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How Zurich’s housing shortage sparked massive rioting

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
How Zurich’s housing shortage sparked massive rioting
Some new Zurich architecture is decidedly modern. Image by Sarah Lötscher from Pixabay

Switzerland’s largest city is not known as a hotbed of civil unrest. But hundreds of demonstrators have been taking to the streets to demand more and cheaper accommodation. Here's what's going on.

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The trouble started when the dilapidated buildings situated the city’s Koch-Areal area, which have for years been occupied by about 150 squatters, were slated for demolition to make room for new construction.

City authorities asked the squatters to leave months ago, but most of them refused to budge by the deadline, which fell on February 15th. Instead, they showed their discontent by lighting a fire and barricading the area with containers.

The police managed to clear the area without an incident.

However, only days later more than 1,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate against the forced eviction, smashing store windows and damaging cars as well as public transport infrastructure in their wake.

“The amount of property damage cannot yet be assessed,” Zurich police said in a press release on Sunday. 

The demonstration also shed light on a larger problem in Zurich: lack of affordable housing.


Plans for the Koch-Areal district

The project, expected to be completed in 2026, will also include some affordable housing, though the city has not specified the range of rents.

"A lively place is being created with affordable living, with studios for creative work, with workshops for manufacturing industry, with shops for everyday things, with refreshing gastronomy and colourful culture, plus a wild, relaxing green space, according to the project's description.

You can find out more about what is being planned here.

Why is it so bad for housing in Zurich right now?

As The Local recently explained, there are several reasons for this shortage.

About 25 percent less housing permits have been issued in Zurich since 2018, while the demand has been growing steadily.

The slow construction pace can’t keep up with the increasing number of people moving to the city, attracted by its high salaries and economic prosperity (as is the case with Switzerland in general).

In all, 30,000 foreign nationals settled in Zurich last year, beating its 2007 record of 28,500 new arrivals from abroad.

In fact, immigration in the canton was higher in the first 11 months of 2022 than at any time since 2011.

READ MORE: IN NUMBERS: Zurich's foreign population climbs to record high 

This means that while the demand for housing is much higher, the supply lags.

Also rents in the canton continue to rise — they are now about 4 percent higher than in 2022 — though the increase is not only due to low supply but is also driven by higher energy costs, a charge that landlords pass on to tenants.

So in effect there are not only fewer apartments, but those that are available are not affordable to everyone.

And the situation doesn’t look promising in the future for the low-income segment of the population.

Dense construction is becoming increasingly problematic because of high land prices in the Zurich region, along with noise protection regulations.

Therefore, a number of construction projects are being delayed. However, even the construction projects currently underway will not necessarily solve the shortage problem, according to Walter Angst from the Zurich Tenants' Association.

That is because newly-built apartments are geared towards high-income tenants, so “the acute shortage will continue in the middle and low price segments," Angst said.

READ MORE: Zurich hit by affordable housing shortage amid record-high immigration


There is hope, but...

Some hope lies in the project that Zurich’s municipal council voted earlier in February to earmark 300 million francs — in addition to city-owned land — to be used for the construction of non-profit flats, also referred to as ‘cooperative housing.’ 

The aim of housing cooperatives — a Wohnbaugenossenschaft in German — is to provide affordable, sustainable and community living, a trend that is different from the conventional model based on homes offered by private companies.

This article explains what this concept is:

What are Swiss housing cooperatives and can you access them?

However, though the new project may provide some relief, it will not totally solve the city's affordable housing woes.

According to city councillor Daniel Leupi, the proposed housing "will not work miracles. As long as economic growth and immigration increases, demand will continue to outstrip supply in Zurich."


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