The increase in rents across Europe has fuelled the debate on the need for public intervention. Recently the European Parliament adopted a report on decent and affordable housing and is moving forward with a directive and measures. The issue was also addressed by the World Bank in a recent study.
European organisations for the right to housing propose the regulation of the private rental housing market (FEANTSA 2021) and the development of an “Ethical Rental Sector”(FEANTSA 2018), the need to regulate short-term rentals, but also to limit the commercial exploitation of the housing stock by big investors.
Thanks to this particular context, there has been a rekindling of the debate regarding the need to regulate rents (rent control, rent cap) through legislative interventions9. The rampant surge in costs has led to efforts for new institutional interventions, such as the restrictions imposed on rent increases in the 2020 Catalan regional law (a measure that was incorporated in the Spanish housing law in 2021) or the reintroduction of revaluation controls in Berlin. Both attempts were met with strong reactions, and unfortunately were both overturned by the constitutional courts of their respective countries, causing once again uncertainty for tenants and a new wave of revaluations.
Discussions on that direction haven’t developed to such an extent in Greece. Still, the housing crisis issue is becoming increasingly present in the public dialogue sphere as well as in the media.
Unlike other European countries, in Greece, there haven’t been any strong trade unions or tenants’ associations historically, and therefore there aren’t any strong movements or demands regarding this particular issue. The Panhellenic Renters’ Protection Association (PASYPE) has a limited intervention capacity, while in Athens the issue has recently been brought to the fore by citizens’ movements (e.g. Unreal estate).
The exacerbation of housing difficulties has also stirred up the political debate, with subsequent announcements concerning the government’s intention to adopt measures and proposals on behalf of the opposition. The proposals mainly concern the reactivation of schemes similar to those of the Greek Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK), the development of a social rental housing sector and rent subsidies.
Proposals are also submitted by local authorities, and more specifically, there have been efforts made by the Municipality of Thessaloniki in order to create a housing agency that would operate along the lines of social rental companies.
The international experience of regulating the effects of short-term leases comprises some very elaborate measures. In most countries in Europe and the USA, it is usually local governments that are in charge of making regulatory interventions, as the impact of the phenomenon is directly linked to the specific conditions in each municipality or neighbourhood.
Regulatory and/or restrictive measures vary and often include: taxing STRs, limiting the total annual allowable duration of a property rental via Airbnb (San Francisco and Amsterdam), requiring that owners live at the property at the same time as tenants during Airbnb rentals (New York and Berlin), limiting the number of Airbnb rentals allowed per neighbourhood (Berlin and Barcelona), and other spatially defined restrictions (Toronto, Palma de Mallorca, Paris, Barcelona), etc. (Balampanidis, Papatzani, Pettas, 2019).
The existing institutional framework in Greece does not really address the serious and alarming effects of Airbnb. The relevant Law 4472/2017 (Articles 83 and 84) is limited to horizontal tax collection measures, basically requiring Airbnb properties to be declared to the appropriate authorities in order to be taxed. In addition, Greece (like many other countries) continues to consider Airbnb leases as an activity that’s part of the “sharing economy” rather than a product of “platform economy”, and continues to treat short-term rentals as “urban real estate leases” rather than tourist accommodation rentals. At an institutional level, therefore, there is a need for an appropriate and precise definition of Airbnb activity, from which the relevant regulations as well as moderate to stricter restrictions that will be spatially defined and socially equitable, can be derived.
Already the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE), the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels and several Local Authorities in various regions of the country have expressed strong concerns regarding both the resulting competition and the phenomenon of overtourism in general, as well as proposals for dealing with the overloading/exceeding of the capacity of tourist destinations.
At the same time, there is a need to introduce relevant safeguards in the event of institutional developments that indirectly exacerbate the scale and negative effects of Airbnb, such as those related to investments and the financialisation of housing.
