The issue of rising rents, combined with the overall increase in housing costs and the cost of living, is now one of the biggest concerns for citizens, and especially for young people. 1
Access to rental housing is becoming increasingly difficult as rental prices are very high in relation to incomes and salaries, with a continuously increasing tendency in the past few years. Especially for people who are living on the minimum wage and low-income households, the rent to income ratio is prohibitive. 2
Also, the increasing difficulties in accessing home ownership and the limitation of families’ ability to support their younger members increase the importance of the rental sector for younger generations, immigrants and, more broadly, for those who do not own a house or have no possibility to use a family asset.
The excessive increase in rents is not just a Greek problem. Across Europe, there has been a significant increase in purchase and rental prices since 2010. The decrease in housing production during the recession, but also mainly the increase in speculative investments in real estate, housing financialisation and pressures from the touristic use of the housing stock are regarded as the main reasons.
The problem is particularly acute in the Municipality of Athens and the large urban centres, in areas with increased tourist traffic, but also in smaller cities with students or a population of seasonal and temporary workers who are forced to move for work reasons (e.g. substitute teachers, etc.).
Looking for a house to rent has become a nightmare, and often the available houses are in very poor condition, without heating, with humidity, and other problems that make them almost uninhabitable.
The idea of short term rentals (STR) originated in 2007 in San Francisco, when two roommates decided to rent out an air mattress in their living room to guests and offer them a simple breakfast (hence the Airbnb acronym: AirBed & Breakfast).
Their idea quickly evolved into Airbnb as we know it today: a company which, thanks to its digital platform, has now become a global giant, along with a number of other platforms also involved in short-term rentals such as Homeaway or Booking.
At the end of 2021, according to Airbnb’s releases, property listings on the platform reached six million, in 100,000 cities around the world, with over four million hosts and more than one billion guest arrivals.
Nowadays, short-term property rentals are essentially an organised touristic activity (and not a makeshift property rental) that is being developed within the framework of modern “platform capitalism”, and not in the context of a “sharing economy”, as is often reflected in the dominant public discourse and the relevant legislative intervention.
The traits that the short-term rentals’ activity has acquired today, result in a number of negative consequences in the housing sector, the most significant of which are the incremental pressure they exert on rental prices, the displacement of residents from their neighbourhoods and the “touristification“ of mainly the cities’ centres.
The negative effects of the spreading of the short-term rentals practice are mainly affecting areas of increased touristic interest, where Airbnb properties are multiplying at an explosive rate.
In Greece’s case, the greatest pressures are felt in the central and more touristic areas of major cities (and especially Athens and Thessaloniki), but also in other touristic destinations in the country, particularly on the islands, where the available housing stock is rather restricted.
In recent years, in Greece and the rest of Europe, large-scale investments in residential real estate show a significant upward trend. Buying a home for owner-occupation is becoming increasingly difficult for an ever wider range of the population, while there is an increase in purchases of residential properties for exploitation by large individual buyers and real estate companies, the real estate speculators.
The developments described above constitute a process of increasing commercialisation of housing: instead of it being considered as a basic social good and a fundamental right, housing is increasingly becoming a commodity, an investment product and a vehicle for speculation and enrichment. The production of housing, access to it as well as its management are all increasingly dependent on bank capital (bank loans, real estate banking companies’ activity etc.), a process described as the financialisation of housing.
In Greece, expectations and real opportunities for large speculative investments in residential real estate are constantly increasing: the Golden Visa programme, liberalisation of auctions, bank loans, institutional and urban planning incentives and concessions (such as those for the development of the former airport at Elliniko), announcements and implementation of large urban redevelopments etc. The significant drop in the price index of residential real estate from 2009 onwards and throughout the economic crisis (a trend that is starting to reverse of course) is consistently presented as an opportunity and attracts the interest of investors.
Major players that are already active or are expected to become active in the residential real estate market include large private investors, real estate investment trusts (REITs), real estate companies, real estate companies owned by banks, and foreign funds.
