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EXPLAINED: Why rents are low and falling in Italian-speaking Switzerland

Despite high hopes, rents in Lugano have fallen considerably in recent years. Here’s what you need to know.

A train in the southern Swiss town of Luganp
A range of factors has led to a significant decline in rents in Lugano in recent years. Photo by Marcus Ganahl on Unsplash

Lugano, in southern Switzerland, is not only the largest Italian-speaking city in the country but it is actually home to the largest Italian-speaking community outside Italy. 

With some of Switzerland’s best weather and relatively easy access to Zurich, Milan and the Italian lake region, Lugano is one of Switzerland’s best placed cities. 

In recent years, it has unofficially marketed itself as the best of both worlds – a city with both Italian flair and Swiss organisation. 

However, since 2017, Lugano has seen its rents fall by more than 10 percent in all housing categories, according to Swiss comparison site Comparis. 

It now has the cheapest rents of any of Switzerland’s top ten cities, with an average of CHF1,700 per month. 

Across the same period, other Swiss major cities like Zurich and Geneva averaged a four percent increase in rents. 

REVEALED: The six major Swiss cities where rents are falling

The following chart shows how rents increased or decrease in ten Swiss cities over the past four years. 

Image: Comparis

At a cantonal level, Ticino also ranks as one of the cheapest states in Switzerland to rent. 

According to a new large-scale study carried out by Swiss Marketplace Group (SMG) in January 2022, the cantonal average of rents in Ticino is CHF1,470 per month – placing it in the top ten cheapest cantons to rent in the country. 

The averages of urban areas like Lugano, Bellinzona and Locarno are brought down by those away from the cities. 

Non-urban Ticino has some of the cheapest rental prices of anywhere in Switzerland, which is perhaps no surprise considering these areas are the location of Switzerland’s ‘one franc home’ offers that pop up from time to time. 

‘Impossible’: Why Switzerland’s one franc homes are too good to be true

A comparison of all 26 cantonal averages for renting a 3.5-room apartment can be seen in the following table from SMG. 

Zug 2428
Geneva 2248
Zürich 2131
Basel-City 2029
Schwyz 1948
Nidwalden 1947
Vaud 1895
Lucerne 1777
Baselland 1767
Obwalden 1685
Aarau 1659
Graubünden 1591
Bern 1577
Thurgau 1570
Freiburg 1556
Appenzell Ausserrhoden 1539
St. Gallen 1537
Solothurn 1496
Schaffhausen 1483
Ticino 1470
Wallis 1440
Uri 1427
Glarus 1373
Appenzell Innerrhoden 1372
Neuchâtel 1343
Jura 1135

Brain drain and a muted economic recovery

Leo Hug, real estate expert at Comparis, said despite high hopes, several factors had contributed to Lugano’s rental decline. 

The reasons, Hug said, are because “the hoped-for economic recovery thanks to faster [train] connections with the rest of Switzerland has not materialised so far”.

The population of Ticino’s economic centre contracted by 2.1 percent between 2017 and the end of 2020, so rents are expected to decline further.

And the Lugano does not have the same appeal as Geneva, which can rely on its international organisations to attract foreign nationals, Hug said.

Another major reason for Lugano’s economic state is an ongoing ‘brain drain’, which has seen people in their 20s and 30s move elsewhere in search of better opportunities. 

This does not only affect the local Lugano-born population, but also expats who move to Lugano but move on again afterwards. 

Zurich is the main target for people leaving Lugano, with higher wages and better job opportunities found along the Limmat river. 

In addition to Zurich, Lugano has seen a net decline in people leaving to Vaud, Bern, Lucerne, Graubünden and Fribourg across the past decade. 

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Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

Foreigners living in Switzerland may be wondering what their basic rights are compared to Swiss citizens. The answer depends on several factors.

Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

There are currently 2.2 million foreign nationals living in Switzerland — roughly 25 percent of the population.

Simply put, everyone residing in the country legally, regardless of nationality, has the same basic constitutional rights as Swiss citizens do — for instance, the right to human dignity, free expression, equality, protection against discrimination, and freedom of religion, among other rights.

They also have the right to fair and equitable treatment in the workplace, in terms of wages, work hours, and other employment-related matters.

As the law states, cantons and municipalities “shall create favourable regulatory conditions for equal opportunities and for the participation of the foreign population in public life”. 

If they are arrested or imprisoned, foreigners also have the right to fair trial and to the same treatment as their Swiss-citizen counterparts, including legal representation and due process of the law.

Even those who are subject to deportation have the right to be represented by a lawyer.

And the Swiss legal system doesn’t necessarily favour Swiss litigants over foreign ones. For instance, in some cases, foreign nationals whose request for naturalisation was denied but who then appealed the decision, eventually won.

The most recent example is a man in the canton of Schwyz whose application for citizenship was rejected due to a minor car accident, but a Swiss court overturned the decision, ordering that the man be naturalised this year.

READ MORE : Foreigner wins appeal after being denied Swiss citizenship due to car accident

Where the rights and privileges differ between foreigners and Swiss, as well as among foreigners themselves, is when it comes to work and residency rights.

 EU / EFTA nationals

People from these countries, who have B or C permanent residence status have sweeping rights in terms of residence, employment (including self-employment), and home ownership.

The only right that is denied them is the vote, though some cantons and communes grant their resident foreigners the right to vote on local issues and to elect local politicians. 

READ MORE : Where in Switzerland can foreigners vote?

Apart from the limit on political participation, EU / EFTA nationals can live in Switzerland in pretty much the same way as their Swiss counterparts.

There are, however, some groups of foreigners whose rights are curtailed by the Swiss government.

Third country nationals

They are people from countries outside Europe, for whom various restrictions are in place in terms of entry, employment and residency.

For instance, their “future employer must prove that there is no suitable person to fill the job vacancy from Switzerland or from an EU/EFTA state”, according to State Secretariat for Migration. This could be seen as a discrimination of sorts, but that’s what the law says.

Once employed, however, “their salary, social security contributions and the terms of employment must be in accordance with conditions customary to the region, the profession and the particular sector” — in other words, no discrimination is allowed.

Another area where non-European foreigners are disadvantaged in comparison with their EU / EFTA counterparts is home ownership. While third-nation B-permit holders can buy a property to live in (but not rent out), they can’t purchase a holiday or second home without a special permission.

To sum up, all foreigners in Switzerland, regardless of their status, are entitled to fundamental “human” rights, including freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from discrimination in life and employment.

They also have the right to legal protection and representation during litigation or other court actions.

However they don’t have the right to participate in the country’s political process and, depending on their status, have equal access to residency and employment.