Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said climate change “has had quite a large cost for Svalbard” during her visit to the archipelago this week. But some locals saying they’re paying the price in more ways than one – notably a crisis-level housing shortage that has many panicking about the immediate problem of merely having shelter during the coldest months of the year– due to hypocritical policies her government is pursing that are making the situation worse.
Solberg’s two-day visit was highlighted by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault topping 1 million seed samples as the largest-ever group of depositors gathered at the facility on its 12th birthday Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday she and a delegation from the UN Sustainability Goals Group, which she co-lead with Ghana President Nanna Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, took a boat tour frequented by politicians/dignitaries/celebrities to observe the impacts of climate change near Longyearbyen.
“What is obvious is that there has been a wilder climate at Svalbard than it has been before,” she told journalists accompanying her, repeating similar observations from many making the trip before her. “And it is true that in some places the ice has been retreating. The fjord is ice-free. This is different than it has been.”
But Solberg – unlike previous visitors such as the UN secretary general and actress Emma Thompson – leads a government currently pursuing profound policy changes in Svalbard at a time the archipelago is undergoing vast societal and economic changes in addition to environmental ones. Among those generating controversy among Longyearbyen residents at the moment is a proposal to make the housing supply “more efficient” by essentially placing it entirely in the control of two government entities –Statsbygg and Store Norske – taking private landlords out of the equation.
“The aim is to secure housing for public employees and to contribute to a good management of the housing stock,” said Minister of Justice and Emergency Management Monica Mæland, recently appointed head of the ministry that has administrative oversight of Svalbard, in a press release earlier this month.
Solberg, during her tour of the area, told reporters “when it comes to housing policy, we are first of all making major investments when it comes to securing houses against avalanches and landslides. That makes it vital to have control over housing construction, in addition to having control over who lives here.”
But proposed policy is provoking a scorching response from residents with non-government jobs such as tourism, who say they and colleagues literally cannot find places to live, and are either having to abandon jobs or resort to desperate measures such as couchsurfing, crowding and staying in lodging that far exceeds their earnings.
“She claims we’re strengthening the Norwegian presence in Svalbard and facilitating more for Norwegians, but what she does in practice is the opposite,” Doreen Lampe, head of operations and sales for Spitzbergen Adventures, told High North News in an article published following Solberg’s visit.
“What happens now, is that they are prioritizing public employees – again,” Lampe said. “We are struggling really hard, and right now I have a guide who has to leave an apartment without being able to find a new one.”
Adding to the illogic of the crisis is there actually is plenty of “vacant” housing in Longyearbyen, in the form of units being used by Store Norske and others to house “casual workers” – meaning those who may be traveling to/from the mainland and a site such as Svea – only a few days each month, wrote Nicola Brown in a post on a “Homeless, 78 Degrees North” Facebook page (created last year in the wake of what would seem to be an unthinkable problem in a town where both the law and the climate essentially prohibit homelessness).
“Two three-bedroom apartments below me are used in this way,” she wrote. “Empty 90 percent of the time when someone could be making use of the space permanently. It’s a shambles.”
“I know of many who are in bad situations now, mostly my work colleagues, six of them are living in the hotel either in our flats or hotel rooms (all of which are normally used as guest accommodation),” wrote Brown, noting she has moved six times in the three years she’s lived here – often resorting to sleeping on couches or housesitting for friends on holiday. “When we are overbooked some of them have to move out of the rooms and find somewhere else to sleep, this is not an acceptable way to live. Living and working in the same place for too long has to be damaging to your mental state.”
Such issues were non-existent for most of Longyearbyen’s history when it was a company town. But with mining nearly halted and other industries emerging in recent years, a number of concerns have been raised about residential ownership by private entities, including contributing to the availability shortage with skyrocketing rents and cashing in on Airbnb rentals. But while both the local and Norwegian governments have proposed possible remedies, the proposal to place everything under state control is catching many off-guard.
The controversy is occurring as demolition crews are tearing down about 140 residences in an area near the center of Longyearbyen because they are now considered exposed to unacceptable avalanche risks due in large part to conditions created by climate change. The Norwegian government has approved hundreds of millions of kroner for protective barriers and new housing being built at an accelerated rate in safe areas, but demand continues to far outpace supply.
The Longyearbyen Community Council has approved a master plan for the next decade that includes new housing and businesses in a largely industrial area along the shore, relocating industrial facilities near the coal pier beyond the west end of the city limits. But Mayor Arild Olsen told Svalbardposten the government’s proposed housing rule changes “makes us unable to exploit the potential described in the plan” in terms of residential housing since any new rules will have to be taken into account.
Målfrid Baik, regional director of NHO Arctic, told High North News, she is baffled Mæland’s statement only refers to and emphasizes public employee housing given the struggle private businesses are having finding space for their employees.
“I would argue that the government should at least take that into consideration in its policy,” she said.
