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Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities

Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB)

Improving Accessibility in Flats in Sweden:
How Effective Are Policy Instruments?

Knut Strömberg, National Institute for Building Research, Sweden

The Program for Improving Accessibility

Building Code Requirements

Sweden has probably the most far-reaching requirements for residential accessibility in the world today. The standards for newly constructed housing were included in the Building Code in 1978, and require that all ground floors be accessible to persons using wheelchairs, that elevators should be installed in all multi-unit apartment buildings with more than two floors, that housing units be accessible for visitors using wheelchairs and be easily convertible for the permanent residence of persons with disabilities.

The same requirements apply to the renovation of older multi-unit apartment buildings. However, here the municipal building committees can grant exemptions, if the costs are very high, or if enforcement of the requirements is unsuitable for technical or aesthetic reasons. Exemptions have been granted rather often, especially in the case of three-storey apartment buildings where it is difficult for the property owners to recoup the extra investment in accessibility.

Accessibility requirements are always met for newly constructed housing, but since the greater part of the present housing stock was built before the norms were enacted, accessibility problems are still common. The installation of elevators is usually the most expensive and technically most involved aspect of housing renovation and, for these reasons, has become a hot issue in the renovation debate.

Accessibility of the Present Housing Stock

There are about 3.6 million housing units in Sweden of which 2 million are in multi-unit apartment buildings and the rest in detached or semi-detached housing.

Nearly half of all housing units were built after 1960. During the 1970’s, there was extensive new construction, many older areas were demolished and rebuilt completely. Construction activity reached its peak in 1970, and then rapidly decreased. The demand for new housing units fell off, leaving a growing number of empty flats in the most recent constructed areas. The time had come to turn to the existing housing stock. In the mid 1970’s, extensive renovation began.

Since most housing units were constructed before 1978 when accessibility requirements were added to the Building Code, most three and four-storey apartment buildings do not have elevators. Today, nearly 1 million housing units in such structures do not meet current accessibility requirements for this reason.

However, the installation of elevators in all of these apartment buildings would not completely solve the problem of accessibility, as almost 75% of them also have entrances with architectural barriers - usually in the form of small flights of steps. There are also accessibility problems inside the apartments themselves. Narrow doorways and small toilets make movement indoors very difficult for persons with disabilities, while steps and hilly grounds create difficulties in the surrounding outdoor area.

New policy instruments

In 1984, a national program for upgrading the housing stock over a period of ten years was initiated. An important goal of the program is to improve accessibility in renovated buildings as expressed by the statement: "Independent of age or disability, everyone has the right to housing that fulfills the requirements of accessibility".

This goal was later complemented and made more precise in other policy decisions, such that everyone, independent of the need for assistance or special care, has the right to an environment which does not limit his/her ability to actively participate in society. One of the main purposes of improving accessibility is to enable persons with disabilities to continue living in their own homes thereby reducing the demand for institutional care.

Elevator Installation Subsidies

In order to facilitate the implementation of the Housing Improvement Program, parliament initiated a state subsidy to cover up to 30% of the costs of elevator installation in three-storey apartment buildings, if the municipality contributed 20% and the owner the rest. This move was meant to remove the economic motives for granting exemptions described above. The state subsidy fund was SEK 100 million annually for a period of three years. Since the average cost of installing an elevator is approximately SEK 400,000 - 500,000, the funds correspond to the installation of about 700 elevators per year. Should the amount not suffice for the applications received, priority would be given to municipalities which have an acceptable long-term accessibility plan for the whole housing area.

Accessibility Plans

The responsibility for establishing an accessibility plan rests with the municipal authorities. However, such plans are new and only recommended, not required, by the National Building Code. They are meant to provide the base for local decisions on accessibility goals, the granting of building permits, subsidies and exemptions from accessibility requirements. Normally, however, municipal authorities cannot enforce their plans, as the property owner alone has the right to decide whether an apartment building will be renovated or not.

Housing Improvement Loans

The attractive state housing loans at below-market interest rate (presently about 2.5% as compared to 12.5% for ordinary bank loans) and long repayment terms constitute an effective economic incentive to housing improvement. Without the loans it would be virtually impossible to renovate apartment buildings without raising current rent levels. Rents are negotiated by the Tenants Association and the property owner. When a property owner applies for a building permit to renovate an apartment building, he/she is asked by the authorities to include the installation of an elevator in the renovation plans. If the owner fails to heed this request, a state housing loan may be denied, making the project economically not viable. However, it should be noted that the municipality cannot force the property owner to renovate a given apartment building; the owner can decide instead to take no action, if he/she finds that reasonable returns on investment via rents are not likely.

The Housing Improvement Program was politically very popular when it was introduced. However, the question remains whether the political statement about everyone’s right to accessible housing has had any real effects.

Results So Far

The Housing Improvement Program has been in existence for three of its planned ten years. It is, of course, too early to evaluate the program as a whole, but we can take a look at what has happened to date.

