A critical housing shortage that is forcing people to leave Longyearbyen despite having jobs is threatening the shutdown of the town’s only veterinarian by next month, triggering an intense debate about the necessity of local animal care and what role government should play in supporting it.
Astrid Vikaune, who started Svalbard Vet in 2013, has been renting an apartment from the city since last fall. But Svalbardposten reported Thursday she received a letter “completely without notice” telling her the lease has been terminated and she has a month to move out.
“If I do not have a place to live I will close the veterinary service here and move it to the mainland,” she told the newspaper. “I do not want to run a clinic in Longyearbyen without staying here.”
Vikaune is living in the apartment with her children as well as residents who are temporarily occupying a guest room due to the housing shortage. Svalbard Vet currently has four full-time and one part-time employees.
Before Svalbard Vet opened Longyearbyen residents had to rely on a veterinarian from the mainland who made several visits a year, creating hardships for those with emergencies and transporting dogs to/from the mainland due to strict inspection requirements. But with the town’s dog population increasing rapidly in recent years – from about 770 in 2015 to 1,200 now – due primarily to a large increase in commercial dogsledding tours, many residents and tour operators argue a full-time local veterinarian is a necessity the point the government should ensure one exists.
“It goes without saying that animal welfare is not followed up in the same way without a vet. It’s impossible,” wrote Therese Berger, an employee at Svalbard Snøscooterutleie, in a discussion about the issue on a local Facebook page. “Also, what about infectious diseases? It will take much longer before such things are discovered and under control. They are only making it worse and worse for people to ‘survive’ up here. The veterinarian is as important here as having doctors and hospitals.”
City Manager Hege Walør Fagertun told Svalbardposten officials are talking with Store Norske about possible alternative housing arrangements for Vikaune and “we will be flexible in relation to a solution about this.” But Fagertun also noted the one-month notice is standard for a city housing contract and the municipal government is not officially responsible for local animal welfare.
Some people engaging in the Facebook debate agreed the city shouldn’t be officially responsible, since that would require additional regulatory and financial responsibility, even if a local veterinarian may now be a necessity.
“I can understand the frustration of people – Svalbard needs a vet,” wrote Inge Lene Villumsen, a longtime resident who worked for the city and at Store Norske before moving to the mainland in 2015. “But pushing that responsibility over to the local government because they have rented housing to the vet will be completely wrong. The same way there are hospitals, dentists, etc. that do not belong under the local government.”
Longyearbyen’s has been in a housing crisis for more than a year due to the permanent loss of dozens of residences due to avalanche and other environmental mishaps, plus dozens more in a high-risk avalanche zone that the governor is only allowing to be occupied when there is no snow in the mountains. In addition, some landlords are opting to rent out their residences to visitors through services such as Airbnb since the rates are considerably higher than normal monthly rent.
The shortage has attracted media attention since some employees have been forced to leave because they cannot find and/or afford housing. Earlier this month the Norwegian government approved 273 million kroner for Svalbard in next year’s budget, mostly for new short-term housing and infrastructure in Longyearbyen.