People with Disabilities Spend Years on Waiting Lists for Housing

architecture downtown Reykjavík houses

Individuals with disabilities are often stuck on waiting lists for housing from municipalities for years on end, with little or no information about their status, RÚV reports. Þroskahjáp (Iceland’s National Association of People with Intellectual Disabilities) says that this uncertainty weighs heavily, not least because of the high cost of rent.

A call for increased transparency

This week, spokespersons for Þroskahjáp (Iceland’s National Association of People with Intellectual Disabilities) told RÚV that it was necessary for local authorities to increase transparency when allocating housing to people with disabilities. According to Þroskahjálp, there have been instances in which people with intellectual disabilities have been kept waiting for up to a decade for suitable housing. During this time, they receive limited information about the status of their applications.

As noted by RÚV, the Minister of Social Affairs signed regulations on improving services for people with disabilities nearly five years ago. One of the things that the new regulation was supposed to ensure was that the waiting lists for housing would be shortened and that people with disabilities who require long-term support would be afforded the opportunity to decide where they live.

The situation on waiting lists, however, seems to have improved little in recent years. Anna Margrét Hrólfsdóttir, Þroskahjáp’s Public Relations Officer, told RÚV that still to this day it was not uncommon for their clients to spend years on waiting lists.

Uncertain of their place on waiting lists

“Oftentimes, the feeling is that these allocations are almost arbitrary. Living with this uncertainty can be incredibly challenging,” Anna stated. “These people don’t know where they are on the waiting list, nor what the rules are for housing allocation.”

According to Anna, it’s usually the family members who meet the obligations of the municipalities. People with disabilities, like everyone else, find it difficult to have to live with their parents well into adulthood. Their possibilities in the general rental market have long been limited but especially now that rental prices have skyrocketed all over the country: “Which makes it even more urgent for the local authorities to live up to their obligations.”

Alarming rhetoric

Anna also observed that Þroskahjálp is pinning its hopes on efforts in the development of housing by local authorities and the positive steps have been taken in the last few decades. On the other hand, there has been some alarming rhetoric from local government officials recently, regarding how costly it is to secure housing for people with disabilities: “Naturally, it’s troubling to see something that we consider as a human right being referred to as a ‘burden and a cost.’”

Immigrant Counselling Centre Opens its Doors

Kolbeinn Óttarsson Porppé, Joanna Marcinkowska, and Ásmundur Einar Daðason

Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason opened New In Iceland today, a counselling centre for immigrants in Iceland offering services in eight languages. The goal of New in Iceland is to ensure better and more direct counselling for immigrants in order to help them feel safe and supported while living in Iceland. New in Iceland is a pilot project of the Icelandic Ministry of Social Affairs and was established as a result of a parliamentary resolution from 2019 introduced by Left-Green MP Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé.

The centre’s goal is to offer accessible counselling, directions, and information for immigrants on necessary services, their rights and responsibilities, helping to keep them safe, well-informed, and supported. The centre is meant to be a co-operative platform between municipal and state-run institutions; unions; and other associations working closely with the Multicultural and Information Centre, the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, the Debtors’ Ombudsman, and the Directorate of Labour. Counsellors can gather information from different institutions and facilitate connections to advance services, making it easier for immigrants to get the services they require.

The counselling centre employs five people from diverse backgrounds who are able to offer counsel in seven languages in addition to Icelandic: English, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Lithuanian, and Russian. Counsel in other languages is also available through translators and all services are free of charge and confidential. The Counseling Centre’s new website is now up, where individuals can be in touch, request an interview or just chat with the counsellors.

The counselling centre is a nine-month pilot project and is up for review after six months to determine its future operations.

Unemployed Icelanders Offered Training and Jobs as eSports Coaches

League of Legends eSports

Unemployed Icelanders will be able to access free training in eSports coaching, thanks to a new collaboration between the Social Affairs Ministry and the Icelandic eSports Association. Iceland’s government has invested ISK 10 million ($78,000/€64,000) in developing and implementing the coaching course specifically for locals who are currently between jobs. Participants will receive a six-month work contract upon completion of training. One goal of the project is to create permanent jobs in the growing eSports industry.

