Regulation Changes Needed to Ensure Safe Housing

Slökkvilið höfuðborgarsvæðisins bs / Facebook. Fire in Hafnarfjörður, August 20, 2023

Iceland’s housing problem gets worse with each passing year, President of The Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson stated in a radio interview yesterday morning. One died and two others were hospitalised in a fire earlier this week that broke out in an industrial building that was being used for housing. Thousands are likely living in buildings that are not classified as residential in Iceland and Finnbjörn says such residences should be legalised to ease safety monitoring.

Housing a key issue in upcoming wage negotiations

Finnbjörn says there simply isn’t enough housing to meet demand in Iceland. “We can’t even keep up with normal [population] growth, let alone when we get such a huge wave of working people that the society needs,” he stated. “Everyone needs somewhere to live and so they go to these industrial buildings that are not intended for residence.”

Following a fatal house fire in June 2020, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings in Iceland in 2021. Finnbjörn says that housing will be at the forefront in the coming collective agreement negotiations. He expressed his faith that the situation would improve.

New legislation on the way

Living in buildings that are not classified as residential buildings is currently illegal in Iceland. It has proven difficult for fire departments to monitor such buildings due to privacy laws. However, the Minister of Infrastructure plans to introduce a bill next month that would allow for temporary residence permits in buildings that are not classified as residential, provided they fulfil safety requirements. The legislation would also authorise fire departments to monitor such buildings more closely.

One Dead Following Reykjavík Fire

fatal accident Iceland

Three people were transported to hospital for emergency care after a fire broke out in an industrial building in Reykjavík yesterday afternoon. One later died in intensive care, according to a notice from Capital Area Police. The condition of the other two is not considered life-threatening. People were living in the building although it is not zoned for residential use.

Fire safety evaluated as adequate

A spokesperson for one of the building’s owners told RÚV yesterday that authorities had recently decided to reclassify the part of the building that people had been living in from residential housing to commercial housing, and that the owners wanted to have that decision overturned. The spokesperson also stated that the fire department had evaluated fire safety measures on the premises on October 13 as being adequate, with the exception of lacking one fire escape. The owners had been given a deadline to install an additional fire escape and had been addressing the issue.

The cause of the fire is unknown but an investigation is underway.

Many people living in non-residential buildings in capital area

This is the second case of a fire breaking out in an industrial building being used as housing in the capital area within two months. On August 20, a fire broke out in Hafnarfjörður in an industrial building where at least 17 people had been living. Luckily, no injuries or fatalities were reported. Six people who had been sleeping when the fire broke out were rescued from the flames.

“Residing in commercial [or industrial] buildings is still not permitted, though there is a lot of it in the capital area,” Birgir Finsson, Acting Fire Chief of Greater Reykjavík, told reporters at the time.

Fatal house fire prompts regulation changes

Following a fatal house fire in June 2020, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings in Iceland in 2021. In July 2023, the Minister of Infrastructure drafted an amendment to fire safety regulations in an effort to ensure more people have their actual residence registered correctly and make it easier for authorities to enter housing where fire prevention measures may be inadequate.

Fire in Hafnarfjörður Industrial Building Used for Housing

Slökkvilið höfuðborgarsvæðisins bs / Facebook. Fire in Hafnarfjörður, August 20, 2023

Seventeen people were registered as residents of an industrial building in Hafnarfjörður in the Reykjavík capital area that was heavily damaged when a fire broke out yesterday. The building was not approved for housing. A couple and a family of four were sleeping inside the building when the fire broke out but were woken up by good samaritans who saw the rising smoke and ran over to help. No injuries or fatalities have been reported.

The fire broke out at Hvaleyrarbraut 22 around noon yesterday, and firefighters did not manage to quell the flames entirely until around 4:00 AM this morning. Duty Officer Þorsteinn Gunnarsson of the Greater Reykjavík Fire and Rescue Service said the building was heavily damaged and a part of it had been torn down in order to put out the fire.

Saved a family of four from the flames

Guðrún Gerður Guðbjörnsdóttir called emergency number 112 immediately when she spotted the fire. When she realised it was in the building where her daughter lived, she made her way in. “I ran up the stairs, jumped onto the roof and ran to the window where my daughter lives,” Guðrún told RÚV reporters. She managed to open the window and wake up her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. There was already a lot of smoke in the apartment when she reached them.