After a long period of stagnation in constructions due to the crisis, residential property developers are also becoming active again, with the new trend in Greece being the involvement of large developers and investment groups in construction related activities, whereas in previous decades small and medium-sized contractors and developers were the ones who dominated the field. In the case of the Attica region, there is talk of a construction boom, especially in its southern and northern suburbs. Who exactly is involved in the construction of residential property today? Who will buy the newly built properties and how will they use them? And who is investing in the acquisition, renovation and management of the existing housing stock?
Greece has one of the highest rates of vacant houses in Europe, with most of them being concentrated in large urban centres. The existence of a considerable number of vacant houses in central urban areas and the failure to use the available building resources is scandalous, at a time when housing problems are becoming more acute.
The slogan of European housing movements “No people without a house, no house without people” eloquently sums up the paradox. At the same time, vacant buildings and houses are a major deterioration factor in urban districts and a significant factor in the devaluation of existing urban resources that could be used to address wider social needs.
Especially for Greece, which historically has a large surplus of residential and other real estate properties while at the same time has no social housing stock and no mechanisms for social housing production, the utilisation of vacant real estate could be a key pillar for the development of social housing policy and for addressing the acute housing problems faced by the population both in large urban centres as well as in smaller towns and settlements.
Although there are policy examples and available resources that could be allocated for the utilisation of the vacant building stock in social terms, in Greece there has not been a systematic exploitation of the vacant building stock either at the level of individual buildings and apartments or within the context of comprehensive neighbourhood redevelopments.
Young people are the social group that is most affected by the increase in renting and housing costs that has taken place in the past few years.
Moreover, the increasingly small number of properties that are available for rent and the deplorable condition that most of them are in, render access to independent housing even harder and force young people to accept living in terrible housing conditions.
The age of emancipation from the family is pushed back, as young people live with their parents longer than they used to, are often forced to return to the family home (boomerang kids), and depend on parental contributions in kind and money for their housing.
They have less access to home ownership and greater dependence on rental housing (generation rent), often resorting to the (not so popular in Greece) option of cohabitation in order to cover costs.
They are most affected by housing costs, as they are in the worst position within the labour market, generally receiving lower wages, in more precarious and insecure jobs, with high rates of part-time and flexible employment, and face some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.
The existing social security measures to support young people who are taking their first steps towards their goal for housing independence are limited and insufficient.
According to a recent report published by FEANTSA, the number of young people that are facing the risk of housing exclusion is increasing, since the dramatic disconnect between housing costs and incomes has a disproportionate impact on young people’s living conditions.
Despite the important role of intergenerational solidarity, which continues to be the main pillar of social protection for young people in Greece, the limited opportunities for self-sufficiency of the new generation reinforce the dependency and the entrapment of young people.
In Greece, the acquisition of privately owned housing, in the absence of public social housing policies, has been a socially widespread family practice, a strategy of intergenerational support and solidarity, with the most common practices being arbitrary building (with the state usually turning a blind eye), land-for-flats (the infamous “antiparochi”), building an extra floor or two over existing constructions and investing family budgets and savings in real estate, sometimes with the help of (housing) bank loans.1
During the recession years, the overtaxation of housing and the unbearable increase in housing costs, combined with the dramatic decrease in wages and pensions and the soaring unemployment rate, have transformed privately owned housing from a valuable asset to a burden.2
The over-indebtedness of homeowners – whether they have a mortgage or not – has skyrocketed, to the detriment of their quality of life, and despite the relatively low percentage of homeowners that are paying for a mortgage, the soaring rate of non-performing loans and the resulting foreclosures threaten thousands of households with the loss of their primary residence.
In recent years, the housing market in Greece has been promoted as an “investment opportunity” mainly for foreign buyers and new business players, thus limiting the options available to permanent residents.
At the same time, the ability of young households to buy a house has been significantly reduced, because they find it increasingly difficult to save, they don’t have access to credit and mortgages, plus, there is a dramatic mismatch between wages and house prices, etc.
