Homeless to hip: How Swiss housing cooperatives developed

The Häberlimatte housing estate in Bern was set up in the 1960s by the Railway Construction Cooperative and contains 72 affordable apartments. Ruben Holliger / EGB

After the First World War, Switzerland experienced a massive lack of housing that left many people homeless. Cooperatives were set up to alleviate this shortage. Many of them are marking their 100th anniversary this year.

This content was published on November 15, 2019 - 11:00
Sibilla Bondolfi (Text), Ester Unterfinger (Picture editing)

In the mid-19th century, industrialisation triggered an exodus from rural areas to the cities, which led to a shortage of living space.

By the summer of 1889, close to 100 families were homeless in the city of Bern. Many of them camped in the open in nearby forests. The situation soon became untenable. Consequently, Bern became the first Swiss city to build housing for the disadvantaged using taxpayers’ money.

It was around this time that middle-class tenants started to set up self-help cooperatives. The idea is straightforward: several people pool their financial resources, which enables them to build apartments more cheaply and rent them out to themselves at cost price, which means they do not have to make a profit.

A shortage of apartments prevailed in late-19th century Bern. People mill about the Kindlifresserbrunnen (Ogre Fountain) in 1880. Paul Does / ETH-Bibliothek Bildarchiv

Public funds

Due to the stagnation in construction during the Great War, the housing shortage was acute following the end of the conflict. Many housing cooperatives popped up, especially in German-speaking Switzerland, and some of them still exist today.

As Switzerland suffered from both a lack of housing and high unemployment in the construction sector, the federal government, cantons and communes supported housing cooperatives by providing them with building cost subsidies, cheap loans and affordable land.

The Swiss Federal Railways also lent some financial support, as the company was keen for its employees to live close to work.

Homes for the middle class

Set up in 1919, the Railway Construction Cooperative of Bern (EBG) aimed at providing better housing for the families of railway employees. At the time, a single-family house was a lifelong dream for many. Consequently, the first housing complex largely consisted of terraced family homes with large vegetable gardens for the workers to grow their own food.

A sketched plan of the housing estate at Weissenstein drawn by the architect Franz Trachsel in 1922. EBG
The "village square" of the Weissenstein housing estate following its completion in 1923. Staatsarchiv Bern

The Railway Construction Cooperative of Schaffhausen was created in 1927-1928 using the same concept as the Bern cooperative. Walter Mittelholzer /ETH-Bildarchiv

All the houses on this estate in canton Aargau, pictured in 1942, have a garden to allow tenants a degree of self-sufficiency. Keystone

The public authorities and the Federal Railways supported the project, which meant that the members of the cooperative only had to bear a fraction of the building costs. But for the most disadvantaged, the membership fee and the rent remained unaffordable, so many middle-class families instead moved into the railway workers’ quarters. To this day, the small houses with garden are extremely popular, and waiting lists are long.

An aerial shot of the Weissenstein housing complex in Bern. Ruben Hollinger / EBG

The EBG continued to build more housing complexes and high-rises to make apartments more affordable for the poorest workers. The EBG remains to this day an important player in the non-profit housing sector in the greater Bern region. Employees working in the public sector and in firms with government links remain preferred tenants.

On the occasion of its 100th anniversary, the Railway Construction Cooperative  released a book with the title, “Welcome Home”. It tells the story of the EBG with some self-criticism, and looks at other issues like gentrification, high-rise architecture, the preservation of monuments and agglomeration development.

High-rise apartment buildings of the Railway Construction Cooperative in Zurich, 1974. Wolf-Bender Heinrich / Baugeschichtliches Archiv
Affordable apartments in the renovated Fellergut estate built by the Railway Construction Cooperative of Bern. Ruben Hollinger / EBG

Today, around 4-5% of apartments in Switzerland are provided by non-profit developers. In big cities, the proportion of cooperative apartments is ten times higher. In Zurich, for example, nearly a quarter of apartments are cooperatives.

Over the last few decades, housing has become increasingly sparse in urban centres due to immigration and the fact that people want bigger living spaces. Rents are also increasing, as real estate is considered a safe and lucrative investment. Given that many people cannot afford the high rents, there is still a need for cooperatives today.

The cooperative "Mehr als Wohnen" (More than living) in Zurich offers space for different types of living arrangements based on the 2,000-watt principle of using just 2,000 watts of energy per head. Ester Unterfinger /
In this Geneva cooperative, thousands of earthworms have been responsible for wastewater treatment since 2018. Martial Trezzini / Keystone


Cooperatives, however, have also come under criticism for supporting a two-class society, since not everyone is lucky enough to get their hands on a cooperative apartment. According to the think tank Avenir Suisse, it is mainly the middle class which benefits from cooperative housing.

Indeed, some tenants have to invest tens of thousands of francs in cooperative shares. Newly built cooperative apartments are of a high standard, which drives up the rent, even if the organisation remains non-profit.

Newly built cooperatives, such as this one in Zurich, often cater to the upper middle class, who can afford the high rent and sizable financial contribution. Gaetan Bally / Keystone

In the EBG’s anniversary book, a human geographer even warns that cooperatives can contribute to the phenomenon of gentrification. He claims that if only the wealthy can afford new or refurbished cooperative apartments, then existing tenants will be forced to leave their neighbourhood.

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