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Cracks in the Walls

Benjamin Javitz -

Roisin Callaghan -

Imagine moving to a new country, starting a new life, trying to find community, stability and comfort. A new home. International students living in KTH Accommodation Björksätra had that dream at their fingertips when they arrived in Stockholm in August. The location wasn’t ideal, the laundry doubled as the common area and the furniture was sparse but they made it work. Most of them were happy with ‘Björk’, as they called it, when they started noticing the cracks in the walls, the floors, the ceiling.

But their dream was suddenly over: at the end of September, 185 students were evacuated and no one that had to move out has since returned to Björk. We talked to 4 students and KTH Accommodation to find out what happened.

Adam, Sofia, Laura and Philipp (names changed for anonymity) were excited when they first got an offer from KTH Accommodation. Adam said,

“I was happy about Björksätra because basically I was not expecting that KTH would offer me anything.”

For many international students, this is the complicated reality. Those who do not receive an offer from KTH either go through SSSB if they managed to register early enough or are left with the notorious Stockholm housing market - writing dozens of applications through Facebook or Blocket, dodging scammers that demand their passport number or a WesternUnion transfer before the first viewing or seriously considering an offer for a bed in a strange lady’s hallway for 4000 SEK.

Compared to this, an offer for an apartment with a private bathroom and kitchenette in Björksätra for 4900 SEK seems much more reasonable and most students were actually really happy with their rooms. The 10 buildings that KTH Accommodation rents from Studentbostadsfonden, the company that owns them, are located between Bredäng and Sätra station and about 45 minutes from KTH campus.

Laura said,

“Yeah, it's really far from everything. When I arrived, I didn't expect that there weren't even corridors. It was just the apartment and you were outside, so it was a cold environment and atmosphere. I didn’t have a toilet lid when I arrived, but we went to IKEA and we left it really nice, I liked it a lot. There were cracks in the walls and the ceiling - I was kind of afraid but my sister is an architect and my father is an engineer, so my parents were like, you'll be fine.”

When we visited Björksätra, Philipp told us,

“I think building number 26 was the worst one. There were cracks in every room and on every wall. In my room there are some too, but they’re pretty insignificant.. there’s one there, one there, some more here [pointing at the ceiling]. But if you go to the laundry in 26, the floor looks like it basically split into parts, just from the vibrations of the washing machines.”

He thinks that the cracks must have been there before.

“These cracks didn’t appear at once, it had to be a gradual process. They either knew about the issue and chose to ignore it or they were just lazy with the safety checks.”

We then went to have a look at the laundry room in 26. Big cracks on the walls and the floor, one where parts of the floor had moved at least 1 cm up or down. Philipp also said that to him the buildings didn’t seem to be built very solidly. He can hear and feel the washing machines in his building even though he’s on the first floor and 6 apartments away from the laundry.

When the number of international students arriving at KTH dropped massively in 2020, the buildings were rarely used, which might explain that the issues weren’t recognized sooner. KTH Accommodation explained to us that Studentbostadsfonden as the property owner inspected the buildings in spring and that they did not receive information about the cracks until new students moved in in August. Studentbostadsfonden had actually continuously assured KTH that cracks could appear in the buildings as “a natural way for the material to act” and that they would have no effect on the structure of the buildings.

We asked Adam when the first complaints were made.

“I think in the middle of August, maybe from building 24. I heard people complaining about it, but it was like, OK, a few complaints, but nothing happened.”

Then in September, the inspections started.

“We knew that something was going on when there were subsequent controls. People started to get annoyed with all the safety checks.”, said Philipp. And being annoyed was justified to say the least: “They just started coming and going randomly to apartments and they sent emails like ‘OK, maybe today there will be someone checking your room. Please leave the carpets out so that they can look at the floor.’ And for a couple of weeks we just received these emails and people that were investigating.”, added Sofia.

And while the recurring inspections showed that the responsible companies, Studentbostadsfonden and KTH Accommodation, were reacting to the situation, transparency was not one of their strong suits. Adam observed,

“They said nothing. They just came in, they were talking in Swedish to each other, taking photos of the rooms, but they said nothing.”

The students’ only source of information during September was the emails they got - which sometimes ended up in their spam folder.