“I am very excited about this collaboration with the Icelandic eSports Association, where we are hitting two birds with one stone,” stated Ásmundur Einar Daðason, Minister of Social Affairs and Children. “Create exciting opportunities for unemployed individuals and at the same time strengthen eSports infrastructure. There is a lot of strength and growth in eSports in Iceland, but the industry is young and therefore the infrastructure in clubs is often lacking. There has also been a lack of individuals who have experience in training young people, and it is very important that we get individuals with skills and experience into [the eSports industry].”

Ólafur Hrafn Steinarsson, chairman of the Icelandic eSports Association, celebrated the initiative. “This project is extremely important for eSports in Iceland and a great recognition of the excellent work that has been done for eSports in recent years.”

Esports are a form of organised video game competitions, played both individually and in teams. The industry has been growing globally as well as within Iceland, which boasts over 20 eSports clubs that provide eSport activities and training for over 600 children. “This project enables us to be at the forefront of developments in this field globally,” Ólafur Hrafn stated of the initiative. “There are exciting times ahead in this new field.”

Iceland’s government put together a task force last December to write a policy concerning the eSports industry. The group is expected to finish their work at the end of this month.

New Bill Would Create Grief Leave for Parents Who Have Lost a Child

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

The Ministry of Social Affairs is at work on a bill which would create a ‘grief leave’ for parents who have lost a child, RÚV reports. It’s hoped that the drafted bill will be ready to present to parliament by the spring.

Minister for Social Affairs and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason previously explained that the grief leave would expand on rights already in place for people living in Iceland, such as parental leave when a child is born. The ministry is also considering making provisions for parents who have recently been widowed.

In June, Ásmundur Einar said this initiative, like many others, had been put on the back burner while the government shifted its focus to coronavirus-related legislation. Ministry experts have since been able to return their attention to the proposal, however, and a draft of the proposed bill is in progress.

People on Unemployment May Go Back to School Without Losing Benefits

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

People on unemployment will be permitted to enter academic programs without losing their benefits, RÚV reports. This is among the changes to current law being developed by a working group appointed by the Minister for Social Affairs.

Minister for Social Affairs and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason says that the changes are intended to benefit the long-term unemployed, among others. “People who are long-term unemployed can enter a study program as part of their [re-employment strategy], similar to what was done here after the financial crash. And I’m pinning a lot of hope on this—we’re putting the finishing touches on how it will be implemented and we’ll hopefully be able to introduce it in the coming days,” he explained.

According to a report published by the Directorate of Labour, unemployment at the end of July was at 8.8%. This is a slight improvement over June, if the percentage of people who are receiving both full- and part-time unemployment benefits are considered together. Currently, the number of people on part-time unemployment has gone down, but the number of people on full unemployment benefits has gone up. Taken together, there are currently around 21,000 people on some form of unemployment. Unemployment is expected to remain relatively stable in the coming month, or an anticipated 9% in August.

Unemployment highest in southwest

Broken down, the current data shows that unemployment is highest in the southwest, or 16.5%. It’s also higher among women in the same region: 19% of women versus 15% of men in the southwest are unemployed.

According to Unnur Sverrisdóttir, head of the Directorate of Labour, this gender disparity can be accounted for because a significant number of jobs in the tourism industry are typically staffed by women. “It’s cleaning in hotels, it’s service in restaurants etc, and, of course, it’s also flight crews. You could say that this probably started last year when WOWair went under.”

One out of five foreign nationals unemployed

The directorate’s data also shows that one out of five foreign nationals residing in Iceland is unemployed, or roughly 7,000 people total. The majority of these individuals are Polish, although Lithuanians make up the second-largest group of unemployed foreign workers, followed by Latvians.

“Thought it’s a shame to say, it’s like we’ve said before,” said Unnur. “Foreigners were the first out of the labour market and things have not gone very well for them getting work again.”

Interest-Free Loans for First-Time, Low-Income Buyers

If passed, a new bill would see the Icelandic government provide low-income buyers interest-free loans of 20% of the purchase price of their first apartment, RÚV reports. The 20% loan would not require any repayment; rather, the state would recoup 20% of the apartment price at the time of sale.