At a European Union level, the debate on Airbnb regulation remains open, with the company consistently arguing against regulating the Airbnb market. The results of a recent public consultation on the institutional response to the negative effects of Airbnb are mainly awaited, as well as possible actions to limit or even abolish golden visas.
As the interest in large investments in residential real estate is growing while at the same time the difficulty in accessing affordable (rented and owned) housing is constantly increasing for an ever broader spectrum of social groups, there is an urgent need to put a halt to the commercialisation of housing and to the opportunities that are constantly opening up for speculation on real estate, like, for example, through the Golden Visa programme. An encouraging development is the fact that Members of the European Parliament are calling for the control and restriction or even banning of “Golden Passports” that raise multiple ethical, legal, economic and other issues.
Alongside the halt that should be put on the various types of institutional facilitation of housing commercialisation, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive and decisive protection of the right to housing, through a number of possible interventions and tools such as, indicatively, the institutional protection of primary residence, the containment of rents, the subsidisation of rental housing, the production and allocation of social housing, the regulation of the short-term rental market, etc.
Relevant measures reportedly being considered at a central and local level (for the rent price containment or the creation of social housing in Athens) are not just unconvincing (and in any case, for the time being, they have not been implemented), but furthermore, and in a contradictory and alarming way, they are hostile and dismissive of the role that the state ( rather than private individuals) could play in protecting the right to housing.
Relatively recent FEANTSA surveys have brought the issue forward and argue for the use of vacant properties to address acute housing needs.6
Depending on the regional characteristics and causes of the phenomenon, different approaches and strategies have been developed, such as the introduction of fines and taxes, the obligation to dispose of closed houses (for large owners)7 incentives for repair and renting, programmes for the reuse of buildings for other uses (industrial buildings, office buildings, public buildings, etc.) and their conversion into housing.
The proposed solutions are de facto local in nature, however, a number of tools and strategies could contribute to the development of similar initiatives in Greece, such as the setting up of mediation services between landlords and beneficiaries of housing support, with incentives and guarantees for small landlords or broader partnerships with larger landlords (public institutions, foundations, churches, banks, etc.) for the implementation of affordable housing programmes. Along similar lines, the Municipality of Thessaloniki has initiated an effort to develop a procedure that would allow the identification and utilisation of vacant properties owned by private and public entities with a view to providing affordable housing, on the basis of the model of Social Rental Services.
The debate in Greece focuses more on the problems of mobilising private capital and on the absence of tools and administrative mechanisms for the repair of dilapidated, abandoned and listed buildings. In 2014, a draft law regarding abandoned, vacant and unidentified properties 8 was submitted, based on a study by the University of Thessaly, but it did not manage to get the necessary votes in order to be implemented.
A new institutional framework is currently under development, for the setting up of a registry of vacant properties per municipality as well as of a framework for their acquisition and use by a special private or public restoration body. Both approaches do not seem to include the social benefit parameter as a counterpart to the effort and possible public funding of the renovation of private properties.
On the other hand, at a time when housing needs are becoming more acute, there are calls, particularly from some municipalities, for the acquisition and use of unidentified properties in order to implement housing programmes. The need for the utilisation of abandoned buildings in the Municipality of Athens, and for the establishment of social housing (combined with the release of space through demolitions) was emphasised at a conference on the development of the real estate market in Greece (October 2021), but it is not clear in which broader strategy it would fit in and what process would be used to achieve this.
On the contrary, the invocation of social housing in the context of discussions concerning announcements of urban redevelopments and interventions that have a significant impact on the daily life and the structure of the Athens city centre (such as the relocation of 9 ministries to PYRKAL or the promotion of tourism-related investments in a large number of downtown properties), turns the housing policy objective into an excuse rather than an urgent priority for public policy.
The “European “Renovation Wave” strategy” 9 for energy upgrading of the ageing building stock in European cities and tackling energy poverty is a major opportunity to intervene in the vacant building stock with social terms.
