The fact that there is a large number of vacant houses and buildings while at the same time more and more people are facing serious housing issues, is a contradiction of the dominant urban approach model. At the same time, there’s the challenge of using them in the context of social and affordable housing programmes, and more broadly to address social needs, both in large urban centres as well as in smaller towns and settlements
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.
According to data gathered by the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT), during the 2011 census, out of a total of 6,371,901 normal dwellings, 897,968 vacant houses that were not being used for rent, sale, demolition or anything else, were listed – a figure that corresponds to 14% of dwellings. The total number of vacant houses, including holiday homes and secondary residences, was 2,249,813, or 35% of the country’s total housing stock. 1
The analysis of the census data has highlighted the geographical differentiation of the stock that can be detected between urban centres – mainly Athens and Thessaloniki as well as touristic areas and holiday resorts – and the abandoned countryside. As the comparative study of data from the successive censuses of 1991, 2001, 2011 in the related article in the Athens Social Atlas shows, these characteristics have changed significantly, with the largest increase recorded between 2001 and 2011. The high rates of vacant houses in urban centres are the most interesting find, since these vacant dwellings aren’t holiday homes.
To cite some specific numbers, in 2011, the percentage of vacant houses in the Municipality of Athens was 31%, 28% in the Municipality of Piraeus and 28.2% in Thessaloniki.
The number of vacant flats in the greater Attica region increased by 77% between 2001 and 2011, while in the Municipality of Athens alone, there are at least 132,000 vacant flats.
Separate inventories have also been made for other building categories in Athens and other urban centres, such as vacant building stock and vacant shops in the centre of Athens, vacant and dilapidated buildings in Piraeus or vacant houses in Thessaloniki.
Finally, a significant number of properties owned by public bodies remain vacant or are underused. For example, according to data from the Ministry of Labour (2017), social security institutions own about 1,120 buildings across Greece, 49% of which are vacant. 2 Similarly, a large percentage of properties owned by the Ministry of Finance (bequests, foreclosures, unknown), municipalities or foundations and other legal entities of public or private law, 3 vacant.
Greece has a large surplus of housing compared to its population (Γράφημα 1) and high rates of multiple ownership, i.e. owners owning more than one property. 4
In Southern Europe, the existence of a large number of vacant houses and buildings is related to the key role that housing production has played in the economy over time. Households have been actively involved in housing production by investing savings or borrowing, not only for the acquisition of their primary residence, but also for holiday homes or a second residence. Thus, households often own more properties that are not being systematically utilised.
At the same time, significant changes in the country’s growth model, different phases of urban expansion and changes in living and working patterns have left many unused/vacant office, services, manufacturing and industrial buildings.
The excessive supply of new houses during the real estate bubble (peaking in 2007), the inability to invest in real estate repairs during the recession and the lack of institutional tools and building remodelling and reutilisation programmes have led to the abandonment of valuable social resources.
We would argue that some of the most common reasons 5 for which there are vacant flats in the cities’ centres are the following:
It is clear that, in order to make use of vacant houses and buildings, there is a need for systematic research regarding their actual number and characteristic features, as well as on the reasons why their owners keep them vacant.
Many municipalities and local authorities have developed tools and strategies in order to identify vacant houses by cooperating with service companies, mainly electricity and water supply, since they have data on properties with zero or very low consumption that might be vacant (Barcelona, Wallonia), or by collecting information from citizens (Scotland, UK).
In a survey that the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki conducted on Affordable housing, they used data collected by the Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator (DEDDIE) regarding power cuts, in order to identify potentially vacant properties.
In the Thessaloniki Metropolitan area, 37,235 power cuts were registered in properties with previous residential use (48% of all power cuts), of which 14,800-16,400 (42-43%) in the Municipality of Thessaloniki. Such methodologies should be followed by a field survey or other sources of information, in order to confirm each property’s condition.
The question remains as to the impact of the increase in investment made in real estate in recent years, particularly in urban centres, with the change of use of many buildings to accommodate tourism-related enterprises and the conversion of houses and buildings into short-term rentals. Updating the available data after the recent census of 2021, despite the existing deficiencies in the registration process, may reflect the changes in numbers or in the vacant properties’ characteristic traits.
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