When the full inspection was announced in the last week of September, many of the students weren’t sure what was going to happen. Laura complained,

“The message we got was really random: it was on a Thursday night and it said ‘Tomorrow you need to leave.’ We were going on a trip on the weekend and we were like, what are we supposed to do now? And we got the email in the spam folder, so we didn't really trust it at all. We were like, what's happening? It wasn't from KTH either, it was from another company. KTH then sent us another email so we trusted it eventually, but we didn't even know where we were going. They just said ‘You will be moved to a hotel and you will need to go on a bus on Friday. Tomorrow.’ But we didn't even know the location of the hotel. Should we go on a bus without knowing where we are going?”

While 70% of the Björksätra residents were evacuated, some stayed behind. We talked to Philipp, who described the atmosphere,

“It gets dark so early now, it feels much emptier than before. The atmosphere is sadder, it doesn’t feel like people are actually living here anymore. Only about 20% of the people stayed. So there’s a lot of these empty buildings that no one lives in anymore.”

This had an effect not only on the atmosphere in Björk, but also the safety. People don’t want to leave anything outside their rooms anymore. Several bikes have been stolen since it got so quiet at Björk.Philipp later told us that this sort of thing happens quite often now that most of Björk is empty.More recently, Sofia told us about a break-in in the mailbox room. KTH Accommodation responded by increasing security checks from once to twice daily - and telling students not to leave any valuables in their rooms.

Meanwhile, 185 students were moved to Mornington Hotel in Bromma on the 1st and 2nd of October: “When I got to the hotel they told me ‘OK, this is your hotel room for a week’ and then they extended it for a week and then for two weeks. And then until the end of October. By the end of October it was sure that I needed to move again and from the 1st of November I got the second contract which is still for a hotel. I got it until the end of my exchange. But in Bromma it was always like ‘OK, we extend it for a few days. OK, we'll extend it again’“, explained Adam.

Laura added: “They said on Thursday ‘Next Wednesday you will know for sure what's happening’. I think it was on Monday that they decided that we couldn't come back, but they didn't say where we were going to go, but they started sending messages randomly to people like ‘You are selected. You will move to that place. You either do that or you have nothing’. It was really stressful. I couldn't do anything because instead of working I was checking my email. We didn't know what was going to happen on Thursday. On Tuesday at 9:00 o'clock in the evening, we didn't know anything. So what are we going to do? Tomorrow at 12 we need to leave this hotel. What do we need to do? It was stressful because of the uncertainty that we had.”

Adam made a decision: “There was no laundry or other essential things, so it wasn't ideal for staying there for months. Should we move all of our stuff to this hotel? Or should we leave it in Björksätra? I had to go back to Björksätra to do my laundry. Finally I decided that I won't even move to Bromma, I would just stay in Björksätra. I could keep my key, I kept all my stuff there. I just kept living in Björksätra. You can write it, I don't care. It's a hard topic, but I felt like that was the best option because we were in the middle of the semester. If there would be a proper laundry, a proper way to store and prepare your food in a kitchen, I would be confident to move there”.

And for the people who did stay in Bromma, it was not the living situation they were hoping for: “Some people got a room without any kitchen and some others got a nice room for four people with a kitchen while some people even got rooms without windows. I have a friend who spent the whole month in a room without any windows and without a kitchen“, commented Sofia. Laura added, “They told us that we would have 100 SEK per day for food expenses, but we haven't received that yet. And it's been like a month.” We recently learned that Studentbostadsfonden had promised to pay for this compensation, but they have not yet done so. KTH Accommodation instead decided to deduct 100 SEK per day from the students’ rent for January.

KTH Accommodation also told us that out of the 185 evacuated students, “105 were offered a student room with standard facilities within four to nine days.” In response to our questions, KTH was however quick to make clear that “the responsibility of securing replacement housing formally falls on the owners (Studentbostadsfonden) of the evacuated property”, not on them.