Although there has been a call for complementarity between social and energy/climate goals in the context of European public funding for building renovations, in the end, this has not been adopted as a binding commitment by the European Union and was left to the Member States to plan strategies on the matter, based on their own agendas and priorities. In Greece, governmental planning so far has allocated very few resources to targeted housing and urban upgrading policies 10, while the way in which the policy of upgrading residential property has been implemented so far is rather problematic.11
The EU has, over the past years, issued guidelines and directives for the development of policies concerning young people, with no particular focus on the issue of housing. Still, the increase in the number of young people who are experiencing housing insecurity and/or homelessness is a development of growing concern to organisations working around the issue of housing in Europe.
In addition to the FEANTSA report that is sounding the alarm regarding youth homelessness rates in 2021, Housing Europe published the “Housing the EU Youth” Research Briefing in 2018, while detailed policy proposals on youth housing have been developed in the UK (e.g. by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Rugg – Quilgars 2015).6
The issue has often found itself at the centre of public debate in Spain, with the most recent development being the enactment of the rent subsidy for young people up to 35 years of age.7
In Greece, the focus of public intervention (and investment) has always been on supporting the purchase of primary residence (which should be exempt from real estate transfer tax)8 and the low taxation of parental bequests and donations for the acquisition of primary residence.
After 2019, several young people with zero or very low income benefit from the rent subsidy9, and finally there is also a student housing benefit for the duration of one’s studies.10
At the same time, for-profit business activity in student and youth housing (PPPs for student residences, rented apartments, coliving 11, etc.), has started to be developed in Greece – a rapidly growing sector in other European countries.
Support for young people has been at the epicentre of recent announcements by the government (for young couples)12 and the opposition (rent subsidies for young people). However, the need for a long-term housing strategy for young people and, more broadly, a strategy that would support their emancipation and independence has not been put on the table yet.
The challenge is therefore to develop a comprehensive framework to support young people taking their first steps into the labour market and on their path towards independent housing. This framework should also include the promotion of collective and cooperative non-profit housing models. Such models are obviously not only relevant for young people, but they certainly represent a social group that is more open to alternative formats and experimentation with new ways of living.
More than ever before, there is now an urgent need to protect primary home ownership on socially just terms, through comprehensive public housing policies. In this context, it is also important to safeguard the social spread of home ownership so it can still be an option for all types of household incomes and to protect micro-ownership by restricting processes leading to the accumulation and speculative exploitation of housing.
Although at a European level priority is given to the development of social, nonprofit and cooperative housing as a response to the housing crisis, policies need to be developed that will allow access to affordable primary home ownership, with social criteria, in the context of a comprehensive social housing policy (e.g. offering favourable loan and guarantee conditions, tax exemptions, etc.).
The issue has also emerged in Greece, as opinions are being expressed and government plans are underway to reactivate a public policy that would support young households wanting to buy their first home.
Caution is required in order to ensure that the extension of credit does not trigger a new cycle of speculation and rising house prices that may lead to unsustainable borrowing and unsustainable over-indebtedness for households.
The housing sector should be protected from financialisation and aggressive speculative investments,13 promoting housing as a right and not as a means to achieve more profit, by formulating the appropriate institutional framework and tools to safeguard this right.
At the same time, it is important to reinforce alternative forms of ownership such as cooperatives, community land trusts(CLTs) and other intermediate and collaborative forms of ownership.
The new provisions included in the Clean Energy for All Europeans package present how to tackle energy poverty at EU level in a more comprehensive and coherent way besides pricing or social welfare measures.
In Greece’s case, three important steps are the monitoring of energy poverty, the National Strategy and Action Plan, and the energy upgrade of the building stock.
A key requirement is the development of common tools for identifying and monitoring energy poverty. The European Energy Poverty Observatory is part of the Commission’s efforts to address energy poverty in all EU countries, proposing, inter alia, four different primary indicators 2 to define energy poverty as well as secondary indicators and other housing-related data.
