No Availability – Finding an Apartment in Lausanne

by Marc Petterson

March 23, 2023

We’ve all encountered it – the nightmare of trying to find a new apartment in Lausanne. It is likely the top cause of anxiety for anyone planning to move to the city, or simply adapt to a new stage of life. Want to move in with your girlfriend? Have a baby? Better make sure you can find a suitable apartment first!

But is it really more difficult to find a rental apartment in Lausanne than elsewhere in the world? Or are we just imagining things ?

The "vacancy rate" of apartments is the indicator used to understand the tension in housing markets. Generally, a vacancy rate below 2% means the market is tight; New York had a vacancy rate of 4.5% in 2021. In 2022 the vacancy rate in Lausanne was 0.5%. This is still much better than about ten years ago when only 0.2% of the were available. So, no. We’re not imagining things – the situation is indeed very tight.

You will struggle to find a nice home if almost everything is occupied by someone. New constructions in Lausanne have been below the growth rate, and the centre ville is saturated with beautiful, old buildings, so there is no space to grow. In the last five years, the population of Lausanne grew by about 1´000 people per year, while the larger Lausanne Region (the municipalities around Lausanne) by more than 2´000 per year. This meant that every year hundreds of new apartments were constructed to keep pace with the growth. With the city center off-limits, the neighboring municipalities welcomed most of the new inhabitants that came to the region; either they moved there by choice or because they were unable to find something in the city.

Lausanne Skyline

Reasons behind the housing shortage​

Throughout Switzerland, one of the main culprits for the shortage is the building permit process. It is notoriously slow; the World Bank ranked Switzerland #71 on the ease of the building permit process. This position stands in stark contrast to Switzerland´s usual top spots in international rankings.

Urbanization projects in Switzerland take years from decision to implementation, in big part due to the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) mentality. When a new construction project is announced, the neighbors can object to the project. The objection doesn´t need evidence; the burden of proof lies with the constructor, so while proof is gathered to show that codes and rules are followed, the project is delayed. This takes months, or even years if the objection goes to the national courts. Often the sole purpose of the objection is delaying the construction, not stopping it. An industry insider called this “a national sport”, with residents objecting to all constructions indiscriminately.

Politics around urbanization complicate matters further. This hot topic is very divisive; should new housing be created by redesigning existing urban spaces to host more people (called ”densification”), or let the cities expand (called ”urban sprawl”)? Densification of cities means demolishing the old low-rise buildings, while urban sprawl will extend the urban areas, consuming wildlife, farmland, or non-residential areas on the way. Both have consequences and face strong opposition. The topic has seen two Federal Popular votes, in 2013 and 2019, complicating the life of urban planners.

Relief is coming - hopefully​

These factors all limit the market, making it hard to find our dream home in Lausanne. There is however some light at the end of the tunnel as several exciting construction projects are in the pipeline. A new metro line, the M3 will open in 2031 (TLG will be first in line to take a maiden tour) and the city has planned habitations for almost 17.000 new residents by the end of the decade. Completely new neighborhoods will be constructed, mainly ´Plaines-de-Loup´, occupying the area between the old football stadium and the Blecherette airport, and ´Sud-Ouest´ between Renens and Malley. These two areas alone will see over 11.000 happy people making a home in the new eco-quartiers.

In the end, the housing troubles will ease only when enough quality apartments are available and the housing market is fluid. The new quartiers that are springing to life with liveable apartments surrounded by green space will hopefully enrich the city and give Lausanne new cool neighborhoods.