The Helsinki Metropolitan Area hosts growing numbers of foreign professionals who are vital for the competitiveness of the city region. Besides working, the migrants also establish their everyday lives within the built environment of the city. What are their housing experiences, and does the local offer of housing support their settling into the city region?
Economic competitiveness, city regions and the global race for talent
International migration has become a normal activity for many highly educated workers. Cities are striving to attract and retain these skilled migrants in order to increase their competitiveness in the new economy, which is highly dependent on innovation and knowledge. What influences the location choices of skilled migrants – and what makes them stay at a certain location?
Over ten years ago Richard Florida’s (2004) writings on the “creative class” started discussion on cities from the perspective of talented people. Florida claimed that the so-called soft factors, such as tolerant atmosphere, urban amenities and quality of life are more important for the talented workers than the so-called hard factors, such as work opportunities and regional economy. The debate on the meaning of soft and hard factors as attracting factors for the skilled workers continues, but it has been noted that soft factors play an important role as retaining factors that root these workers into a city. For example, if local housing supply responds to the needs of skilled people, it supports their staying in that location.
This article is based on a dissertation in urban geography (Eskelä 2015), which investigated the determinants of residential satisfaction among skilled migrants living in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. Residential satisfaction has been identified as a key determinant of whether a person stays or moves to another location (Speare 1974), and it can be seen as a predictor of behaviour. As skilled migrants are usually in a socio-economically good position, chances are that they will migrate if not happy with their lives in the host cities. Therefore, skilled migrants’ experiences and opinions on housing offer relevant information for the cities that aim to host these migrants.
Qualitative approach helps reveal opinions on housing
Although skilled workers are acknowledged as influential drivers of economic growth, the literature focusing on cities and their competitiveness tends to portray them as somewhat anonymous actors who “flow” in global networks. In order to reveal the experiences and the “human face” of skilled migration (Favell et al. 2007), the qualitative study underpinning this article drew on 70 semi-structured interviews with skilled migrants and with experts on migration and housing in the city region.
The research setting was designed to maximise the cultural and socio-economic as well as locational diversity within the limits of recognised skilled migrant groups. The interviewees included workers of creative and knowledge-intensive industries, international degree students at Aalto University and University of Helsinki, and Indian skilled migrants.
In analysing the housing issues of skilled migrants, the study utilised the concept of housing pathways (Clapham 2005). Housing always relates to wider life circumstances, and social relations play an important part. Immigrants’ housing needs and preferences are influenced by their cultural, socio-economic and personal backgrounds, and previous housing experiences are contrasted to the current housing situation. This general framework - studying the interaction between the individual’s norms and the situational conditions - has been described in Parsons’ (1967) unit act, which in essence describes how the normative orientation of an individual and the changing situational conditions are always present in action. Therefore, the study has mapped the housing pathways of these migrants, i.e. all the dwellings where migrants have lived in Finland and in other countries, and analysed their reasons for changing and choosing particular dwellings.
Experiences on housing strikingly similar
The interviews showed that many skilled workers migrate to Finland with almost non-existent knowledge of the country. Furthermore, they usually did not have specific expectations regarding the built environment and housing in Helsinki. For most of the migrants, professional or academic reasons were motivating factors in the migration decisions. However, also travelling, experiencing a new culture and social relationships were mentioned as motivating factors.
When arriving in a country, finding accommodation is often the first task. The level of assistance with housing-related issues varied among the migrant groups: whereas the corporate-driven Indian migrant group enjoyed the settlement help offered by their employer, the more diverse group of employees in the creative and knowledge-intensive sectors did not receive as much help. Most of the international degree students were offered student housing when they arrived in Finland. The functioning of the housing market was problematic for non-Finnish-speakers, especially at first when information was scarce and they had yet to develop supportive social networks.
Despite the cultural, socio-economic and locational heterogeneity of the interviewees, their experiences of housing in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area were notably similar. Principally, their assessment was that housing is expensive, cramped and uniform. In other words, skilled migrants struggled to find reasonably priced and satisfactory housing. This was a surprise to many of them, since they thought of Helsinki as a remote and small city region compared with many other global destinations. The price of housing was generally considered high, and even those who had money to spend faced difficulties in finding accommodation to suit their needs. The high price of housing was a burden especially to freelancers and those working on temporary contracts; also families with children missed affordable family housing. The small size of dwellings in Helsinki was contrasted to previous experiences on housing. For example, many professionals were used to living in single family houses, which are only sparsely available for renting in Helsinki. The experienced uniformity of housing related particularly to the dominance of apartment housing and the sameness of the built environment.