Rebellion against Erna’s housing policy in Svalbard: – Soon we can only lock and pull, says tourism operator
Tightening in housing policy in Svalbard is just one of many measures that are interpreted as the fact that Norway will seriously mark its presence and sovereignty. Photo: Samantha Saville
Published: Feb 28 2020 – 12:36 / Updated: Feb 28 2020 – 13:06
– Erna Solberg she claims we strengthen the Norwegian scandal at Svalbard and organize more for Norwegians, but what she does in practice is the opposite, says Doreen Lampe in Spitzbergen Adventures.
SIRI GULLIKSEN TØMMERBAKKE
The government wants to make the management of the public-owned housing stock in Longyearbyen more efficient, and therefore wants to reduce the number of property managers. The aim is for the housing stock to be collected at Statsbygg and Store Norske Boliger, the Ministry of Justice wrote in a press release earlier in February.
In practice, this means that the government will take over part of the housing stock to the University Center at Svalbard (Unis) and Longyearbyen local government (LL) and transfer housing management to state hands.
– The aim is to secure housing for the public employees and to contribute to a good management of the housing stock, argued Minister of Justice and Emergency Management Monica Mæland (H) in the press release.
The housing situation for private companies and individuals in Longyearbyen has not been part of the review of the housing stock that has now been done.
After the government presented its business strategy for Svalbard from October 2019, they have followed up with heavy oil bans and size restrictions for cruise ships in the area. In January it became known that a certification scheme for guides operating on Svalbard will be established. And now there is tightening in housing policy.
It is easy to draw the conclusion that Norway with these measures clearly marks its presence on Svalbard. But the measures are perceived by some as a more or less accidental attempt to limit tourism and stagnate growth in the tourism industry.
“How I did”
Doreen Lampe runs Spitzbergen Adventures in Longyearbyen. She calls the new housing policy from the government “hell in the hat”.
Doreen Lampe smiles at the picture, but is really quite pissed at the government’s housing policy. Photo: Private
– What is happening now is that public employees are given priority – again. We are struggling as a mere rascal and right now I have a guide who needs to get out of his apartment that finds nothing new.
Lamp is very worried about the future.
– Soon we can just lock and pull, she says.
Doreen Lampe has lived in Svalbard for 11 years and is doing well, but thinks it is completely wrong for the state to “interfere with everything”.
This week, Prime Minister Erna Solberg was at Svalbard.
– When it comes to housing policy, we firstly make large investments in connection with landslide protection. Then it is important that we have good control over housing construction, as well as that we have good control over who lives here, said Erna Solberg during the Svalbard tour this week.
Norwegians do not want to couch surf through a whole season.
“Erna Solberg claims she is strengthening the Norwegian scandal in Svalbard and facilitating more for Norwegians, but what she does in practice is the opposite,” says Lampe, who points out that the Norwegian scandal in Svalbard has decreased in recent years.
But she doesn’t think a tighter housing policy will help with that problem.
– We know that international labor dominates the tourism industry, but that may be because Norwegians do not want to couch surf for a whole season, she argues.
Sustainable tourism in Svalbard?
The goal of a new housing policy is thus to secure housing for public employees and to ensure that society does not grow beyond the current level. However, many believe that this new policy must be interpreted as a signal that the Norwegian state will have control over housing in the world’s northernmost city.
And fear the private business in Longyearbyen will struggle even more than they do in providing housing for their employees.
Goal-free Baik, regional director of the NHO Arctic. Photo: NHO Arctic
Målfrid Baik is the regional director of the NHO Arctic, stating that the report only mentions and emphasizes the need for housing for public employees and that there is nothing about the private business sector, which is already striving to provide housing for its employees.
– I think the government should at least take this into account in the message, she says.
Housing policy could and should have been used as a tool for the change the business sector is facing on Svalbard, not the opposite.
Baik points out that it is stated Svalbard policy that one wants a change in business, from coal mining to a more diverse business sector.
– But such a transformation is difficult to implement with the housing situation we have today and we see no solution in sight. The NHO Arctic believes that housing policy could and should have been used as a tool for the transition the business sector is facing in Svalbard, not the opposite.
Increased seed packages on Svalbard to more than one million
Intervention in the land plan
Local council leader Arild Olsen (Ap) was not surprised by the press release itself, but the clarity in it.
– The starting point was only the management of public housing stock. But now it is an intervention in the land plan. It can be regarded as officially applicable policy, he told the Svalbard Post shortly after.
The starting point was only the management of public housing stock. But now it is an intervention in the land plan.
The area plans for Longyearbyen have a ten to twelve year perspective and with great potential for development.
– The press release from the Ministry of Justice means that we cannot use all the potential that has been set up in the plan, says unit leader for planning and development in Longyearbyen local council, Annlaug Kjelstad to Svalbardposten .