Authorities will go door to door to determine how many people are living in industrial or commercial buildings in the Reykjavík capital area. The goal of the initiative is to investigate fire safety conditions and ensure the safety of residents, not to put people out on the street, Capital Area Fire Marshal Jón Viðar Matthiasson told RÚV.
A report published earlier this year found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people in Iceland are living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings. The largest group among them were people who had lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic recession. The report was commissioned in response to a 2020 fire in crowded worker housing in Reykjavík that took three lives, the deadliest fire in the country’s modern history. Non-residential housing often lacks fire safety equipment, putting residents’ lives at risk. Living in non-residential housing also makes it impossible for residents to register a home address and prevents them from accessing housing and child benefits.
A multilingual website, homesafety.is, has been set up to explain the door-to-door survey that will be conducted over a three-month period. It urges those living in non-residential housing to cooperate with authorities in order to improve housing safety. In the last such count, the fire department found 300-320 places where people lived in non-residential housing. Counting will be much more detailed this time. “We hope that people will welcome us because the goal is not to do some sort of raid and throw people out, rather to map and have a foundation from which to impact future laws and regulations,” Fire Marshal Jón Viðar Matthíasson stated.
Various reasons behind residence in commercial buildings
Anna Guðmunda Ingvarsdóttir, assistant director of the Housing and Construction Authority (HMS) says the number of people living in non-residential housing reflects an underlying housing need. Once the results of the survey are available, it will be the responsibility of the state and municipalities to address the problem. “People are looking for housing that is cheap and undoubtedly do that for many reasons,” she stated. “It can be a choice or they can be in a desperate situation. Living in commercial buildings can reduce your rights to housing support and housing benefits, as well as benefits related to children, it doesn’t provide the same security.”
In many cases, the unregistered and inadequate housing in question is provided to migrant workers by their employer, putting workers at risk of homelessness if they lose their job. In June 2021, a landmark ruling was made in such a case, where an employer was charged with five months suspended imprisonment for endangering the lives of foreign workers. Jón Viðar has stated that the ruling should help support changes once the survey process is completed this winter.
According to Jón Viðar, regulations prevented authorities from entering residential housing for inspections and red tape was hampering the process. Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson stated that the City of Reykjavík was pushing for increased permits to inspect housing for the initiative.