The bill was proposed by Minister of Social Affairs and Equality Ásmundur Einar Daðason. The income threshold to qualify for the loans would be ISK 7.6 million ($56,400/€50,900) a year for individuals and ISK 10.6 million ($78,700/€69,700) a year for married or cohabitating couples. These thresholds would increase by ISK 1.6 million ($11,900/€10,500) per child or teenager residing in the home.

Per the loan terms, the buyer(s) would put up a minimum of 5% of the purchase price themselves. Up to 75% of the cost would be funded by a loan from a lending institution, and the remaining 20% would come from the government. The government loan would be for 25 years and would not accrue interest or require repayment during that period unless the buyer’s income increased beyond the aforementioned thresholds for three consecutive years during the loan period.

Helping People Get Out of the Rental Market

Ásmundur Einar explained that these loans are aimed at helping people out of the rental market and that the bill represents a significant priority for him. “We are here to help people who haven’t been able to enter the real estate market, but have been stuck [renting]. Both union leadership and the business community have called for this, which is why it has formed the backbone of the government’s housing package and living wage contract.”

The loan would also benefit those who have not owned property in at least five years, thereby aiding those who lost their homes in the wake of Iceland’s 2008 economic collapse. The loans are furthermore intended to go towards new builds, explained Rún Knútsdóttir, a lawyer at the state housing association. “[T]his way, we’re actually also helping to ensure that supply increases commensurately with demand.”

If the bill passes, the government could be expected to put ISK 4 billion ($29.7 million/€26.3 million) towards these home loans in the coming years.

The full loan conditions would be as follows:

  • Loans would only be applicable for apartments in new buildings
  • Loans would only be available to purchase apartments under a specified price limit
  • Loans would only be available to first-time buyers or those who have not owned property in the last five years
  • Loans would only be available to those who cannot make a down payment and are pre-approved
  • A lendee’s mortgage repayments could not be more than 40% of their disposable income

City of Reykjavík to Offer Emergency Housing to Those Displaced by COVID-19

iceland real estate

The City of Reykjavík will offer short-term, emergency accommodations to people who have lost their housing due to the COVID-19 crisis, Vísir reports. The service will be open 24 hours a day and will be in operation for four months.

The initiative received funding from the Ministry of Social Affairs and is expected to cost approximately ISK 85 million ($596,000/€546,000). The Ministry says that the number of people seeking social and housing assistance has been increasing.

“These are people who were living abroad, with relatives or friends, or were in other short-term housing and are now in financial and housing difficulty due to COVID-19, for instance, because of risk of infection in their current residence or people who need to go into quarantine and then lose their housing… These situations can come up quickly and require immediate remedies.”

The emergency housing will be available to people regardless of their legal domicile. “The service will connect the person in question with a social worker in the municipality where they are legally domiciled,” reads the Ministry’s announcement, “but they will be allowed to stay in the short-term housing until their case has been channelled to the municipality in which they live.”

Similar measures have been discussed in Akureyri, but as of yet, have not been put into action.

Call on Social Affairs Minister to Address Xenophobic Comments

Efling Labour Union has released a statement calling on the Minister of Social Affairs to take responsibility for xenophobic comments made by the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary at a panel on immigrants on the Icelandic labour market last week.

Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason was invited to speak on a panel last Friday at the University of Iceland at a one-day conference focused on immigrants on the Icelandic labour market. Ásmundur was unable to attend the event, but sent the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Gissur Pétursson in his place.

“Is the translation correct? Where am I?” Dovelyn Rannveig Mendoza, a migration policy specialist, asked herself after hearing Gissur’s comments. According to both Efling and City Councillor Sabine Leskopf, Gissur said foreign workers were an asset because they were easy to get rid of when an economic downturn begins. Gissur also stated that it was foreign workers’ responsibility to inform themselves about their rights and create the working conditions they want. Gissur expressed his belief that it was worthless to fund Icelandic classes for immigrants because foreigners couldn’t be bothered to learn Icelandic.

“The comments aroused fear and anger among panel participants and audience members,” reads the statement, signed by Efling’s Chairperson Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir and Vice-Chair Agnieszka Ewa Ziolkowska, who describe Gissur’s discourse as being “completely out of context with the basic premises of the discussion – that people of foreign origin working on the Icelandic labour market are people, human beings.”

According to Efling’s statement, Ásmundur has responded to the situation by saying he is ill-informed about what Gissur said on his behalf in the panel discussion.