Another civilian working near the building told reporters that he had run over when the fire broke out and woken up a family of four that was fast asleep inside the building. The family managed to escape to safety. The building was also used as storage and firefighters did their best to save valuables that were stored on the lower floor of the building, though accessing the storage rooms proved difficult.

Likely more than 17 living in the building

Birgir Finsson, Acting Fire Chief of Greater Reykjavík, says 17 people were registered as living in the building, which was not approved as residential housing. He stated that it was likely, however, that even more had been living there. “Residing in commercial [or industrial] buildings is still not permitted, though there is a lot of it in the capital area,” Birgir stated.

Following a fatal house fire in June 2020, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings in Iceland in 2021. The Minister of Infrastructure drafted an amendment to fire safety regulations last month in efforts to ensure more people have their actual residence registered correctly and make it easier for authorities to enter housing where fire prevention measures may be inadequate.

Fatal Fire May Lead to Amendments on Housing Regulations

Bræðaborgarstígur fire

The Minister of Infrastructure has drafted an amendment to fire safety regulations in Iceland. The changes are meant to ensure more people have their actual residence registered correctly and make it easier for authorities to enter housing where fire prevention measures may be inadequate.

In June 2020, a fire at Bræðraborgarstígur 1 in Reykajvík claimed three lives, the deadliest fire in Iceland’s recent history. The house had previously been the subject of media attention for its unsafe living conditions. It was owned by an Icelandic company that rented the rooms mostly to migrant workers. There were reports that 73 people were registered as living in the house (though the actual number was lower).

Read More: House Fire Deaths Spark Calls for Fire Safety Reforms

The tragic fire spurred an official investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that in 2021, between 5,000 and 7,000 people in the country were living in properties that had been classified as commercial or industrial buildings and not residential buildings. Fire safety requirements differ between residential, commercial, and industrial housing and those living in non-residential buildings are often not sufficiently protected from the risk of fire. In many cases, the unregistered and inadequate housing is provided to temporary workers by their employer, also putting workers at risk of homelessness if they lose their job.

Under current Icelandic legislation, it is illegal to register one’s residence on commercial or industrial premises except in exceptional cases. This means there is no official information on exactly how many people live in such housing and where, which can create danger in the event of natural disasters and complicate the work of first responders. Icelandic law also does not put a limit on the number of people that can be registered at each residence, which is why 73 people were allegedly registered at Bræðraborgarstígur 1, despite fewer actually living there.

Proposed changes to increase safety

The proposed amendments would make it possible to limit the number of people who register their primary address in each home. They would also permit people to temporarily register their home address in commercial or industrial buildings as well as loosen the requirements for housing benefits to encourage people to correctly register their home address. It would also ensure that authorities had the legal authority to access housing where fire safety was inadequate. Current law permits firefighters to inspect commercial and industrial housing to ensure fire safety measures are in place, but not private homes.

House Destroyed in Fire Caused by Electric Scooter

A house in eastern Reykjavík was completed destroyed in a fire caused by an electric scooter that was being charged, RÚV reports. The police investigation into the fire concluded that the scooter was indeed the cause of the fire, which burned down the two-storey, wooden house. No one was injured in the incident.

It took firefighting crews six hours to tame the flames at the scene on Tuesday, and they told Vísir that an explosion had occurred within the house. Crews removed the roof of the structure in order to put out the fire more easily. This is not the first time that a plugged-in scooter has started a fire in Iceland: police and firefighters have previously warned of the dangers of charging electric scooters at home.

In Focus: A String of House-Fire Deaths Has Sparked Calls For Fire Safety Reforms

Fatalities from house fires have been rare in Iceland, but over the past couple of years, there appears to be an uptick in fire-related deaths. After a shocking arson case in June last year, which resulted in three deaths, a national conversation commenced. Does Iceland have a fire prevention problem? What can be done to […]

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Door to Door Search to Determine Scope of Unsafe Housing in Reykjavík

sleeping pods foreign workers smíðshöfði case

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.

Landmark Ruling in Foreign Workers’ Housing Case

sleeping pods foreign workers smíðshöfði case

A temp work agency owner was charged yesterday with five months suspended imprisonment for endangering the lives of foreign workers, RÚV reports. The owner was housing the workers in an industrial building where they slept in plywood rooms hardly bigger than the beds they contained. The ruling is the first of its kind in Iceland, ruling that the temp agency owner was responsible for ensuring fire safety on the premises despite not owning the property.

