In Ukraine, There Are No Good Solutions for the Internally Displaced

Uzhhorod is the capital of Zakarpattia. With a pre-war population of about 130,000, this charming city in the most western region of Ukraine was the smallest region capital in the whole country. For an expat like myself, it was an ideal place to settle down – the prices are low, it’s close to Europe, and I could pretty much get everything I needed by either walking or taking a short bus ride. I’d suggest watching some YouTube videos about Uzhhorod and to take a trip through google images – it’s a beautiful place with neo-classical central European architecture, and was able to escape much of the brutalist Soviet architectural style that plagued Ukraine after WWII (but not totally).

The Beauty of Uzhhorod
The Not-So Beauty of Uzhhorod

After finishing a year and a half stint with the Peace Corps in Ukraine, I moved to Uzhhorod in the summer of 2020 as a private citizen. Before making the move, my girlfriend and I and went apartment hunting and found a nice place that was about a fifteen minute walk from the city center. The rent was 6800 hryven a month, which at a rate of 26.5 hryven to 1 dollar, cost us about $250. It felt a little high, especially after I had been paying $130 a month as a Peace Corps volunteer, but I was moving to the region capital after all, and if my girlfriend and I paid a little extra to live a nice place, so be it.

Uzhhorod Apartment Price in the Summer of 2020. 6800 hryven = 250 dollars

As you can imagine, to say the least the situation in Uzhhorod is much different now than in 2020. Because it is three miles away from a NATO-member and has little strategic significance on the warfront, it is one of the safest places to be in Ukraine right now. Additionally, by being situated at the edge of the Zakarpattia region, it is cut off from the rest of Ukraine by a huge mountain range (za = behind, karpattia = Carpathian mountains). With all of these factors in mind (near NATO, protected by mountains, no strategic significance), when the war broke out in February, Uzhhorod became one of main destination for IDPs (internally displaced people) who wanted to find the safest possible place to shelter.

Almost overnight, tens of thousands of people moved to this small town on the west side of Ukraine, and a housing crisis evolved rapidly. Hundreds of apartment complexes can’t be built in a week, and as masses of IDPs from central and eastern Ukraine moved to Uzhhorod, the demand for long-term living accommodation shot up.

This has resulted in some pretty serious price gouging. The photos below are from early May.

$1200, $1000, an $800. That is outrageous. Even factoring in inflation, going from $250 to $1200 is a direct consequence of the war, and property owners are taking advantage of it. This is causing some serious problems for IDPs.

The average salary in Ukraine is close to $500 bucks a month. That means that most Ukrainians have no chance of renting the cheapest option from the photos above, and would need a few roommates in order to even think about finding a place to stay.

With that said, 4.8 million Ukrainians are out of work due to the war. Unless your work was online, if you are a Ukrainian who had to flee a warzone, the chances are that you lost your job. So even though the average salary is $500, one can assume that a huge portion of the people who are in need of long-term accommodation in a place like Uzhhorod don’t have any salary to fall back on at all.

Even for Ukraine’s highest earners, these rent prices are way too high. As I wrote in an earlier post, mid-level IT specialists make around $2,400 a month, which is close to five times the average Ukrainian salary. However, with the devaluation of the national currency and the inflation rate already at 16%, salaries are getting smaller by the day. With all of this in mind, even Ukraine’s highest earners in Uzhhorod might be spending 40-50% of their pre-tax salary on rent.

That might not sound all that bad, as long as you don’t compare it to pre-war rent prices in Kyiv. In the capital of Ukraine, the average price of a one bedroom apartment in the city center before the war was $500, and if you wanted to live in a swanky three bedroom apartment in the thick of downtown, it would be less than $1000. In the biggest city in Ukraine (3 million people), before the war you would be paying less than if you now moved to the to the smallest region capital (130,000).

It’s price gouging in its simplest form, and is making it impossible for IDPs to find stable housing. And unfortunately, it is not just limited to Uzhhorod.

One of my friends is a programmer who had to move to Lviv. He spent the first month of the war in Kharkiv, and after the first few weeks he no longer had electricity and the water supply was unstable. He was overjoyed and incredibly relieved when he was able to find transportation to Western Ukraine, but he soon found himself faced with a whole different set of issues: Where would he live?

The better question was, “Where could he live?” After about a month of war, tens of thousands of people had already fled to Lviv, the biggest city in Western Ukraine. He didn’t have any leads, and after about a week in Lviv, he messaged me to see if I knew any landlords with open apartments. I didn’t, so I sent him a telegram group that was helping people find places to stay. Unfortunately the group was only advertising places for IDPs who needed temporary shelter.

As a programmer, in theory my friend would have been able to pay for an apartment, but at the end of the day he had no success because they were all more or less taken.

He is now living on the fifth floor of an office space that has been converted to temporary housing. It’s a modern office, so he and his four other family members are lucky to have a kitchen and a shower, but needless to say living in an office doesn’t quite provide the stability that an apartment does.

The combination of sky-high rent prices and little to no open apartments are forcing IDPs like my friend to stay in “temporary” housing, like in schools, gyms and office facilities. It’s great that they have a place to stay at all, but ask yourself: How long could you manage to live in a gym with 60 other people? Where could you get some work done? Where could you find some privacy? How could you relax? You simply wouldn’t be able to, and what I just described is the fate that many of the almost eight million IDPs are sharing at the moment.

And unfortunately, like I mentioned in an earlier post, there doesn’t seem to be any good answers coming anytime soon.

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