When we talked to students, it was clear that although they had eventually adapted to the new situation, they didn’t feel like KTH was being transparent enough with them. We asked them if anyone ever came to them in person. “No”, complained Adam. Laura added, “No, just when I went to the reception (KTH Entré) to ask them why they're not taking care of our emotions.“ Adam explained, “I don't think they were trying to be transparent. I think they tried to be as fast as they could. They tried to handle the situation as good as they could. I think they did their best. But it wasn't easy for them because of this situation in Björksätra where they didn't do any checks before we moved in. They put themselves in a really hard situation and there was just not enough accommodation in other places to move us.” In fact, when Adam first arrived in Björksätra in August, there was mold all over the walls in his room. “That was the first sign that they didn't do any checks. It was dirty and there was mold everywhere. The reason was that the tenant before me didn't turn off the heating but closed the windows, so for months the heating was at maximum. If KTH would’ve checked the building and the rooms, that wouldn't have happened. But I think they didn't. They didn't check it, and that's why that was the situation.”

We then talked more about the emotional side of things. “I felt kind of alone at that time. I wanted to make them aware that for us it wasn't easy. I felt that they weren't empathizing with us. The way they were acting was really cold: ‘Check your email.’, ‘Do this.’ – can you please understand that it's not easy for me? I had some friends that were really stressed and crying“, explained Laura. “At the end you need to put everyone in the same place in the hotel. OK, so do that, but don't stress the people and don't say ‘OK, maybe you will know something tomorrow.’ – ‘Oh no, maybe in two days.’ – ‘Oh no, maybe in a month.’ It was really stressful for us to know that someone had received an offer for accommodation, but I haven’t. When am I going to receive something? I'm checking the mail all the time, why don’t you just wait, make a decision and then notify everyone? I would have preferred them saying ‘OK, you will stay here for two weeks. All of you, until that day, and then we'll let you know what's happening and move everyone at the same time.’ I mean, I can understand that it was easier for them. Because they are losing a lot of money. I can understand that, but still. I think it would be better for our mental health than their money.”

The 46 students that were still living in the hotel in Bromma were then moved to the Elite Arcadia Hotel, right next to KTH. “It's a four star hotel. It's a really old hotel I think,
so the state of the room is not that good, but it's still really nice. The main problem is the kitchen: we have one fridge, 2 times 2 stoves and no oven. So for me it's basically impossible to cook there. I need to buy microwave foods because there's always someone doing their cooking and I don't like sharing my stuff with others, they might take my food. Yeah, there are tense situations”, reported Adam. “And the room is super small. We don't really have wardrobes to put our clothes in, so I have to live out of my bags basically.”

Adam thinks that he and the other students still living in the hotel won’t get offered any other accommodation,

“We are just here for one semester or just for a few more months. So we are going to have the rooms until the middle of January or the end of December.”

They are now paying 4800 SEK in rent, 100 SEK less than what they paid for their apartments in Björksätra, and received a total of 14 free lunch tickets for Nymble Restaurang. KTH Accommodation has also told us that any of the students that end up staying at KTH during spring will be prioritized for new accommodation as soon as it becomes available.

Björksätra had always been planned as temporary housing and KTH had been preparing to phase out their contracts with Studentbostadsfonden by the end of this year. When security concerns arose in December, KTH Accommodation decided that tenants had to move out by the end of January.

For the exchange students that only came to KTH for one semester, the Björksätra crisis is almost over. They go back to their home universities and can leave all of this behind in Stockholm. For the students still living in Björk, it has become very quiet - a place they don’t enjoy as much as before, but a place they can live with. The housing situation in Stockholm remains as it was - extremely difficult, precarious, stressful and demanding for everyone, especially exchange students that just want to enjoy a semester abroad and focus on their studies. That, however, becomes impossible when you have to worry about where you’re going to sleep next week.

KTH Accommodation reacted quickly to what happened in Björksätra and found solutions for a majority of the affected students. But what their response accomplished in terms of speed and effective action, it lacked in transparency and consideration of the psychological implications of removing people from their home. Studentbostadsfonden, and by extension KTH Accommodation, are responsible for this situation by not checking the buildings before it was too late. KTH Accommodation made matters worse by not being transparent enough throughout the process. Perhaps the students that we spoke to would've appreciated their hard work if they had been.The Björksätra crisis might only be a symptom of the bigger mess that is the Stockholm housing market - but for these students, it disrupted their time here far more than any weird-looking lady and her hallway-bedroom could have.

Publicerad: 2022-01-20

Ansvarig utgivare: Raquel Frescia
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