Athens as a shrinking city? On empty buildings

It is true that one of the biggest problems of Athens right now is its empty buildings.  Of course we are in the middle of a deepening humanitarian crisis, with a bankrupt state, with thousands of refugees trapped in Greece on their way to the rest of Europe and with all our public property to be sold[1].  In front of these huge issues it seems hard to focus on the empty buildings as the city’s greatest challenge for the years to come. Yet it is there that we can find the causes or the solutions to the problem of deep urban decline of the city’s centre. No matter how full of life the streets may seem, if you look upwards on the empty upper floors of the former offices or downwards at the rows of empty basements & semi-basements one can notice how big the problem is.

The data from National Statistics office confirm it beyond any doubt.

  • 30% empty houses in the municipality of Athens
  • 20-50% empty stores according to the street
  • 25% population drop from the 1981 maximum
  • and a 23.5% official unemployment (almost 40% unofficial)

Constantina Theodorou
// Talk as part of the panel AKINITO project, organized by Sofia Dona, Athens Biennale, 29/05/2016

Lectures/ presentations

The numbers are comparable with Detroit or Leipzig –the emblematic shrinking cities. Shrinking occurs as a combination of chronic loss of population and abandonment, together with an economic recession. It usually comes as a result of deindustrialization, or the loss of production base more generally, and the flight to the suburbs. As a term it was introduced in the urban planning discourse since 2000 to describe a permanent scale down of a city. Till then urban decline was used to describe a temporary degradation, as an urban illness that could be cured and the city would return to its previous size and glory. Shrinking, instead, suggests that there will be no return to such a prior point and that we have to compromise with a smaller size. We have to compromise with less population, less development and we have to plan for that or else the city will decline even more.


So is Athens a shrinking city?

It is a paradox that with these numbers of urban abandonment, we still talk about the Athenian case as a “city-centre crisis” as if it is something easy to repair, with no reference to the hypothesis of Athens as a shrinking city. One reason for this is the fact that the high percentage of empty properties is not easy to perceive because the city centre is very densely built. If Athens was built less densely, like Detroit, it would certainly be the capital of decline. A second reason is our reluctance to accept the term. This would entail a radical revision of planning towards adaptation to the new smaller scale.

In fact the main reason is that Athens has a big tourist potential which favours the reverse hypothesis of a future growth. The already very low rents and property prices, which are expected to decline even further, nurture investors’ expectations on a small or larger scale.. It is no accident that Athens, just as Leipzig, is said to be the “new Berlin” — the new capital of the European art scene, with low rents and a relaxed-creative atmosphere. Moreover recent years’ state policies and regeneration proposals, though not implemented, support and pave the way for this tourist-oriented vision for Athens.

But will the investors come? And even if they come, buying everything around, either as a stock investment either as tourist accommodation, will the production base recover and the decline of the population in the centre subvert?

If we look at the causes of this economic shrinkage and depopulation we may find an answer. The abandonment of the city centre is not a result of the recent crisis but it started decades earlier with an exodus to the suburbs already since the ’80s; The exodus to the suburbs escalated after 2000, when the new Athens metro enabled a host of public departments to move to the suburbs and stripped the centre from its hitherto role as an administrative hub.

The death blow came with the crisis which entailed the loss of production base, the closure of businesses, emigration of young professionals and the decline of public spaces due to cuts in public spending.  The devalued city centre became suitable only for immigrants who rented or bought houses there.  (Map of the residencies of migrants in Athens)

Horizontal distribution of immigrants-homeowners (Municipality of Athens, 2000-2010, statistical sample of 277 properties, D. Balabanidis, 2015, Immigrants and homeownership, Athens Social Atlas

The main reason of the flight to the suburbs was the low quality of habitat in the centre of Athens which was a combination of over-building, low-quality of housing and building stock and a lack of green space. The city was massively built during 60 s & 70s with the system of Antiparochi (land for flats) under the auspices and with the tolerance of the State. The Greek State could never really sustain a welfare system so it just created a legal tool to enable the deal between the small land owner and the small construction company, who exchanged land for some polykatoikia apartments built in the same small land plot. Masterplans and strategic urban planning always came after just to legalise what already had been built. The built environment of Athens was the result of small private initiatives, antagonistic to each other, taking over every little free space, finally creating a suffocating condition in the centre.

The small fragmented horizontal ownership which on the one hand was the curse of Athens, on the other hand functioned as a  protection barrier from big private investors who could’ t intervene in this urban and legal chaos.  So there is a systemic failure in the way that Athens was built and even big money from abroad couldn’t resolve some inherited problems of the urban grid unless they built it from scratch.

Overcrowding rate 27,4 (EU 16,9) link

Highest Housing cost overburden rate in Europe>> 68,9 of (single person) households have total housing costs more than 40% of the total disposable household income (EU 25,4%) link

“We are first in EU regarding the dissatisfaction with our house. This is what 32, 2% of the people asked say, whereas the EU median is 13,6%. The main reasons of dissatisfaction are the surrounding noise (22,6%), the insufficient heating (20,3%) and the small space in sq.m of the house (19,3%).”

