Over 300,000 homes are without a permanent resident in Finland.
While many of those properties are located in municipalities with negative net migration, where homeowners are simply unable to find a buyer for their homes, the population centres also have their fair share of vacant homes.
The over 28,000 homes that were without a permanent resident in Helsinki at the end of last year, for example, represent 8.2 per cent of the housing stock of the city. That is an enormous amount, equivalent to the population of Imatra.
How is it possible that Helsinki has enough vacant properties to accommodate the entire population of a small town? And why are there nearly as many vacant properties in Helsinki relative to population than elsewhere in Finland?
That is a good question, says Ari Pauna, the chief executive at the Mortgage Society of Finland (Hypo). “It's because people here can afford to keep a mortgage-free home empty,” he replies. “There are people in Helsinki who can and want to keep their homes empty.”
Not all of the homes are really empty, however. Some are used as second homes by the wealthy while others are rented to short-term tenants, such as foreign students and employees.
Temporary residency is a phenomenon typical of Helsinki, says Pekka Vuori, a project manager at Helsinki Urban Facts. The abundance of academic, commercial and other activities in Helsinki creates a need for short-term housing solutions.
Vuori also suspects that some of the properties have been in commercial use since the 1960—70s but continue to show up as vacant properties in the statistics because they have not been re-designated as commercial properties.
But certainly the nearly 30,000 properties also include homes that no one lives in. Pauna believes some of the properties would be suitable for the rental market.
The number of vacant properties is projected to creep up as the population grows older. As the elderly move to institutions and nursing homes, their relatives are left in possession of properties that are neither sold nor put up for rent. As the elderly pass away, their beneficiaries may be reluctant to make their homes available to rent.
Mia Koro-Kanerva, the executive director at the Finnish Association of Landlords, estimates that the number of vacant properties is an indication of the perceived obstacles to becoming a lessor. Many homeowners, she reveals, are under the impression that renting out is burdensome and difficult.
Money is another concern. Is it profitable to rent out a property? Will the rent be high enough to make it worthwhile?
“I realise that the economic situation isn't the best for overhauling the tax system. Meanwhile, there is nonetheless a growing need for rental housing in the capital region. It would help enormously if even some of the vacant properties were made available to rent,” Koro-Kanerva points out.
Pauna agrees, estimating that the entry of private lessors would re-vitalise the rental market of Helsinki. “Private lessors haven't entered the market in full strength. We'd need more of them – both owners of a single vacant home and more business-like investors,” he says.
He is of the opinion that the housing policy pursued by Finland does not approve of private lessors. “An answer to the flat shortage has been sought by stepping up the public production of subsidised rental housing. However, the problems are of such magnitude that that alone will not solve them.”
Nearly 30,000 vacant properties is a lot, regardless of what you compare it to. Plans are currently afoot to build 15,000—30,000 homes at the Helsinki-Malmi Airport, while roughly 4,000 new homes are being built in Helsinki every year. Last year, a total of 1,400 new rental units were built in the Finnish capital.
If even ten per cent of the vacant properties proved suitable for the rental market, they would equal the number of rental units produced in two years.
On the other hand, the majority of the vacant properties are unlikely to be kind of small urban flats that are in the highest demand. Experts are nevertheless confident that there is demand also for more spacious and expensive rental units in Helsinki.
Koro-Kanerva estimates that the vacant homes would be neither the most expensive, nor the most affordable on the market. “They would be a fit especially for the group of people who come here to work,” she says.
While she understands that decision-makers are eager to increase the availability of reasonably-priced and special-purpose rental units, she also calls attention to the significance of having a wide variety of options on the housing market – for not everyone who moves into the capital region has to scrape by on a low wage.
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Photo: Hanna-Kaisa Hämäläinen