29 May 2016 / AKINITO project / Concept-Organised by Sophia Dona / Athens Biennale

/
Presentation by Constantina Theodorou

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 . 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)
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
in general, 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. Until 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, supported and paved 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?

STATISTICS
Municipality of Athens
National Statistic Office

Population

1961
627.564

1971

1981

1991

867.023

885.737

785.226

max

2001

2011

756.652

664.046
512.386
(without immigrants)

-25% max

Number of houses

387.389

398.531 427.825
131.993 empty=

30,85%

2005/ 250.000 sales in Athens
2013 / 3.600 sales in Athens
50% fall of the market value of
properties since the 2008 peak
23, 5% official unemployment (2015)
~40% unofficial

Index of Prices of Dwellings, Athens (2007=100)
Data from Bank of Greece

30% EMPTY
No view to Acropolis

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 immigrants in Athens)

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

Attikis Station
OMONIA
Larissis Station

Syntagma
Acropolis

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.
Masterplan, and strategic urban planning always followed just to legalize 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.
In these extended areas of the centre which face the greatest problems of abandonment, the main building
typology is the 60s-70s mass modernism- low quality polykatoikia built in very dense pattern. There are
a lot of cases of empty apartments or buildings which stand empty for years and their prices, as well as
their walls and roofs, fall year by ear. We will focus on these areas as it is there, were no other option is
available, that a new paradigm could flourish.

Dissatisfaction of residents with their housing conditions,
unbearable housing costs and degradation of the building stock
Overcrowding rate 27, 4% (EU 16,9)

http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&language=en&pcode=tessi172&plugin=1

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%)
http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&language=en&pcode=tessi166&plugin=1

“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%).”
http://kinisienergoipolites.blogspot.gr/2015/12/urostat.html

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

MAP OF VACANCIES
approximative map based on observations
on site visits

Ag. Nikolaos

130.000 euro
365 euro/sq.m

356qm whole building
Ag. Nikolaos

7.500 euro
188 euro/sq.m

40sqm semi-basement appartment
Attikis sq | Aghios Panteleimonas

13.000 euro
260euro/sq.m

50sq m appartment 2nd floor
Attikis sq | Aghios Panteleimonas

6.000 euro
200 euro/sq.m

30sqm appartment 4th floor
Victoria sq.

27.000 euro
330 euro/sq.m

80sqm top floor appartment
Victoria sq.

150.000 euro
370 euro/sq.m

405sqm whole building
neoclassical renovated

Omonia sq.

OM ONI A

30.000 euro
353 euro/sq.m

85sqm office appartment 4th
floor

Prices & Data from real-estate site,
May 2016
Co-app building research
E. Hasa, S. Minotakis, C. Theodorou

Taxonomy of persisting vacancies

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 all these
empty spaces?

KATO PATISIA
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.

DEGRADED
AREAS OF THE
EXTENDED
CENTER

ARTISTS &
STUDENTS
OMONIA

TOURISTIC
ZONE
Data from Airbnb site February 2016
From C. Theodorou presentation
at the round table Renovation or Demolition
Technical Chamber of Greece

Of course there are always opportunities for speculation with investors from abroad who buy cheap
properties in the center to transform it 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 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.

A failed example of demolition without any urban planning for the area, Xouthou str. Omonia, former NAT building

Lack of public space, Sunday bazaar around Menandrou str., Omonia, May 2016

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.

Investment to the Future

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 modelprotocol 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.

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