For more than 60% of the buildings in the survey area, the renovation costs are
higher than building’ s market value (survey on 1650 buildings in the center of Athens) <
N. Triantafylopoulos The building stock in the center of Athens, Athens Social Atlas 2015

A taxonomy of cases of persisting vacancies could be like this:

  • apartments on 1st, 2nd floor in newly-built multi-storey apartment blocks in deprived areas – which are very expensive for the area
  • entire buildings vacant along the length of the electric railway lines very near to trains
  • semi-basements and ground floors in narrow streets without a yard and low quality of housing
  • scheduled buildings with a high cost of renovation, which is very high investment cost for the deprived areas they are on
  • rows of small neighbourhood shops in non-commercial streets
  • offices on upper floors in formerly highly commercial streets

Standing in a limbo for years, these typologies of empty spaces are the cases that owners want to get rid of. No one wants to use them, not even as auxiliary space, as the housing costs is by far the highest in Europe. Moreover there is not a strong housing need to fill the empty spaces, the population has shrinked, and most of the people live in houses they own (high percentage of home ownership), or with their family & friends to avoid the extra housing costs (even if they own a second house), or, in case they go for rent, the rental is very cheap compared to all the other housing costs.

Investors are interested only to the point that they believe they could have a tourist potential, mostly as airbnbs, with a preference to those close to the center and the metro stations. But investing in low-price, low-quality apartments for any other use would entail a pharaonic project to reshape whole streets and make them attractive again. And for the moment there is still land for speculation, in prime tourist locations, in all the areas near Acropolis, the coastal zone for tourist residencies, and the big offices at the north suburbs.

What could be the fate of these empty spaces?

For some of these empty houses a second chance appeared last summer, with the advent of Airbnb in Athens. Despite what could be expected, Airbnb was a kiss of life for the degraded areas of the center with a dispersion of Airbnb rentals quite beyond the classic tourist or young-creatives areas. Airbnb helped a lot of small owners in these areas, who could not afford the high property taxes for properties they don’t use, to keep their properties instead of selling them for nothing. Notwithstanding all the criticism that Airbnb has faced in other cities, like Barcelona, Paris or Berlin, in Athens, for the moment it functions as a substitute of State’s social allowance.

Of course there are always opportunities for speculation with investors from abroad who buy cheap properties in the center to transform them in Airbnbs, but this happens mostly in the tourist areas which are a special case anyway. Beyond them, the usual type of airbnb host is this of unemployed, low-paid people, with no social insurance and a lot of high taxes to pay.

In a similar way the UN program for the refugees, which started this year, in collaboration with municipalities, pays a monthly rental for apartments rented to refugees and is another kind of aid to those small owners with properties that can’t be sold or rent. In both cases the capital which is circulated through this cycle of economy, supporting small private ownership in Greece, comes from abroad.

Some other of these empty houses may stay empty forever. And some of them could even be demolished, making repairs for the 60s urban anarchy and overbuilding. More than 60% of the building stock of the centre, has reached such a degree of dilapidation that renovation cost is bigger than the buildings’ market value. Their cheap construction, and the years long abandonment has devalued them to the point that a a whole building with a landplot, in not much more expensive than an empty land plot (paradoxically the urban land plot prices are still quite high).  So it’s not an utopian scenario anymore and we should prepare for this case of demolition, to prepare a strategic planning, block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood  so as not to just fill with holes the city.  

Going back to the original question, “is Athens a shrinking city?” the answer is that Athens should be a shrinking city.  The extreme population of the centre in the 80s created a suffocating condition, which shouldn’t be repeated again, in the way the State or the investors wish.  We need to downsize, to prevent it from getting overcrowded again, to save some land for the future.  But most of all we need to protect the small scale, the small ownership, the social mix and co-existence, the complexity of relationships which gave Athens its special quality and character. Such an approach of smart-downsizing, which could upgrade the living quality in the centre is on the other side the deregulation of urban planning driven forward by the state to the benefit of investors.

In a future scenario for Athens the entire centre will be bought by some few big investors who would built it anew taking profit out of any single inch. All the public property is already to be sold and the small private ownership is on the way to disappear as people want to get rid of properties that give them no income but only extra taxes. In another variation all the future development of Athens goes to the coastal zone and some small tourist parts of the centre while the rest of it striving  to cope with emptiness, abandonment, and deterioration. We are in a crucial turnover, amidst huge political developments, and any of these scenarios could be possible.

Urban Future Resistance

In any case it is right now that we should explore and invent solutions to reshape, protect, and defend our space in the centre of the city, to secure the middle-class mixed and diverse character of  it, beyond any State planning. The paradigms of Airbnb and UN refugee program are in the direction of a model-protocol which offers small private owners a soft-legal framework to extract value & save their property. Taking advantage of some of their features an alternative protocol could be evolved in which community could replace the big supranational organizations and companies. No help could be expected in the form of subsidy, either from the State either in the form of citizens’ crowdfunding, given their ongoing impoverishment. What could realistically be pursued is a legal innovation to the direction of protection of   housing security through collective ownership. As the antiparochi system some decades ago, it should enable transactions and alliances of citizens responding to complementary needs. But unlike antiparochi, which prioritized the small private interests, enabling the encroachment of public space, now it should prioritize common space and common profit.  What could be this profit?

Housing as a right for all could be such a goal. Maybe for the moment people are not in a dire need of housing but they soon will be as a result of all the recent new laws against small property. But beyond housing they will also need free, green, public space, what is now missing in most of the central neighbourhoods of Athens. A new paradigm of collective ownership should address both these needs. It should raise beyond the issue of   housing as a right, the great issue of improvement of urban quality in the center, and incorporate the idea of downsize, of freeing up some space as a gift back to the public.

Under this prism we could see all our discussions now and AKINITO project as an investment to the future.

As public land is lost a new public land could emerge out of common.

[1] With a law voted on 22 May all the public property is transferred to a private super-fund in order to be sold or rent  with all the profit going fot he debt.

Τhe pdf version here