Evi Kaila is Head of Social Solidarity Executive Unit at the Greek Ministry of Labour, Social Insurance and Social Solidarity
In Greece, the housing situation between the Second World War and 2009 was characterised by an extremely high rate of private ownership. Privately owned homes were considered a safe investment to pass on to descendants. In 2006 the rate of privately owned homes in Greece was estimated to be 84% ‒ in Europe, only Spain and Ireland topped this figure.
State intervention in the housing sector was quite limited, and both the privately owned and rental housing sectors were left to their own devices. Rent regulation fell under the jurisdiction of what was then the Ministry of Commerce – evidence that housing was considered to be a commercial commodity rather than a social necessity in need of protection.
After 2000, due to the economic boom, the Greek banking sector granted housing loans for the purchase or upgrade of homes. Until the crisis Greece was perceived not to have a housing problem or homelessness, and the state was not considered obliged to adopt a real housing policy, let alone a social housing policy.
The only activity in social housing was carried out by the Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK). This body provided privately owned social homes (built by the OEK or purchased through loans in the free market) to workers and employees of private sector organisations. These workers and employees contributed, like their employers, into the Organisation’s funds.
To offer rapid on-the-spot assistance to rough sleepers, an equipped healthcare vehicle recently started circulating in Athens
When the economic crisis hit in 2009, all economic indices changed radically. Unemployment shot up from 9.5% in 2009 to 27.8% in 2014. More than half of young people were affected. Among the jobless, 75% experience long-term unemployment. In 2014, 1,350,000 families had no family member in work, and 34.9% of Greek households had at least one unemployed member. Employees’ salaries decreased by up to 40%, and pensions by up to 50%. Construction work reached a low point, and a large number of buildings remained unfinished or unsold.
As a result, the rates of outstanding loans rose dramatically. Rough sleepers appeared in urban centres, some of them families who could no longer afford to pay rent. But as only a few studies and an insufficient amount of research have been carried out at municipal and national levels, no reliable data exists on the exact numbers, geographical distribution or social characteristics of this phenomenon.
In 2012 the OEK was abolished by the second memorandum agreed by Greece, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. It was deemed to be “an entity that provides benefits of no priority”. The only assistance given to the indebted families was a law that gives them the right to appeal by proving their incapacity to repay their debts. But legal procedures take a long time (up to 15 years from the submission of the application), and in the meantime these families have to pay a part of their income to provisionally cover their debts.
With housing protection being one of the fundamental principles in the programme of the Greek radical-left party SYRIZA, which won the election in January 2015, it was to be expected that the first law of the new government would focus on this humanitarian crisis, addressing households living in extreme poverty and including the administration of rent subsidies paid directly to the landlords to prevent evictions. With subsequent laws, the state undertook the responsibility to cover the debt of the low-income households to banks, preventing the latter from putting mortgaged homes to auction and prohibiting them, until 31 December 2017, from selling to international funds outstanding loans related to a main residence of an objective value lower than €140,000.
In February 2015 the Ministry of Labour, Social Insurance and Social Solidarity started a pilot programme, aimed at rough sleepers and homeless people, to provide these people with rental housing as well as vocational training programmes and assistance in finding a job. Around 1,200 people entered the programme, which has been extended until the end of 2017.
A larger network of homeless daycare centres and dormitories in big urban centres has been integrated in the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) for 2014-2020. The framework is financed by the European Social Fund. The operational programme ‒ ‘Reform of the Public Sector’ ‒ has also approved a project concerning the registration and follow-up of homeless people through an electronic system used by teams of street workers and specialists. This system will be linked to a single online homeless placement management platform.
Until the economic crisis Greece was perceived not to have a housing problem or homelessness
The Greek government has declared that it is determined to establish a safety net, consisting of permanent measures such as housing allowance to tenants or home borrowers of low and medium income.
To offer rapid on-the-spot assistance to rough sleepers who do not turn to these centres, a healthcare vehicle equipped with toilets, showers, washing machines, towels and personal care products, and also staffed by a doctor and a social service worker, recently started circulating in Athens.
Although these measures are important steps in tackling housing problems, these must be part of an integrated safety net covering all different aspects of the current housing situation.
The Greek government has declared that it is determined to establish such a safety net, consisting of permanent measures such as housing allowance to tenants or home borrowers of low and medium income; short-term pilot programmes for special groups facing high risk of social exclusion (for example, political asylum demanders, unaccompanied children, victims of domestic violence, drugs or alcohol addicts); establishment of a new social housing body for vulnerable people; and use of housing stock belonging to the public sector (ministries and legal entities of public law) to shelter population groups that have no chance of access to a home.
But as each and every social protection plan has to be negotiated with Greece’s partners (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Stability Mechanism), it is important that European and international bodies – and domestic housing and homelessness schemes of any type (such as agencies, platforms, networks, blogs) – support the creation of such an integrated housing safety net. They must also embrace the importance of finding alternative financial tools, in the framework of European programmes and funds and beyond.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr - C.