From Iceland — Visitors And Locals

Visitors And Locals

Published September 2, 2014

The rental market in a nutshell

Visitors And Locals
Haukur S. Magnússon Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Axel Sigurðarson

The rental market in a nutshell

While tourism has certainly been playing a critical role in bolstering Iceland’s economy, like any market force, it is not without its rippling effects. Property owners hoping to cash in on the tourism gravy train are finding it far more lucrative to rent to tourists than locals, as those on vacation will often anticipate having to drop a month’s rent on a few days or weeks of lodging. Unsurprisingly, this new trend effectively drives up rental prices to a point where many locals find they can no longer afford apartments in their neighbourhoods—while others are asked to vacate their homes to make way for high-rolling tourists.

Jóhann Már Sigurbjörnsson, chair of the Renters’ Association of Iceland, recently told reporters that “the government, local authorities, and even labour unions must respond to this. There are thousands of apartments going off the rental market and onto the tourist market. Nothing is coming in their place.”

Indeed, taking a look at the Facebook group Leiga (“Rent”), one can get a pretty clear picture of the situation as it currently stands: you’ll encounter entire families searching for a place to rent, for months on end, while landlords offer tiny apartments in far-flung locations for upwards of 120,000 ISK per month—often asking three-months’ rent as “insurance deposit.” Those without a loose half million laying around are hard pressed to find a roof over their heads.

The situation has become so absurd that local artist Julia Mai decided to parody it, with her “Cardboard Box Renovation” campaign. Posting a photo of an empty cardboard box with a sign reading “AirBnB! 20,000 per night” on GoFundMe, the campaign aims to raise $6,000 to “renovate it to make it more attractive for the tourist market in Reykjavik”.

You’re soliciting funds ($6,000!) to renovate a cardboard box to make it “more attractive for the tourist market in Reykjavík,” with the idea of renting it out on Airbnb. Surely, you can’t be serious. Who’d rent a cardboard box?
No one would willingly spend a night living in a box like this, especially as it’s kind of small—it would only fit a third you, for instance. But that’s the whole point.

Is this satire, then? A joke? What’s your target? Folks who rent apartments through Airnb? Homeowners who rent out their apartments via that increasingly popular online service?
This here is a very serious joke! And I don’t at all expect I’ll be renting out that box. I wouldn’t say I’m targeting any landlords on an individual, personal level, (although I despise the greed some of them display). My joke is rather directed at whoever is in charge of regulating the market, and is obviously neglecting his or her job.

It’s true that Airbnb is affecting Reykjavík’s rental market—indeed, the chair of Iceland’s Renters’ Association claims that locals simply can’t compete with tourists on the rental market. Have you personally been inconvenienced by Airbnb? What’s the story here?
Well, yes. For example, I am currently in the process looking for a new apartment, which is a really rather hard and frustrating endeavour. I was given until September to evacuate my current apartment, which the owners plan to renovate this coming winter and renting and then letting it out on Airbnb four the 2015 tourist season. I have a couple of weeks to find something [note, this interview was conducted a couple of weeks ago. At the time of publication, it does not look like Julia has found a proper place to stay].

So you’d say there is a shortage of rental apartments in downtown Reykjavík?
Oh, I’d say! The few ones that remain, would-be tenants crowd around them like seagulls fighting for a half-eaten Bónus rækjusamloka on a Sunday morning.

But, why don’t you move somewhere else, out of 101 Reykjavík? Tourists are hardly flocking to places like Breiðholt or Grafarvogur—those neighbourhoods must have a few cheap, relatively nice apartments available?
Perhaps. But then I might as well leave the country! I spent the last eight years living and working in 101 Reykjavík, my son will be commencing his education in Austurbæjarskóli this fall. The 101 area has up-until now provided me with a very good quality life, and I don’t want to leave that behind because of some people’s unbridled opportunism and the city and national government’s lack of foresight and oversight. I would, however, like to visit Breiðholt to see that pretty Erró mural. I hear it’s really nicely placed.

What’s the worst-case scenario you envision, if this trend continues?
A growing number of angry, homeless Icelanders and disappointed tourists who came here for something other than meeting other tourists in what seems to be a giant outdoor airport shopping mall strewn with tax-free polar bears dolls and inspirational puffins.

The death of 101, if you will!

How would you propose to solve the problem? Should authorities further crack down on Airbnb rentals? Or should the annual number of tourists to Iceland be limited?
Limiting the annual amount of tourists sounds like a bad idea. Tourists are people too, and they should be treated accordingly. I’d like to see the state regulate and limit the amount Airbnb’s in a given area, and also try to go all 1984 on those folks that illegally rent their apartments.

Let’s say you manage to raise the requested $6,000—how will you spend it? There’s only so much one can do to a cardboard box, right?
I’ll never raise that much, obviously. This isn’t about the money. The campaign has raised 1,025 dollars, but out of those, 1,000 were from my dad who thought it was funny to help me out with money through this avenue, rather than depositing it to my bank account.

But OK. Let’s say I got $6,000. I’d cover the box in gold, and claim it a contemporary art piece.

Reportage: Paul Fontaine

Interview: Haukur S. Magnússon

See Also: Tourism Having Effects On Rental Market


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