Improvement of the Housing Stock

A steadily growing number of apartment buildings has been renovated since 1978 - six years before the program started. The total number of renovated apartment buildings has increased from barely 7,000 in 1978, to approximately 26,000 in 1986, the third year of the program. The figures include apartment buildings of three storeys or less which increased from about 4,000 in 1978 to nearly 16,000 in 1986. The increase in the number of renovated apartment buildings was greatest during 1985, one year after the start of the program.

The same tendencies can be seen in the installation of elevators, with a steady growth since 1978. Apartment buildings which which were retrofitted with elevators in connection with renovation increased in number from about 3,000 to 6,000 during the first three years of the program. The figures do not include apartment buildings where improvement was in the form of elevators only but include apartment buildings with three storeys or less which were equipped with elevators, from around 800 in 1984 to approximately 2,800 by 1986.

The proportion of apartment buildings which did not have elevators when renovation began was between 80-90% for each year, during the twelve year period shown, with a slight decrease in later years. The totals include all renovated housing units completed during each year. During the same period, the proportion of housing units that were equipped with elevators while renovated increased from about 5% in 1975 to about 25% in 1986.

The number of elevators installed as a proportion of the total number of renovated housing units increased during this period. For lower apartment buildings, however, only 25% of housing units gained better accessibility through renovation by the end of the period.

Variations among Municipalities

Exemptions from the requirements of the building code can be granted by the municipal building committees. There are great discrepancies between municipalities in granting such exemptions. We can use Gothenburg and Malmö, the second and third largest cities in Sweden, as examples. In Gothenburg, no elevators were installed in connection with the renovation of three-storey apartment buildings, and in four-storey apartment buildings only every second housing unit was improved in this way. At the same time, in Malmö, elevators were installed to serve almost every renovated housing unit in multi-storey apartment buildings.

Use of Policy Instruments

The main policy instruments for carrying out the program are accessibility plans, building code regulations, state housing loans for renovation and the limited state/municipal grants for elevator installation. Municipalities also have some powers in the allocation of renovated and accessible housing units to those in need of them.

Accessibility Plans

There are 284 municipalities in Sweden. Many of these are very small and have no high-rise buildings at all. Because of the great differences among the municipalities, there are varying needs for accessibility planning. Most of the municipalities, three years after the initiation of the program, have not made any plans for improving accessibility and, most probably, will not make any.

Some municipalities have made inventories of the accessibility situation. Most of these record the housing stock and the presence of elevators and architectural barriers. Some have also made surveys of inhabitants including such variables as age distribution, need for and presence of services, etc. From this data, some municipalities have developed an index showing where the greatest needs are in comparison to actual accessibility in the area.

Some municipalities have taken political decisions on acceptable long-term accessibility and how to achieve it. However, the term "acceptable" can, apparently, be interpreted in a remarkably large number of ways. Even the decisions taken, to be found in official documents, differ widely. In relatively similar conditions, one municipality can decide that 22% of the housing units in multi-storey buildings should be made accessible, while another puts the figure at 85% for the same period of time.

Available documents alone give us no clues as to why interpretations are so different. Variations appear to be unrelated to political majority or size of municipality. The most probable explanation is that this type of planning is so new that it has not yet found its proper form and conventions. Another explanation might be that the investigation is based on the years before other new laws for planning and building came into force.

Few municipalities have engaged in accessibility planning policy in any way, and fewer still have developed policy instruments to reach the goals of such planning. Most have a passive attitude; they simply wait for property owners to take the initiative for renovation, then they decide with the help of inventories or a plan whether to demand the installation of an elevator before granting building permits, state housing loans and the municipal part of the elevator installation subsidy.

With the intention of finding some good examples of accessibility planning, a study was made of several municipalities which were selected on the basis of a higher than average percentage of housing units in three-storey apartment buildings after renovation. After examining planning documents of about 40 municipalities with the best statistical records, we found that some of those which had succeeded in getting the highest numbers and greatest proportions of elevators installed during renovation had, surprisingly, no accessibility planning at all nor had they granted any subsidies for the installations!

The explanation for this can be found in a very active cooperation between and within the municipality’s different departments, making it possible to coordinate measures. Another effective measure appeared to be setting an acceptable price ceiling for applications for state housing loans. This helps to keep the market price for residential buildings down so that the property owner can afford to install an elevator and still recoup the investment without raising rents. This has been the practice in Malmö which had a very good record of elevator installation during renovation.

A contrasting example is the municipality of Gothenburg. There, extensive area planning is carried out in cooperation with town planners, social workers, property owners and tenants. However, no policy decisions about acceptable accessibility standards have been made as yet, as the politicians are waiting for the plan to be completed and analyzed. In Gothenburg, no elevators have been installed in three-storey buildings.

Building Code

From the above figures, we can see that a very high proportion of three-storey apartment buildings was granted exemption from the elevator requirement of the building code: nearly 90% during the first year and 75% during the third year of the program. Four-storey apartment buildings were granted exemptions at the rate of 30%. This means that municipal building committees make decisions about exemptions which result in wide discrepancies in accessibility standards among the municipalities.

