For crisis-weary Icelanders, it only gets worse

REYKJAVIK Wed Nov 3, 2010 10:24pm EDT

Police officers patrol the area around Iceland's parliament (R) during a protest in Reykjavik October 1, 2010. Reuters/Ingolfur Juliusson

Police officers patrol the area around Iceland's parliament (R) during a protest in Reykjavik October 1, 2010. Reuters/Ingolfur Juliusson

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REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - The call for help starts with a posting on Facebook. Members of a loose-knit group known as the Icelandic "Home Guard" hear of a foreclosure, share details and meet on site to tell authorities to get lost.

For Arnar Mar Thorisson, an unemployed construction worker, the turnout of 50 Home Guard members was enough to lift his spirits as he waited for the sheriff to come. He and his 11-year-old son were due to be evicted from a flat bought six years ago, when the economy was booming.

"They will have to carry me out of my house," said Thorisson, standing in a messy, unheated kitchen. An oven sat in the middle of the floor, ready for hauling away. A deluxe coffee maker rested on a counter, a reminder of the good times.

At face value, it appears Iceland has been through the worst. The island's currency has staged a partial recovery, interest rates are much lower and economic growth is in sight.

But on the ground, Icelanders say life has never been harder. There has been little to no relief from the massive piles of debt, many of which were linked to inflation and as a result soared as prices took off.

"People are now running out of their savings," said Fridrik O Fridriksson, chairman of Iceland's Home Coalition, a volunteer group which advises the government on housing matters.

"They are selling furniture to meet basic expenses like food, electricity and heat," he said, adding that foreclosures have increased threefold this year.

Two years after the financial crisis struck, the queues at Iceland's weekly free food stations such as the Church Aid and the Icelandic Family Help Center are longer than ever.

Almost a quarter of households on this island of 320,000 have had trouble meeting payments, the Central Bank has said. Nearly 4 in 10 households are worth less than their mortgages.

"People feel it under their skin. There's a lot of anger," said Magnus Magnusson, a professor at Bifrost University. "The government is cutting everything it can. I don't think things are going to pick up next year."

TOO LATE FOR SOME HOMEOWNERS

A demonstration by nearly 10,000 people in October, when people pelted keys and eggs at parliament, recalled the protests in early 2009, which led to the resignation of the island's government and set the stage for a political shift to the left.

Tension is rising again as people are forced out of their homes and endure what many call a humiliating auction process.

More protests are planned Thursday as parliament convenes.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has described Iceland's real estate crash as an "almost perfect storm."

Fridriksson said an IMF delegation from Washington had requested a meeting with the Home Coalition this week to discuss developments. His group meanwhile is talking to the government about what it could do to support homeowners.

"We have to correct the mortgages, we have to get the interest rates down, we have to implement some new laws and quite big changes on the loan system itself," he said.

Iceland's finance minister told Reuters new measures could be introduced to help the 10,000 to 15,000 households that are in the most trouble -- most of whom had taken out big loans from 2005 to 2008 just before the crisis.

Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir said a specially appointed committee was working on proposals. "I'm hoping that that is going to happen next week," she told Reuters.

But the measures may come too late for Thorisson, who circles his flat, offering coffee and a small spread of bread and butter, bananas and jam, to Home Guard members bundled up in coats and woolly hats.

The protesters blocked off his front yard with yellow tape. They cheered when word finally comes that the authorities are not coming today. They won the battle, at least for now.

"I think it's more important that people have their houses rather than banks having more and more profits," said a 23-year-old student protester who came to help. "I think they've had enough."

(Additional reporting by Birna Bjornsdottir; Editing by Diana Abdallah)

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