Although accommodation tended to attract critical comments, most of the migrants were satisfied with their neighbourhoods and highly appreciated the safety of the residential areas as well as the whole city region. Most of them lived in suburban areas, usually because of the lower house prices and the larger dwellings compared to the city centre, but also because of the greenness and peacefulness.
All of the families with children lived in the suburbs. Although the “creative class” is often assumed to appreciate urban amenities, the results of the study indicate that the family life cycle guides housing choices in the Finnish context. Many childless migrants, too, chose quiet suburban residential areas over the city centre buzz. The singles and couples who lived in the city centre enjoyed the variety of urban amenities.
Earlier studies (e.g. Murdie & Teixeira 2003) have showed that among immigrant groups with a lower socio-economic status, homeownership is a predictor of settlement and commitment to the host country. Among Indian skilled migrants, however, homeownership was not a simple indicator of the intention to stay in or leave the region. As the price level of rental housing is high in Helsinki, many chose homeownership based on economic grounds. Furthermore, the tightly knit Indian community strengthened the Indians’ willingness to move to homeownership, and also affected their choice of neighbourhood. On the other hand, some migrants who had strong intentions on returning rather invested their funds to the home country.
Social aspect of housing significant for the migrants
The interviews revealed that social environment is very important in creating residential satisfaction among skilled migrants. Almost all of the interviewees wanted to have more interaction with their neighbours. This is a somewhat surprising result. Given that skilled migrants tend to be considered relatively footloose, and that today’s communication technologies allow the maintenance of physically distant social relationships, it might be assumed that local social ties are not so important.
The study indicates that the supply of local, neighbourhood-based social ties is particularly limited in the case of Helsinki, and that this has a negative impact on the residential satisfaction of skilled migrants. Contacts with the neighbours and roommates (in the case of international degree students) were scarce; the underlying reasons for this were cultural differences, individuals’ personalities and the lack of common spaces.
As a rule there was no need to develop deep friendships in the neighbourhood, but the migrants would have liked brief daily encounters and acknowledgement from the people who lived near them. The finding complements previous results on the difficulties skilled migrants have in penetrating professional and personal networks in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area (Kepsu et al. 2009) in showing how these difficulties are also manifested in their residential areas.
Although international degree students in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area are allocated the same student housing as the Finnish students, and even live in the same shared dwellings, the physical closeness does not automatically create social interaction. In some cases the interviewees did not even know with whom they would be living, never having seen their roommates. Furthermore, the structural element of housing seemed to have an effect on local social ties: among international students the extent of such ties varied according to the housing form.
Those who lived in the housing offered by the Foundation for Student Housing in the Helsinki Region (HOAS) had less local social contacts than those who lived in the student flats of Aalto University in Otaniemi or in private rental dwellings. Weak social ties develop in everyday encounters, which happen more often in housing forms other than HOAS student accommodation. One student, for example, said that elderly people in his building were happy to practise their German skills with him, and another told the interviewer how she had started to talk to families with children who lived in her building because she liked children. A versatile population structure and voluntary neighbourhood work (private rental housing), as well as familiarity through studies and student parties (the Otaniemi campus), facilitate such encounters.
The lack of local social ties is problematic from at least two perspectives. From the migrants’ personal perspective, they would have wanted more local social interaction, which would increase their residential satisfaction. Furthermore, a lack of social ties weakens migrants’ attachment to the neighbourhood and their chances of joining the social networks that could benefit career development. More generally, it has been shown that local social ties are beneficial in the establishment of innovative environments (Glaeser 2011), which are important for the vitality of the city region.
Recommendations for housing policy
Although many skilled migrants are in a good socio-economic position, they are not immune to problems related to finding suitable housing. The skilled migrants investigated in the study critically observed their life and residential environment in the host country. Despite the cultural and socio-economic variation, the interviewees gave surprisingly similar assessments of local housing conditions. Currently, the housing market in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area does not respond well to the needs of skilled migrants, which affects their overall assessment of the city region. According to the above results on residential satisfaction, retaining skilled migrants in Helsinki seems challenging.
The study shows that housing availability, quality and affordability are significant factors in enhancing residential satisfaction among skilled migrants. Furthermore, given that local social ties have a mediating role with regard to the residential area as well as to society, policy-makers should also work to ease the formation of such ties among migrants. These aspects of housing should be acknowledged when wishing to accommodate and retain global talent.
Elina Eskelä, PhD, is an urban geographer specialised in housing and international migration.
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