Similarly, in Greece, it is important to implement and enhance the role of the National Energy Poverty Observatory (EPEF), with measures such as its establishment as an independent institution, ensuring sustainable funding and staffing, etc. The statutory purpose of the EPEF is to raise awareness among the public and policy makers on energy poverty in Greece. Unfortunately, since 2014, it has not been active judging by the fact that its database hasn’t been updated.
National Strategy and Action Plan
In September 2021, the National Action Plan to tackle energy poverty was completed. Indicatively, it includes concessional tariffs, subsidies or power benefits, energy audits, awareness and educational campaigns, the provision of favourable conditions in energy upgrade subsidy schemes, the promotion of actions for the relief of vulnerable households, support for the creation of Energy Communities that would use Renewable Energy Sources, etc.
Greece has set specific quantitative goals to reduce energy poverty by 50% by 2025 and by 75%, by 2030.
Although the effort to tackle energy poverty is not organised or systematic, there are some policy measures that can somewhat help the most vulnerable groups. These include the implementation of the Social Domestic Tariff (SDT) as well as special consumer protection measures, such as a minimum 40-day deadline for settling energy bills, the possibility to pay in interest-free instalments, the lifting of the supplier’s right to demand a power-cut order for overdue electricity bills, and the subsidy for heating oil and gas.
Building stock energy upgrade
As stated in the strategic documents of the European Union, energy poverty and the increased cost of access to energy resources cannot be addressed only by subsidising the energy needs of households but should be accompanied by the reduction of energy needs, mainly through the substantial energy upgrading of the housing stock.
In its National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP), Greece has set a target to reduce final energy consumption by 38% by 2030, compared to 2017, across all economic sectors.3 In this context, targets have been set for the renovation and replacement of residential buildings with new ones with near-zero energy consumption, a policy that aims to both stimulate the construction sector and provide significant economic and operational benefits to households by upgrading their living conditions. More specifically, the goal is to upgrade an average of 60,000 buildings or building units per year to achieve the deep renovation of 12-15% of all dwellings by 2030.
An essential tool for the energy upgrade of the housing stock is the “Energy Saving at Home” programme, which has been implemented since 2011 and, according to data from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (YPEN), has contributed to the energy upgrade of 128,500 homes over the last decade.4 Although the programme is designed to provide more favourable conditions for low-income households, its implementation so far shows that it cannot address the energy poverty issue that the most vulnerable groups are facing, since there are significant structural hurdles, such as lack of own resources, bureaucracy, poor credit scores, insufficient access to information and technical expertise, while vulnerable tenants are also affected by the subsequent increase in rental costs.5
More specifically, in the most recent funding cycle of the “Energy Saving at Home II” programme, households with an annual family income of less than €20,000 per year are subsidised up to 70% for energy saving interventions. However, a very large share of people belonging in the first two income categories of the programme, find it difficult to meet its requirements. Moreover, as a study on the spatial and social footprint of the 2015 Energy Saving at Home Programme revealed, the spatial distribution of funds and the average subsidy amount show an advantageous concentration in middle and upper-middle class areas.6
What is needed, therefore, is a comprehensive policy that would combine the goals of energy upgrading (energy saving and renewable energy sources), with goals of increased access to adequate and affordable housing, and overall improvement of living conditions. This policy requires the development of mechanisms at a local level 7 to provide technical, legal and financial support to vulnerable and economically disadvantaged populations, so that they can equally participate in the green and energy transition with social justice.
Addressing homelessness is the 19th key principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The EU’s main directions towards achieving this goal are: the adoption of long-term, integrated strategies to tackle homelessness at a national, regional and local level, 5 as well as the introduction of effective policies to prevent evictions, as assessed in the Social Investment Package (SIP) adopted by the European Commission in 2013.
In June 2021, the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness was launched as a joint action at a European level aiming to coordinate Member States’ interventions and utilise EU resources. The aim of the initiative is to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and best practices, to improve the available data and monitoring, and to strengthen cooperation between all actors aiming to combat homelessness.
