Magdalena Kwiatkowska, member of the Efling board, moved into an apartment owned by Bjarg íbúðafélag in Grafarvogur about a month ago and she and her family have already settled in comfortably in their new home.
Bjarg is a non-profit renting company founded by ASÍ and BSRB and is designed to provide low-wage earning families in the labor market with secure long-term housing. The model is the so called rental homes – “Almene boliger” – common in several Nordic countries. Bjarg operates in collaboration with several municipalities on the building of apartments, with 563 apartments currently under construction and 500 additional ones currently being designed. The first apartment of Bjarg was handed over on June 20th and almost 70 renters have had apartments handed over since then. Magdalena was allocated an apartment on the top floor with high ceilings and a view over both the mountains and the city. The apartment, which covers 80 square meters, holds two spacious bedrooms and an open space with a kitchen and a living room. Her daughter enjoys having her own room for the first time and Magdalena painted it in her favorite colors. The entire apartment is especially beautiful and bright and it’s fair to say that Magdalena wore a bright smile when the journalist of Efling arrived.
Security is the most important thing
Magdalena’s daughter starts school this fall so the timing of the move couldn’t be better. Magdalena speaks of her gratitude for having housing security, now that her daughter has started school. Her schooling is not dependent on the whims of the landlord, as it was the last time, when the rental agreement stipulated a two-month period of notice. It’s safe to say that the rights and security of renters is not a high priority in the Icelandic rental market. Bjarg íbúðarfélag is created to improve the lot of low wage earners in the rental market, with an emphasis on housing security. The family members can live in the apartment all their life if they so choose. One can apply for a transfer to a larger or smaller apartment if one’s family circumstances change. Also, people are guaranteed not to lose their apartment if their lot improves and their wages go over the point outlined in the application process, but the cost of the rent will be elevated to that of the open rental market.
A child-friendly neighborhood close to services
When Fréttablað Eflingar arrived, Magdalena’s mother, Lucyna Dybka, was visiting. The two women are particularly pleased with the neighborhood and how child-friendly it is. The buildings which Bjarg is building in Grafarvogur these days form a circle around a common yard where, soon, there will be playground equipment and space enough for children to play. Many children have already moved into the houses and started playing in the yard, even though the equipment has not yet been installed there. We stand on the balcony overlooking the yard. Lucyna speaks of how great it is to be able to send the kids down into the yard to play in a safe environment. Their parents can watch them from the apartment. “Look!” Lucyna adds and points out the gas barbecues on almost all the balconies of the apartments which are now inhabited. “People are so pleased with having moved in here. They have already started barbecuing on the balcony. This is wonderful!”
One of the things which Magdalena with which is very pleased is the proximity of the apartment to supermarkets and various services. The shopping center Spöngin is next to the house and it has a Bónus supermarket, a pharmacy and various other stores. The two women lead me to the balcony on the northern side and show me that Spöngin is so close that people sometimes shop in Bónus and roll the trolley with the products all the way to their house. “Singularly convenient,” they say, laughing.
The situation in the Icelandic rental market
Magdalena and her family lived in a rental apartment at Skúlagata during the past two years. They rented the apartment, which covers almost 50 square meters, for almost the same amount of money as the new Bjarg-apartment, which is just under 30 square meters larger. Also, Magdalena receives housing benefits, which she didn’t receive at Skúlagata. She describes the situation in the rental market, where she was looking for an apartment two years ago, as horrendous. Low housing supply and extortionate rates were the order of the day. Many people came around to look at every apartment and fought for it. It was especially difficult for people of foreign origin to find housing. Magdalena was therefore very relieved when she got the apartment in Skúlagata, although it’s safe to say that the rent was extortionate, given the size of the apartment. Having to pay two months in advance along with the first month’s rent did not improve her lot. “This is common practice in the rental market,” says Magdalena. “People often have to pay as much as a million kronas when renting a small apartment, where the landlord can then cancel the lease on very short notice. This is obviously near impossible for low wage earners.” After having managed to pay the advance and the rent for the first month, Magdalena got a lease from the landlord. She took the lease to the local sheriff’s office to have it registered so that she could apply for housing benefits. At the local sheriff’s office she was told, however, that someone else had a registered lease for this address and she would need to ask the landlord to cancel it; that it must have been some mistake or oversight on his part. When she told the landlord about this and asked him to fix it, she found out that there had been no mistake. He made a threat that if she were to insist on housing benefits, he would cancel the lease and make a new one with a rent of 30 thousand kronas more. This reaction suggests that the landlord wanted to collect for himself the housing benefits to which Magdalena was entitled. As Magdalena was in a delicate situation and could not afford to lose the apartment, she accepted the scam. She knew that it was illegal but didn’t see it as important enough to lose the apartment over it.
An advance and the behavior of a landlord
That was not the only time when a landlord tried to swindle Magdalena. When she was told that she had been allocated an apartment at Bjarg, Magdalena cancelled the lease at Skúlagata. She gave long notice, much longer than the two months which the lease called for. It soon became evident that the landlord had no plans to repay Magdalena her advance. At first, he refused to acknowledge having been notified of her cancellation and he didn’t answer her calls or messages. When she got no response, Magdalena eventually sent a cancellation via registered post and when two months remained she stopped paying the rent, as she was entitled to do because it was a security deposit. After a lot of back and forth, the landlord agreed to the cancellation but started showing up in her apartment. “He walked in on me twice after dark during the two final months. He came, opened with a key without knocking and said that he was checking if I had moved out. I had told him exactly when I had planned to move out. When he first showed up I heard someone enter and thought it was my husband. Then I heard my daughter start crying and I walked into the living room where she had been playing and saw that the landlord was standing beside her. A man who she didn’t know at all.” Magdalena says that she was quite upset. That it had occurred to her that the landlord might have entered at any time. He might have entered when she wasn’t home. What did she know? There was at least no basis for trust.
I ask the two women whether many in their circle have similar stories to tell of Icelandic landlords. They tell me that many Poles who they know have been mistreated by landlords. Magdalena for instance says that she knows of no one who has been repaid their security deposit. That landlords find ways around paying. In many cases, landlords start unduly interfering in their lives, for example by forbidding renters to entertain guests. Lucyna says that if a renter is paying rent then he has a right to entertain guests and live as a human being, because that’s what he’s paying for. She agrees with Magdalena that foreigners are often mistreated in the Icelandic rental market. Therefore, it is obviously a relief for Magdalena to have been allocated an apartment at Bjarg, where renters have a right to make the apartment their own; paint, hang paintings and entertain guests. But what’s most important to Magdalena is to be secure. “No one’s going to toss you out,” she says, “or forbid you to have people come over or walking in on you at night!” “They have reached shelter,” says Lucyna, who is obviously very relieved and grateful for the new situation in which her daughter and grandchild find themselves. This is very true. After having heard Magdalena speak of her experience on the Icelandic rental market, it is fair to say that Bjarg provides families of low wage earners with shelter from the difficult circumstances in the Icelandic rental market.