Ministries Cancel Unpaid Internships Due to Union Criticism

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

Two ministries have cancelled plans to hire law students for unpaid internships after criticism from the Icelandic Confederation of University Graduates. According to the Confederation, unpaid internships are a violation of wage agreements.

The Employment Committee of Orator, University of Iceland’s law students’ union, recently published an advertisement on Facebook for a position as an unpaid intern with the Ministry of Social Affairs. The Ministry was seeking an intern with a bachelor’s degree in law who should be currently studying or have already finished their master’s degree in law studies. The internship would take 3-8 weeks and the advertisement stated that the work is unpaid.

In a message to the Ministry yesterday, the Confederation of University Graduates criticized that a ministry would advertise an unpaid position since employers are completely forbidden from hiring staff for worse rates than wage agreements stipulate. The message also pointed out that an institutional agreement is in place between the ministries and FHSS, The Association of University Graduates Ministry Employees, stipulating that interns should be paid a minimum wage according to their education and experience. The Confederate states on their website that while they feel it’s positive that companies and institutions give students an opportunity to put their knowledge to practical use while studying, the lines between internships and paid professions are unclear. For example, an individual who has finished a bachelor’s and a master’s degree is not a student anymore but a worker on the job market. Therefore, the advertisement breaks both the law and wage agreements.

Gissur Pétursson, permanent secretary of the ministry of social affairs, told RÚV that in light of BHM’s reaction, the ministry is no longer offering the internship. “We have been working on this in cooperation with the university. It’s an opportunity to get work training at an institution and they get school credit, as I understand it. But in light of the reaction from BHM, we’ve decided to abandon these plans.” The Ministry of Transport and Local Government had also advertised an unpaid internship but will not be hiring students for unpaid positions after the this.

Thelma Hlíf Þórsdóttir, president of Orator told RÚV that internships are important for law students. “It’s not completely without reward, students get school credit. Orator is not the only student union offering internships, we follow the rules of the University of Iceland and this is within those laws.

The National Union for Icelandic Students released an official statement yesterday, following the discussion, stating that “it is the clear demand of students that internships in official institutions or for-profit companies are always paid.” In the statement, the Union also reiterated their call for clearer rules about university-level internships, previously expressed in a letter to the Ministry of Education in 2017.

Propose Equal Reception for All Refugees

A new proposal put forward by the Minister of Social Affairs would ensure that asylum seekers who have been granted asylum in Iceland be afforded the same protections as the so-called “quota refugees” who resettle in the country as part of international agreements, RÚV reports. While quota refugees receive housing, financial assistance, and community support services upon arrival to the country, asylum seekers who arrive on their own currently do not qualify for such services, even once they have been granted asylum by the Directorate of Immigration. Municipal authorities and the Icelandic Red Cross have criticised the discrepancy in treatment of the two groups.

The new proposal was the project of a committee that was appointed to review the refugee reception process this fall. Under the terms of the new proposal, local municipalities would shoulder more of the responsibilities related to refugee services and the role of the Multicultural Information Centre would also be enhanced.

Ásmundur Einar Daðason, Minister of Social Affairs and Equality, presented the proposal along with project manager and committee member Linda Rós Alfreðsdóttir. “The biggest changes are that individuals who receive [asylum status] through the Directorate of Immigration and have, up until now, been on their own, will go into the same system that the quota refugees do, in which they have support in learning Icelandic, getting themselves settled, and adapting to society,” says Ásmundur.

Currently, the government advertises when quota refugees arrive, requesting for volunteer municipalities to receive and resettle the newcomers. But no such effort is made for refugees who arrive on their own. Under the terms of the new agreement, this would change. The Multicultural Information Centre, which is located in Ísafjörður, would be in charge of pairing municipalities with newly-arrived asylum grantees, and would also provide advice to municipalities on refugee- and resettlement-related issues. It would still be up to the asylum seekers whether or not to accept an invitation from a municipality to resettle there. Additionally, the Directorate of Labor would ensure Icelandic lessons and social education to newly arrived asylum grantees.

Ásmundur is pleased with the committee’s proposals and is looking forward to seeing them become a reality. “This is a fundamental change that’s been in the works for a considerable amount of time,” he said. “It’s really gratifying to see it getting started now.”