Renovation Loans

As far as statistics show, no renovation project has been carried out without state housing loans. We can infer from this that such loans are a necessary condition for renovation.

Elevator Installation Grants

In 1984, the first year of the program, about SEK 8 million were granted for the installation of 62 elevators to serve a total of 750 apartments. During 1985, 187 elevators were installed at a total subsidy cost of SEK 28 million serving 2,300 apartments. In the third and final year of the subsidy program 500 elevators were installed serving about 5,000 apartments at a subsidy cost of SEK 70 million. Thus, of the total SEK 300 million that were originally set aside for elevator installation subsidies during the three years, only a third has been used. Only about 750 elevators serving about 8,000 apartments were subsidized.

Housing Distribution

According to the conditions of state housing loans, municipalities have the power to allocate renovated housing units which are not claimed by the pre-renovation tenant. This policy instrument is meant to allot renovated and accessible apartments to those who need them. According to a survey , almost two-thirds of the original tenants move permanently to other housing units at the onset of major renovation such as elevator installation. This means, potentially, a great number of accessible housing units for tenants who need accessibility.

In most Swedish municipalities there are municipal housing offices many of whom have special waiting lists for service houses , but few have made use of the powers described above in the statute for state housing loans. Of the Swedish 284 municipalities, only five have waiting lists for renovated accessible apartments for mobility-impaired tenants.


"Independent of age or disability, everyone has a right to housing that fulfills the requirements of accessibility" (Swedish Bill of Parliament, December 12, 1983). The right described in the bill does not constitute an obligation on the part of the state. There is a long road between political statements and realization. The Housing Improvement Program has been in operation for three years - is it succeeding?


It is always difficult to evaluate the effects of politically initiated programs. One reason is the obvious question: what would have happened without the program? Construction without such a program might have been directed towards new buildings. Thus, all structures would have been accessible in accordance with current requirements.

Another question is how to distinguish the effects of the program from the effects of other factors. The building sector is used to a large extent as a regulator of the Swedish economy, and politicians therefore fairly regularly decide on new programs. The national economy is affected to a large degree by the international economic climate, interest rates, the labor market situation etc. This has been rather drastically demonstrated by recent government action which severely limited renovation activity in favor of new construction in the two largest cities because of current heavy demands for housing in these areas.

Yet another question is: what are the criteria for success? The underlying motives in the introduction to the proposal for the program are twofold. For one, there is the social aspect: as many individuals as possible should be able to live as long as possible in their own homes and familiar environments, despite age and/or disability. There is the economic motive: expenditures for hospital and nursing home care should be kept down for those who have difficulties with stairs or use wheelchairs. However, these motives must be seen in the light of the low construction activity and consequent high unemployment in the building sector at that time. There are, therefore, different measures of success for different agents!

We can observe that the housing stock is slowly getting more accessible through the installation of elevators but we have no firm indications that the accessible units are going to those who most need them.

Results of the Program

Is it because of the program’s policy instruments that the housing stock is gradually becoming more accessible? The requirements in the building code have been in force for over ten years, but are not instrumental in the program. Planning and financing through state loans and subsidies are.

Accessibility planning, in itself, is no guarantee for the enforcment of the building code requirements. As clearly demonstrated in the case of Malmö, good results are possible without any such planning, by simple enforcement of accessibility requirements. However, there is some value to accessibility planning as a consciousness-raising process for all parties involved: accessibility concerns not just installation of elevators, but the more general problems of living and working in "handicapping" environments. We can draw at least one conclusion: effective cooperation among different municipal departments is important in achieving accessibility goals.

State housing loans, grants and subsidies also appear to be crucial factors in the program. Without these financial instruments, property owners would find it almost impossible to recoup their investment in renovation given existing property values and rent control. Property values are determined by expected rental income, rents are controlled in line with the use value of apartments. Thus, the market will eventually adapt to whatever accessibility requirements and conditions on finance exist, as the use value includes such amenities as accessibility. This will make it possible to carry the cost of installing elevators.

If the number of installed elevators and the improvement of the general physical environment can be taken as criteria, the first years of the program augur well for the achievement of its goals. However, it would take about 40 years to renovate the remaining housing stock at the present rate. Even after that time, approximately 700,000 housing units would still not be accessible to wheelchair users, as it is highly unlikely that apartment buildings which were renovated now or within the last few years without retrofit elevators will be equipped with elevators during the remaining years of the program.

If availability of accessible housing is to be taken as criterion, i.e. the opportunities citizens have of claiming their declared right to accessible housing, then the conclusion must be drawn that the program has not been greatly successful. In the final analysis, it is the individual property owner who decides over alterations to increase accessibility. In this manner, accessibility is spread randomly, and often not available to those who need it most. The ’welfare’ of the welfare state is not being directed at those who need it. If, on the other hand, municipalities began using their powers of allocating apartments that were renovated with state loans, this situation could be avoided. A first step would be to establish waiting lists at municipal housing offices for households who need accessible apartments - a measure easy to administer that would surely lead to more optimal use of resources in both the short and long term.

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