Organisations working with homeless people are also calling for action along the same lines, sounding the alarm on how the situation regarding housing exclusion in Europe is actually worsening.
The Housing First model, which prioritises the provision of permanent housing (rather than considering housing as the ultimate goal) is considered to be an innovative model for tackling homelessness. Indeed, the pandemic experience has reinforced the move towards direct and supported housing models, as opposed to the creation of more shelters and mass dormitories, as expressed in a relevant FEANTSA statement.
In Greece, although programmes and services for the housing of vulnerable groups have increased during the crisis, their future remains rather precarious, since they depend mainly on temporary funding such as the PA (Partnership Agreement for the Development Framework) and have not been integrated into a more comprehensive and long-term planning. The introduction of regular benefits such as the Housing Benefit and the Minimum Guaranteed Income (MGA), which can form the basis for an integrated and interconnected grid of provisions and services, is considered as a positive development.
It is crucial that Municipalities mobilise 6to address homelessness at a local level, building on their recent experience in housing specific vulnerable groups such as homeless people living on the streets, refugees and asylum seekers. Notably, the Municipality of Athens has developed important, innovative initiatives in this field, by utilising the ESTIA programme for the housing of asylum seekers as well as the pilot project Curing the Limbo for the housing of beneficiaries of international protection. This experience and know-how can be used to design and implement similar programmes for broader social groups and with a longer-term perspective.
In Greece, too, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive housing policy, with intervention axes both for the prevention of housing insecurity as well as for the rehabilitation/reintegration of vulnerable groups. Given that housing insecurity is not an issue affecting solely the homeless, it is necessary to formulate a policy that will not only target extreme forms of homelessness, but will also create an integrated inclusive protection grid for all kinds of vulnerability. This should take into account the dynamic and multifaceted nature of housing insecurity and homelessness, and address the needs and specificities of each group in a targeted manner.
Today, in the context of the lack of housing policies, housing insecurity, rapidly increasing renting costs, the emergence of new “players” in the market, and touristification trends, it is obvious that interventions in urban space still do not address their impact on issues of access to housing and at the same time are mainly limited to projects aimed at a (debatable) aesthetic upgrading of the city as well as the reinforcement of specific activities and sectors (e.g. tourism, leisure), following the neoliberal shift in spatial policies that has been underway since 2000. 8
Interventions cannot be limited to large-scale “showcase” projects, as they have been described, which often concern individual areas in some cities, but must also be extended to residential neighbourhoods, especially to those that in previous years have been marked by the impoverishment of the population and degradation due to the long-standing deficit and austerity policies during the economic recession years.
On the contrary, it is necessary for Greece to move forward with experiments and innovations for an integrated urban development as well as urban policies that would focus on solving contemporary housing challenges 9 (which are inextricably linked to the development of urban space).
Moreover, the direct link that exists between urban interventions and investments and the availability of affordable housing should be highlighted. There is a need for urban policies and urban planning to take precautionary measures with regard to the negative impact that they may have on the issue of access to housing and on the estimated property price (upward) changes.
All of the above cannot go forward unless there is a mechanism in place that would be encharged with the documentation (data collection) and monitoring (formulation of indicators and tools) in order to update and inform all planning (evidence-based), and with the continuous evaluation of the economic, environmental and social impacts of urban policies. The creation of an observatory is also stipulated in the 2014 Regulatory Plan for Athens (No. 37), but has not been implemented to date. Similar methodologies have been developed in the context of scientific works and are a key direction of international and European organisations.
Finally, it is crucial to recognise, on a practical level, the importance of participation as a right that citizens have in democratic governance, but also to view it as a prerequisite for a just city.
In Greece, public consultation is limited to legal obligations, i.e. discussions in regional and municipal councils and the publication of the respective environmental impact study when an urban planning project/ intervention has been completed and approved. Instead, what is required is the establishment of procedures and spaces for continuous, open consultation and participation at all stages of planning, incorporating demands and different perspectives on the city.