Sergii Pakhomenko came to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv some three months ago after Russian shelling of his hometown of Mariupol made conditions there unlivable.
“Very, very rapidly our life deteriorated to the level where we had to use bonfires to even boil water ... all under complete and constant siege and bombardment,” said Pakhomenko, a 49-year-old history and political science professor at Mariupol State University.
Pakhomenko and his family fled by car in mid-March and arrived in Lviv, a city near the Polish border that has become a popular transit site for people displaced by the conflict.
But rent prices in Lviv have skyrocketed since the war began, making it difficult for displaced people like Pakhomenko to find stable, affordable housing.
Lviv, with an estimated 721,000 people, has taken in hundreds of thousands more since Russia first invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Rent prices immediately spiked in March and April. Places that normally cost about $800 rose to three times or more, according to housing experts.
“The situation on the market was particularly dire at the time so the prices spiked up significantly."
“The situation on the market was particularly dire at the time so the prices spiked up significantly,” Pakhomenko said.
At first, they lived with one of his colleagues in the outskirts of Lviv, but after helping his wife and daughter get to Lithuania, Pakhomenko decided to find a place of his own.
It wasn’t easy.
Pakhomenko finally found a two-bedroom apartment to share with a roommate near Lviv city center for a little over $300.
He said he lives in an old building that’s wet, humid and cold.
Pakhomenko cobbles together rent with income he continues to receive as a professor along with a small stipend from the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, where he works.
Rent prices across the city are starting to level off, but it’s not enough for the long term, he said, particularly if his family returns and they have to find larger accommodations.
Yulia Boyko, founder of Compass Realty in Lviv, said at the start of the war that her office was getting hundreds of calls a day even as rent prices doubled, tripled and even quadrupled before her eyes.
Nearly four months later, rent is starting to go down because people who may have transited through initially have settled abroad. Meanwhile, many people are also moving back to their homes in Ukraine.
“But now, we have a different problem,” Boyko said, noting that rent prices actually need to go back to prewar levels to make living in Lviv sustainable for refugees.
Meanwhile, runaway inflation has prompted owners to set rent in US dollars rather than local currency.
“And if you see the exchange rate right now, $1 is about 36 hryvnia and before war it was about 28, so prices are becoming too expensive because of the dollar,” she said.
People who still have jobs are being paid primarily in the local currency, Boyko said, while many others have lost their incomes altogether and are running out of money.
“And [displaced Ukrainians] are also on hold. They don’t know what will happen next, or how long war will last. ... They cannot spend their entire budget on rentals. They also need to eat.”
“And they are also on hold. They don’t know what will happen next, or how long war will last,” she said. “They cannot spend their entire budget on rentals. They also need to eat.”
High rent is even pushing some people to return home to the east and closer to the front lines of the war.
The International Organization for Migration says that over 7 million people have been displaced since February, but 4.5 million of them have returned home because they’ve exhausted all their resources and cannot afford to live anywhere else.
Landlords are hesitant to lower their prices, arguing that they also have to make money. Boyko said that she stopped working with some owners because they refused to lower their desired rent to a more affordable price.
“People are hard to convince,” she said.
The housing crisis in Lviv has revealed a more pressing issue: Ukraine’s need to regulate the rental market.
“Often people perceive rent not as a business but as a kind of mutual help. ... This informality builds a really unequal power relationship.”
“Often, people perceive rent not as a business but as a kind of mutual help,” said Alona Liasheva, a sociologist and housing activist. “This informality builds a really unequal power relationship.”
She said that most Ukrainians think of housing as an asset and that only about 20% are renters.
“And the rent market is almost ignored as a sphere of life that needs to be regulated by the state. [It] needs to be treated as [a] business,” she said.
This would allow for more progressive housing policies and empower tenants to demand fair treatment.
Some grassroots and municipality-level advancements have been made, but Ukraine needs to completely change its mentality about housing to spur real change, she said.
For now, Pakhomenko in Lviv said he will not try to negotiate a lower price on rent with his landlord.
He said he’d rather stay in his own apartment — even if it’s damp and cold — rather than have to depend on anyone else’s hospitality.
“[At the beginning], you are greeted,” he said.
“But with the passing of the time, that welcome runs out and I would rather be on my own.”