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A Greek tragedy unfolds in Athens

Abandoned buildings lie empty in the commercial districts of Athens, as the homeless lie hopeless on the streets in front of them. Why can’t one balance out the other?

Across the city of Athens, 300,000 houses and flats are empty. Where most capitals suffer from a shortage of housing, a combination of changing demographics and the financial crisis has led to a surfeit in the Greek capital.

Built in three distinct waves, most Athenian neighbourhoods are of mixed character. The ‘Neoclassical’ – the last strongholds of the city’s old aristocratic roots, built mostly in the 19th century and architecturally closer to the capitals of central Europe with heavy external decoration and attention to detail – sit alongside the plain grey high-rises built seemingly overnight in the late ’50s to host a swelling population arriving to find work after the country was devastated by a bloody civil war.

A third wave – modern buildings sporting bold lines and colours – lasted from the ‘golden years’ of the early ’90s to the onset of the crisis in the late ’00s. Since then, development has stagnated. And aside from some ageing buildings downtown, few need replacing.

As Greeks sprawled out to the suburbs, downtown neighbourhoods were taken over by successive waves of immigration. Neighbourhoods, generally formerly poor but also sometimes aristocratic like that of Victoria, became hotbeds of a new, multicultural landscape. Now, they’re emptying out.

Thanks to a lack of job prospects, and escalating violence from far-right groups such as the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, neighbourhoods like Victoria that once seemed destined to be the multicultural hubs of an otherwise largely homogeneous city are seeing the people that revived them abandon their efforts.

In his office in Exarchia, Nasim Lomani, an Afghani who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, says that he has seen many of his long-time friends, who sought to make these places home, leave after realising there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Some 164,959 of legal status left in 2011-2012 alone. Many more who never managed to get their paperwork together must also have left the country.

What you could dub the ‘stigmata of the crisis’ extend from the central square of Omonoia. Commercial and residential properties once considered high value, lie empty. Over the years, immigrant communities made their home here. Now the crisis has driven them away, and along with them a lifeline to the city’s centre.

In addition to the exodus of immigrants, young Greeks facing a 25 per cent unemployment rate or low-paid jobs that can barely pay the rent return to their family homes, leaving smaller properties – usually preferred by students and young professionals – uninhabited. There is hardly any distinction between the kinds of homes and office spaces left empty. New, old, on main roads or in alleys: Athens is being hollowed out.

Ahmed Moavia, president of the Greek Migrants’ Forum, claims that 60 per cent of immigrants have already left. He came to Greece in the late ’70s from Sudan. ‘For instance, there were 2,700 Moroccans registered in Greece’, he said in a recent interview. ‘Now there’s only 800.’

At the same time, around 11,000 people remain homeless in Athens, with the number rising to 20,000 across Greece. And although you might expect initiatives to have developed around housing the homeless using empty properties, they are few and far between.

One such initiative is ‘Let’s Enter Empty Houses’, organised along anarcho-syndicalist lines. It aims to house immigrants in empty buildings around Athens. But time and again the state has cracked down on such actions. After an extensive police operation to take measures against squatters, numerous promises were made for new roles for some of the buildings: that they will be turned into schools, social spaces etc. So far, nothing has happened.

One person from another (now largely inactive) network tells me that the law is very quick to shut down such attempts. Despite the fact that under the left-wing Syriza government the crackdowns against squats have stalled, local authorities are not tolerant towards building take-overs.

M (under condition of anonymity) said, ‘activists are now focusing on housing immigrants arriving from the islands who don’t want to stay here for long and don’t want to interact with the authorities, in case they’re trapped in Greece. As the flow of immigration has increased almost 500 per cent since last year, this transitionary mentality is changing what can be done about them.’

Stories of migrants finding shelter in empty buildings across the islands and Athens are plentiful. But even if you combine the homeless population with the immigrants who need shelter, it looks as though will still be plenty of housing to go around.

In the past two years, Athens has become a significantly more international city. Artists and journalists are moving here attracted by the vibrant lifestyle, the weather and the affordable rent. While official statistics are not yet available, the trend is obvious in the streets. It’s not yet as big a current as the one leaving the country, but is a significant change in narrative, a bid to reclaim the city’s ‘cool’.

Renting in Greece, however, is a bureaucratic nightmare. Reforming the sclerotic rental market would provide a boost to Athens as a whole. It would make hesitant Greek wannabe renters see the move more positively, but also encourage the aforementioned international trend.

In this climate, the Greek government should stop expecting activist initiatives to pick up the slack. Athens’ plentiful housing stock could help alleviate all three major issues the country is facing right now: poverty, immigration, and demographic and financial renewal. Instead, the sight of empty shops along the city’s main streets predominates.

Investment funds are already buying up large chunks of downtown Athens. The solution to the housing issue looks as though it will be to artificially limit supply by leaving properties empty to bump up the value of others.

But if we were to imagine a positive future for Athens, and indeed for other cities that might be faced with similar issues, it would be one where a resource becomes valuable by putting it to work for the greater social good.

The empty houses and neighbourhoods should be filled with people and potential. Introducing new schemes for providing cheap or even free accommodation to artists, for instance, could go a long way. Otherwise, a couple of decades down the line, Athens could see a situation where one of its greatest assets has abandoned the city.

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