta, by Matti Östling

For advocates who see social housing (the term used in countries where publicly owned housing is not only available to low-income residents) as the solution to the U.S.’s own issues with housing shortages and increasing unaffordability, Sweden’s Million Program is upheld as an example of just how expansive a government building endeavor can be. “It shows how just absolutely crazy, ambitious housing construction is a real technical possibility,” said Ryan Cooper, the national correspondent for The Week, who last year co-authored a report called “A Plan to Solve the Housing Crisis Through Social Housing,” which was published by the People’s Policy Project. “There’s nothing about the United States as a political entity that says you can’t do something that’s scaled up to a similar level as that.”

Much like the Case Study Houses project in the United States—which saw prominent architects like Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames build model homes with the idea that they could be inexpensively replicated to meet the demands of the post-war housing boom with contemporary, efficient architecture—Sweden’s Million Programme utilized the era’s modernist designs and cutting-edge fabrication techniques. But rather than trying (and failing) to spur private development, the Swedish government was paying outright to build public housing that would continue to be publicly owned (through municipal housing companies), with units made available at affordable costs to all Swedes, regardless of income. Not only did the program aim to provide housing for all—the apartment blocks and the self-sufficient suburban neighborhoods that were built from the ground up around them were intended to make good, democratic Swedish citizens by virtue of design alone.

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The Million Program era “was a period of an almost complete and utopian alignment of political interests, policy making, production models, planning ideals, and implementation of architectural research and education,” Erik Stenberg, architecture professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, wrote in Structural Systems of the Million Program Era, a study of the various designs and building techniques that were utilized. For example, Igor Degalin, who in the 1960s designed Stockholm’s Tensta and Skarholmen suburbs as part of the Million Programme, was at the same time a professor of Urban Planning at the Royal Institute of Technology. Not only were whole neighborhoods built from scratch, but in Stockholm an entire new metro line, the blue line, was built in order to connect the outlying suburbs with the city center.

But unlike the lasting global appeal of Swedish furniture design, the Brutalist-leaning concrete apartment blocks of the Million Program have not always been so popular—both for their appearance, and the rising crime rates the neighborhoods have become known for. The architectural legacy of the program, Stenberg wrote in an email, is that while it produced such an impressive number of units, it was “at the same time the architectural period with the worst reputation.” With its utopian vision and unmatched scale combined with the aesthetic and social problems that have dogged these neighborhoods for decades, the Million Program is at once a model and a cautionary tale.

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Growing up in Stockholm’s Akalla suburb in the 1980s and ‘90s, Agri Ismaïl and his family lived in a light-filled, two-bedroom unit on the first floor of a Million Program apartment block. The bedrooms and bathrooms were set on either side of a long, very narrow corridor that ran between the front door and the living room. About half of his classmates at the local school were white, working-class Swedes, while the other half were non-white immigrants like Ismaïl’s family, who came from Kurdish Iraq.

“Now, I would say the area is almost exclusively non-white,” said Ismaïl, who still lives in Stockholm and works as a journalist. Today, Akalla “is usually lumped in with areas that right-wing extremists lump in with ‘no-go zones’”—immigrant-heavy neighborhoods that some falsely say even police won’t go to—”but not so much as some of the nearby neighborhoods,” like Tensta and Husby.

Not long after the final Million Program buildings were completed, the neighborhoods were almost immediately put in flux. In 1965, the ruling Social Democrats formally embraced multiculturalism, and Sweden began welcoming immigrants and refugees from around the world. From the 1970s and onward, people from Turkey, Iran, Chile, El Salvador, Iraq, the Balkans, and elsewhere made their way to Sweden and landed in places like Akalla, where both the waiting lists to get an apartment and the monthly rents were (and continue to be) more manageable than in city centers. In Stockholm today, where there is both a housing shortage and rents are very high, it can take 15 or even 20 years to get an apartment in one of the government-owned and -subsidized buildings in the city center, whereas it only takes a handful of years to get into a Million Program unit.

“These apartments were kind of built with the Swedish nuclear family in mind, because they were for everyone, intended for everyone,” Ismaïl said. “But their definition of ‘everyone’ was a very specific type of family.” In 1960, only 4 percent of people living in Sweden were foreign-born, and the average Swedish woman would have roughly two children in her lifetime. As people arrived from the Middle East and elsewhere, the light-filled, roomy apartments became cramped with larger families, some of who went so far as to subdivide the rooms in their units to make them more accommodating. 

Holma, Malmö by Jorchr CC by-sa 4.0

As the Million Program neighborhoods changed, so did their reputation—though as a kid, Ismaïl had no sense that his neighborhood had any kind of stigma. That only became clear years later, after his family moved to Paris, where he met two Swedish girls. “They were like, oh you lived in Sweden—where?,” Ismaïl recalled. When he said Akalla, “they were very dismissive and mocking of the thing in that wonderful way that teenagers can be.” Because a family could live and shop and go to school and do everything else that they needed to in Akalla—beside go to work—most people almost never left. Before Paris, Ismaïl had never interacted with other teenagers who weren’t from Million Program neighborhoods.

That isolation has become more of an issue as places like Akalla, Tensta, Husby and other suburbs have grown to be almost exclusively non-white. Even the slang that has developed in some of the Million Program areas is incredibly neighborhood-specific, which presents another hurdle—along with the many racial, religious, and social stigmas that living in these areas carry—to finding work in other parts of Stockholm. Youth unemployment is high, and crime rates have increased too; there have been riots in a number of Million Program neighborhoods over the past decade.

Both current and former residents like Ismaïl and Stenberg, who lived in Tensta for a time, continue to see the good in the Million Program neighborhoods (while acknowledging that they have fallen far short of many of their utopian goals). There’s a huge amount of diversity in these suburbs, and with that comes a vibrant mix of languages, music, food, and art that you won’t find in more heterogeneous parts of the country. And while the isolation of the neighborhoods may feed into the other-ing of non-white residents in Sweden, their reputation as being places were foreigners live has made it easier for successive waves of immigrants and refugees to find affordable housing there—which would not be the case if the Million Program suburbs were gentrified.

“A lot of effort is spent trying to blame the architecture for this societal failure,” of Million Program areas being at a social and economic remove from the rest of Sweden, Stenberg said—a failure that is mirrored in many ways in the public-housing projects across the U.S. that Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Sanders aim to overhaul, where residents are predominantly Black and latinx, and the average annual income is just over $15,000. “This is why the knowledge of the original aspirations and intentions of the Million Program Era is important; maybe more important today than ever.”

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