State seeking solutions for offering permanent housing to refugees

Ukrainian war refugees arriving in at the refugee reception center in Tallinn in March 2022.
Ukrainian war refugees arriving in at the refugee reception center in Tallinn in March 2022. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

As of Sunday, Estonia has received more than 24,000 refugees from Ukraine. While Estonia has managed to handle their reception and provide them with initial accommodations, finding more permanent housing for the refugees is proving to be a more complicated challenge. The state is looking at options on the rental market, from individuals offering housing as well as from state- and local government-owned housing stock.

Many Ukrainians had worked and lived Estonia seasonally prior to the attacks beginning on February 24, thanks to which they had someone to call when fleeing Ukraine. Many Estonian employers have been providing support to their employees and their families as well.

One business offering refugees both housing and work is Vasula Aed, a nursery located just outside Tartu. The company made some changes to their on-site housing in order to better accommodate refugees from Ukraine on a long-term basis.

"All the employees of Vasula Aed pooled their money," Vasula Aed director Viella Ansip said. "We bought them bus tickets and started bringing them the things they need from home in order to provide them with suitable living conditions. As Vasula Aed had previously only provided housing in summer, it was unheated, so we installed a ductless heat pump as well."

The majority of incoming refugees have nonetheless arrived in Estonia without any such preexisting contacts.

Oleksander, for example, arrived in Estonia together with his family and has since found work as a mechanic in Rae Municipality, just outside of Tallinn. Their new home is located in Rae Municipality as well. This perfect solution had not been immediately apparent, however, and they initially appeared to have found themselves in a difficult situation, as rent in that area was higher than they could afford. Then the family sought help from the Estonian Refugee Council.

"I've been very lucky," Oleksander said. "A couple days later I got a call back from the Refugee Council and was told that they have an offer for me, and not just any offer, but an entire house. I was skeptical of this offer at first. Why should I get a house? I have a small family — just me, my daughter and my wife. It's unlikely that anyone would help us in Ukraine the way complete strangers are helping us. I was very surprised and I'm still surprised."

Other refugees have found themselves similarly surprised as well. For example, the family that moved into more permanent housing being provided by Katrin Tomberg-Tohter in the Harju County village of Tuhala. The family includes a disabled child and a father who will only be home with them on weekends, as he works in Tallinn on weekdays.

"They were both very anxious at first," Tomberg-Tohter recalled. "The father repeatedly asked, 'Are you really accepting us? I've called so many places and as soon as I've said that we're Ukrainians, then we're told no, we have no space for you.' He even called again the next day and asked whether I hadn't changed my mind."

These are two success stories of refugee families and property owners that have been brought together via the Refugee Council. Nonetheless, most refugees are still currently staying in temporary accommodations.

In order to expedite the process of refugees who have been granted temporary protection relocating from hotels to more permanent housing, the state intends to find a partner that would act as a broker between refugees and housing opportunities. The state is also prepared to offer need-based security deposits of up to €900 to help get refugees onto the rental market.

"The state is prepared to pay the same deposit if needed, to ensure that if an apartment is rented, then it has a [security] deposit, and the owner can be confident that if things go badly, it will be possible to have their expenses compensated," Ministry of Social Affairs Secretary General Maarjo Mändmaa explained.

Many refugees currently want to stay in Estonia's bigger cities, however, which are short on both local government-owned housing and options on the rental market.

 "Local governments don't have enough municipally-owned apartments or social housing to provide them to refugees," Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) said. "There are locals waiting for their turn as well. And these waiting lists are pretty long. There actually aren't sufficient resources in the private sector either. There are currently some 1,000 apartments available in Tallinn right now, and that is of course not enough, because some 11,000 refugees are already currently registered in Tallinn."

"The vast majority still wants to remain in the city," said Anu Viltrop, head of support services at the Estonian Refugee Council. "There are people prepared to consider going wherever so long as their child can attend kindergarten or school, but there are also people who are moreso standing by, trying to survive a couple of months here and then return home. In their case, that means they'd prefer to be in Tallinn."

Volunteered offers alone insufficient

Volunteers' help alone, however, will not be enough to provide all of the incoming refugees with longer-term housing. More than 3,000 of the housing offers received by the Refugee Council are private, and offers for long-term housing are in the minority. Thus, the state has begun mapping out potential options from among state-owned real estate, including empty student dormitories, care homes and hospitals.

According to current data, some one tenth of nearly 10,000 existing spots could be used immediately; the rest require renovations.

Should state-owned real estate and private-sector offers combined still fall short of demand, however, the state intends to follow in the footsteps of other European countries that have had to receive many incoming refugees at once.

"Such properties that have stood empty that need to be deployed following minimal renovations," Mändmaa said. "Establish a sleeping-on-mattresses solution and thereafter it will be possible to build and establish temporary solutions. In the case of structures, we also need to take into consideration what's going on in the external environment. Even just container homes that we have looked into — everyone is uncertain and there are long delivery times. This may not be a cheaper or simpler solution, but we're working on these steps in turn."

While it is yet uncertain how many refugees from Ukraine in total will end up here or for how long they will remain, according to the ministry official, Estonia will be able to manage to figure out housing for all of the refugees that have arrived thus far.

The director of Vasula Aed likewise said that the refugees arriving at their nursery can remain there as long as they need, stressing that they will not leave their people stranded. While the nursery typically has enough seasonal work to last through October, the company has plenty of work to go around in general.

"Once they get their paperwork straightened out, then I will start teaching them how to prune and they'll start pruning our apple trees," Ansip said. "Then this will be followed by planting, weeding, then harvesting soon already — we have plenty of work."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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