No Fire Protection or Escape Routes

The case arose in 2018 when the police investigated a robbery in Smiðshöfði street, located in an industrial district in Reykjavík, and discovered that 20-30 foreign workers were living there. Plywood “sleeping pods” had been constructed for the workers inside industrial housing. There was no fire protection and no escape routes and the risk of fire was high. The ruling defined the agency owner’s offence as serious, stating that his negligence had endangered the lives of many.

The District Attorney expressed satisfaction with the watershed ruling. “It is meaningful. The court came to the conclusion that in this case, the manager of the property who is then the renter is criminally liable for modifying the premises in this way and that there is a lack of fire protection. Here we have a ruling that is likely to set a precedent,” stated Kolbrún Benediktsdóttir, Deputy District Prosecutor.

Fire Department to Map Unregistered Housing

According to a court report presented by experts in the case, it was not a question of if – rather when – a fire would start in the building. Fire Chief Jón Víðar Matthíasson stated it was the Fire Department that decided to file a lawsuit in the case. “We simply had no other choice,” Jón stated. “The situation was such that we had to try the law and find out where we stand.”

Jón celebrated the ruling and stated his hope it would set a precedent in future cases. “We are going to start mapping unregistered housing this autumn and then we’ll get a clearer picture of the situation. And then we’ll have this ruling to support us and can use it.”

Defendant’s Counsel Criticises Lack of Owner Responsibility

The defendant’s counsel Björn Líndal did not comment on whether the ruling would be appealed. He criticised, however, the building owners were brought forth as witnesses by the prosecution. “My client is the only one made responsible as the renter but the owners are let go,” Björn stated. According to the District Prosecutor, the case against the building’s owners was dropped as the renter (the owner of the temp agency) had conducted unauthorised modifications to the premises without the owners’ knowledge or approval.

Iceland Declares First-Ever Alert Phase Due to Wildfire Risk

forest brush fire

Icelandic authorities have declared an alert phase in the southwest quadrant of the country due to the risk of wildfires. The handling of open fire has been prohibited. It is the first time such a high level of risk has been declared in the country due to wildfires. The alert phase applies to all of South and West Iceland, from Breiðafjörður to Eyjafjöll, where weather has been dry for weeks and little precipitation is in the forecast. Wildfires have broken out in the region daily this week.

“A civil protection alert phase is put in place if people’s health and safety are at risk, environment or population is threatened by nature or people, however not serious to the point of an emergency situation,” a notice from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management states. “An alert phase is a part of the procedures in the civil protection structure to ensure formal communication and information between responders and the public.”

Read More: Brush Fires Break Out in Bone Dry Capital Area

Handling of Open Fire Prohibited

Along with the alert phase, fire department chiefs in the region have prohibited the handling of open fire as even a small spark carries great risk of wildfire when vegetation is dry. The prohibition has already taken effect and breaches are subject to fines. The public (particularly owners of summer houses in the affected region) are encouraged to:

  • Not light fires inside or outside (including fireplaces, grills, bonfires, fireworks, etc.)
  • Not use disposable or ordinary barbecues
  • Check exits by summer houses
  • Review fire protection (fire extinguishers, smoke detectors) and make an escape plan
  • Not use tools that become very hot or cause sparks
  • Remove flammable material near buildings (check the location of gas containers)
  • Wet the vegetation around buildings where it is dry

Anyone who notices a wildfire must call the emergency line 112 immediately.

“Uncertainty Phase” Declared Due to Risk of Forest Fires in South and West Iceland

heiðmörk fire 4 may 2021

The National Police Commissioner has declared an “uncertainty phase” due to risk of forest fires in South Iceland, West Iceland, and the Reykjavík capital area. The area stretches between Eyjafjöll to the south side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. A forest fire burned two square kilometres in Heiðmörk forest on May 4.

A notice from the Civil Protection Department stated that the three regions have been unseasonably dry in recent weeks and there is little precipitation in the forecast for the coming days, increasing the risk of brush or forest fires. At this stage, the department and stakeholders will begin the collaboration and coordination to increase monitoring, assessment, and research related to the risk.

The public is asked to be careful with open fires in the regions and other places where vegetation is dry. “It doesn’t take a lot of sparks to lead to a big blaze,” the notice states. Anyone who spots a brush or forest fire should call emergency line 112.