If you walk up Laugavegur on a summer day, as you pass the gate that blocks downtown car traffic, you might notice that the cars are detoured down the impossibly small side street of Vatnsstígur. Amongst the few buildings on this one-block lane is a boarded-up house, the steps to its front door missing, the facade liberally decorated with half-assed graffiti. This is Vatnsstígur 4. You might not know it to look at it, but this house was ground zero in a bold anarchist experiment in Reykjavík nearly ten years ago, launched in the wake of the financial crisis. While it was ultimately unsuccessful, lasting only about a week, it brought the right to shelter to the forefront of the ongoing discussion about what needed changing in Iceland.
Ye Olden Reykjavík
Vatnsstígur 4 is a very old house, built in 1901. It fell on hard times in the 21st century, and stood abandoned for many years. Bergdís Bjarnadóttir, who did her BA thesis on empty houses in Reykjavík in 2014, was able to find Reykjavík City Hall minutes about what to do with the property going back to at least 2006.
Abandoned houses in Reykjavík are, more often than not, used by people who do not have anywhere else to sleep, or kids looking for someplace to party away from the prying eyes of adults. All that changed in April 2009.
During this time, Iceland was still reeling from the financial crisis, and the emergency coalition government was struggling to find its footing as elections neared. Many people, saddled with housing loans, found themselves completely unable to pay for a roof over their heads and faced homelessness as a real possibility. It was in this climate that anarchists decided to not only occupy Vatnsstígur 4, but to do so openly.
The squat begins
Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, an anarchist who was a part of the Vatnsstígur 4 squat, told us about the impetus for the project.
“There was a group of people who, at that time, formed a movement of anarchists and radical leftists in Iceland,” he said. “We felt there was an empty space there, after the collapse of the government. The protests had stopped, people had accepted that there was a new government, but this was an in-between time, this emergency government. We were thinking about how to use this momentum that we had gained in the protests to further our cause. One of those ideas was to squat houses.”
But rather than simply occupying the abandoned property in stealth, they decided to go public with their move. They fixed the place up, painted the walls, and even opened a “free shop”; a sort of trading post where people exchange goods for free. They sent out a press release announcing their intentions. The response from a public already struggling to keep a roof over their heads was primarily positive, and anarchist news services were quick to spread the story around the world. Things were going pretty well for a few days there.
The owner of the property, however, was none too pleased. He contacted the police, saying the squatters were trespassing, emphasising that he urgently needed the property vacated, as he had great plans for it.
“On Monday, the police came and said ‘You have to leave the house, and you have this many hours to do it.’ Instead of leaving, we decided to call for a protest,” Snorri recalls. The turnout for this protest was so great that the police didn’t show up. “We spent the whole day barricading the house. We took everything that was in there and blocked all the entrances. We removed the stairs leading to the front door. We were prepared for the police to come.”
And come they did, in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The fight would be an intense one. In photos taken at the scene and posted on the now-defunct anarchist website Aftaka, occupiers within the house can be seen holding a large boxspring against a door as police visibly try to force their way inside. The anarchists went into the second floor, barricading themselves in there, further frustrating the police. Ultimately, the police would need an industrial saw attached to the end of a crane to begin sawing apart part of the second-floor wall and seize the occupiers.
Amazingly, no charges were filed against the anarchists, even though they could have conceivably been charged with both trespassing and resisting arrest. No explanation was ever given for the decision.
What was the rush all about?
Despite the great urgency with which the property owner wanted the occupiers out of the building, Vatnsstígur 4 would sit boarded up and vacant from that point onwards. In City Council minutes that the Grapevine reviewed, Vatnsstígur 4 seldom comes up in discussion, and when it does, the Council ultimately votes to postpone the matter.
That changed last February. A City Council resolution dated February 24 shows that an agreement had been reached for the city to buy the house from the current owners, the Housing Finance Fund (HFF), and then sell it to a company called Leiguíbúðir ehf. The new owners have also agreed to HFF’s conditions for the sale; namely, that the house be used for residential housing, and that part of it must be devoted to low-income earners.
For his part, Snorri regrets nothing.
“I think we can be proud of this,” he says. “I think it affected society in many ways. It created a discussion about the right for a roof over one’s head as opposed to the right to own buildings and capitalize on keeping them empty. I believe we also challenged the minority government and reminded them of their stated priority of saving people’s homes.” Snorri also cites the positive response the brief squat at Vatnsstígur 4 received, from neighbours and visitors alike, and the improvements they made to the property. “We painted the walls these nice colours, but the owners went back and painted it grey. It’s like they were trying to prove our point.”