Such trends are shaping new conditions in the housing market and raise serious concerns regarding the future of home ownership in Greece.3 Will owners be able to maintain their primary residence given the increased housing costs and reduced economic resources? What difficulties and opportunities are emerging for the younger generations? How will the relationship between the preference (and capacity) to buy a house on the one hand and to rent on the other hand be shaped in the future?
Both energy poverty as well as the need for solutions to the problems that it causes pose a global challenge.
The pandemic as well as the ever-increasing rental costs have intensified a long-standing problem caused by the combination of high energy costs, low household income and high energy consumption due to the houses’ low energy efficiency (partial or total lack of insulation, old window frames and electrical installations).
Millions of people across Europe were not able to heat their homes sufficiently in the winter of 2021-2022, when the latest energy crisis broke out, due to rising gas, heating oil and electricity prices, combined with successive increases in the cost of essential consumer goods.
Although there is no common definition for energy poverty as a phenomenon, the European Union has acknowledged that it’s a critical issue with a negative impact that translates into serious health problems, deprivation and social isolation.
Likewise, it is estimated that the increase in average temperatures and the greater frequency of heat waves due to the climate crisis, will increase the need for cooling (summer energy poverty) across the country during the summer.
High energy consumption is linked to one of the main causes of the climate crisis: the burning of fossil fuels in order to generate electricity. Therefore, since energy poverty is a multifaceted phenomenon, it should be addressed through an appropriate combination of social, energy and environmental policies, aiming to promote sustainable urban development.
“Vulnerable social groups” are groups of people experiencing social exclusion or discrimination because of various factors and have limited to no access to social and public goods, including housing.
During the recent multidimensional crisis, because of the implementation of austerity policies, the shrinking of the welfare state and the dismantling of social protection systems, the number of people living in poverty and social exclusion is constantly on the rise and the groups of people experiencing housing insecurity are expanding to include, among others, young people, the elderly, single-parent families, immigrants, LGBTQI people, etc.
Housing insecurity does not only include visible homelessness (homeless people sleeping rough in the streets or in homeless shelters) but also more invisible and informal forms, which have intensified during the recession. Although such situations are more common in Athens, similar phenomena of homelessness and insecure housing also occur in smaller municipalities across the country.
Homelessness and housing insecurity are often linked to a number of other aggravating factors, such as physical and mental health problems, increased stress, substance dependence, exposure to risks, etc., which have a multiplier effect, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the disabled, minors, single parents, people experiencing discrimination, etc.
The increase in refugee movements from 2015 onwards, has brought refugee housing issues to the forefront. For the first time in the country’s recent history, organised policies for the accommodation and hosting of asylum seekers and refugees are being implemented. Said policies have of course been the subject of criticism 1, as they often categorise refugee populations according to specific vulnerability criteria, which they use in order to “allocate” people to various forms and areas of housing across the country.
In this context, regarding access to housing, we can see that alongside income and class inequalities, there’s increased housing discrimination and exclusion based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, distinct cultural characteristics, etc.
During the decade-long economic and housing crisis, a large part of Athens’ neighbourhoods sank into poverty, while their infrastructure, services and public spaces were neglected and degraded.
In recent years, a series of “major” projects and interventions in urban areas have been designed and implemented, at a time when inequalities in terms of access to housing have become increasingly acute. However, while these interventions can often affect housing and renting costs critically, thereby displacing low-income residents from their neighbourhoods, there is rarely any relevant anticipation or connection between the interventions’ impact and the issue of access to housing at a planning and policy level.
The above mentioned developments raise crucial questions: Who benefits from major interventions taking place in Athens? Who designs and implements said interventions? How and to what extent do they address the existing issues that the majority of residents face on a daily basis? The questions above, highlight once again and put up for discussion the key characteristic traits of Athens’ urban development, as well as the shortcomings and the necessity for an urban planning guided by social justice.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and the successive curfews that were imposed, a number of inequalities were highlighted with regards not only to housing (housing conditions, housing insecurity, housing overcrowding etc.) but also to the urban space as a whole in terms of, for example, the quality of public spaces, access to services, public transport, not just in the city centre but also in the rest of the city’s neighbourhoods.