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Why Switzerland voted no to affordable housing

It’s an issue affecting millions of Swiss residents, but on Sunday voters narrowly defeated a nationwide initiative to encourage and promote affordable housing.

Why Switzerland voted no to affordable housing
(Illustration) Swiss voters defeated an affordable housing referendum at the ballot box. Photo: SASCHA SCHUERMANN / AFP

Put to voters across the country, just under three in five Swiss voters (57 percent) rejected the initiative, compared to 43 percent in favour. 

The initiative sought to encourage affordable housing through requiring that a minimum of 10 percent of new developments are made by housing cooperatives, as well as providing for state-owned land to be used in new housing developments. 

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland's referendum on affordable housing all about? 

The referendum question was asked alongside one directed at prohibiting homophobia which received widespread support.

READ MORE: Why homophobia will now be illegal in Switzerland 

More of an issue in urban areas

Despite pre-election polls showing approximately 50 percent of people supported the initiative, the likelihood of the referendum gaining approval was hampered by the need to win not only popular support across the country but cantonal majorities. 

While affordable housing is a major issue in urban areas, it is less relevant in many of Switzerland’s regional and rural cantons. 

Just five of Switzerland’s 26 cantons voted in favour of the initiative, with all of them other than Basel coming from the French-speaking west of the country. 

The turnout for the referendum was 41.7 percent, which is below the average turnout of 47 percent. 

Still hope for Swiss residents being squeezed by rising housing costs?

Another major reason that the referendum was defeated was the Swiss government’s counter proposal. 

Pursuant to Swiss law, the government can launch a counter proposal which is to be adopted should a referendum question be defeated. 

With the Swiss government indicating its clear opposition to the affordable housing initiative, an extra CHF250 million ($US250 million) was made available over the next ten years for the country’s National Operating Fund. 

This fund provides loans for housing cooperatives with comparatively favourable conditions to those from financial institutions. 

In a press conference held after the results became clear, Swiss Economics Minister Guy Parmelin said this money would be made available immediately. 

New construction in Switzerland. Image: Fabrice Coffrini /AFP

‘Too rigid’

Another reason for the initiative’s defeat was the concerted opposition from developers and centre-right political parties, who said the proposals were too rigid and did not suit the housing situation of the entire country and would reduce the incentive for new investment in housing developments. 

While affordable housing is a major issue in larger urban areas, requiring all new developments to adhere to the 10 percent standard in rural areas was seen as unnecessary. 

In addition, they said the additional bureaucracy would be costly to implement and maintain. 


Parmelin said the result indicated that voters were largely happy with the status quo, although he did acknowledge that “more needed to be done” to address affordable housing concerns. Parmelin said he hoped the new contribution to allow cooperatives to receive better access to loans would address these concerns. 

Carlo Sommaruga, the boss of the Swiss Tenants Association who was a major advocate of the reforms, said that the high support for the initiative showed that more needed to be done to address the problem across the country. 


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Can I have a fire in my backyard or courtyard in Switzerland?

The winter months are on their way and the weather is getting colder. If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, can you light a fire?

White marshmallows toast over a fire
If you want to toast marshmallows in your backyard in Switzerland this winter, first make sure it's OK. Photo by Leon Contreras on Unsplash

Even if you own a property, the rules for what you can and cannot do in Switzerland can be relatively restrictive. 

As we covered in the following article, laws or tenancy rules can prevent you from doing several types of activities in your own backyard, including felling trees or washing your car. 

You can also be prevented from certain activities on particular days. For instance, rules, bylaws and tenancy arrangements may prevent you from mowing your lawn or hanging out your laundry on a Sunday. 

READ MORE: What am I allowed to do in my backyard or apartment courtyard in Switzerland?

As the weather gets colder, you might be tempted to stock up the fire pit, fire basket or fire bowl with wood and set it alight. 

The rules for lighting fires are also relatively complex. What you are allowed to do will depend on your canton, your tenancy arrangement and the type of fire. 

Can I light a fire on my own property in Switzerland? 

If you’re living in one of the few Swiss houses to have a fireplace, then you are presumably allowed to use it, unless tenancy regulations prevent it at certain times. 

You are also usually allowed to have a barbecue or grill either on your balcony or in your backyard, provided the noise and smoke is not excessive. 

READ MORE: Can I have a barbecue on my balcony in Switzerland?

Whether or not you are allowed to have a fire in your backyard however will depend on the rules in your canton. 

You are generally prohibited from burning any waste in Switzerland, other than typical forest or garden waste (i.e. wood, grass, twigs, sticks and leaves). 

That however can also be restricted at certain times of the year.

In Zurich, for instance, fires in backyards are only permitted from March to October, meaning that you will need to find other ways to stay warm in the winter months in Switzerland’s most populous canton. 

Even if lighting fires is permitted, you may want to check with the rules of your rental contract to see if you are technically allowed a fire. 

What about fires in the forest or open parks? 

A campfire might also sound like a nice way to spend a winter evening, but this may be restricted or completely prohibited depending on the circumstance. 

There is no federal ban on fires in forests and other outdoor areas, provided you are not burning waste (other than garden waste etc) and you are not producing excessive emissions. 

The rules are the same on August 1st, Swiss National Day, where special bonfires usually require a permit. 

Note that there are special rules for burning old Christmas trees, which is prevented by law.