Public debate: The Athens mayor candidates’ views on abandoned buildings

“The historical centre of Athens before the mayoral elections” A public debate co-hosted by PANATHINAIA, MONUMENTA & PLACE IDENTITY CLUSTERS Koumoundourou Square, 8 May 2019

Irini Gratsia, representative of MONUMENTA: In the historical centre there are many abandoned buildings, some of which have been declared heritage monuments. We constantly hear about the need to demolish these buildings in order to reorganize the city. How are you planning to deal with abandoned buildings and how will you contribute to the preservation of the identity and memory of the city, both of which are tightly linked with old buildings. In addition to this, there is the Airbnb issue which has altered the function of old buildings and has driven residents away from the centre.

Giorgos Karampelias (“Athens for Greece”): First of all, Airbnb used to be a means for some people to ensure their income for a small period of time during the economic crisis. Now the situation has gotten completely out of control. Airbnb houses have been converted to illegal hotel businesses. The Municipality is partly responsible for this situation, so they need to take some measures. They need to separate people who own 1 or 2 apartments from those who have transformed their houses to illegal hotel businesses. Until now, the Municipality has done nothing. Secondly, regarding the issue of abandoned buildings, we believe that anything related to the cultural, architectural and urban legacy of the city needs to be preserved. Young people, students or foreign exchange students could use these buildings. They can be a source of cultural enrichment instead of being demolished. The demolition of abandoned buildings will only benefit future property development plans.

Dina Reppa (“Αnticapitalist subversion in Athens - Mutiny over government-EU-Capital”): Athens is facing a massive gentrification plan that is going to transform it into a pillar for tourism, in a negative way. They want to oust the residents. They do not want the residents in the centre, for instance in rich areas such as Kolonaki and Syntagma. Short-term renting has driven residents away. Young people, students, graduate students and unemployed people can not find houses today. The idea is to increase the profits of big companies while completely ignoring the needs of the residents. This is a horrific plan. Secondly, we are absolutely against the demolition of historic buildings. The city has a memory and a history. The houses built for the refugees were an innovative project, from an architectural point of view, and at the same time they are connected with the history of the city, namely the refugee crisis of 1922 and the Civil War. We strongly believe that we need a new policy that will allow the residents to stay in the centre. Young people should be able to live and work here. In many cases, people will need funding in order to be able to transform these buildings into homes. This is the only way that the city will remain our city and not become a city for the rich and the capitalists.

Filippos Tavris (“Athens again and again”): I have already stated that the solution is the combined operation; it is not possible to not have permanent residents and businesses in a city. On the other hand, Airbnb can not abolished. It must not, however, get out of control. Regulations need to be enforced, as it has been done in other foreign cities. The rental duration needs to be regulated, as well as the conditions of the rental. In regards to the heritage buildings, I firmly believe that none of them should be demolished. On the other hand, we need to consider the property owners as well. A few months ago, I tore down a house that was built in 1924. The case passed from four different committees none of which declared it a heritage building. I was dreading the fact that it might be declared a heritage building, because then I would have to restore it without any financial support; the Municipality proclaimed it a hazard, so I would have to restore it and not be able to make any use of it. The government as well as the Municipality need to provide property owners with motives in order to restore heritage buildings. I insist, however, that none of these heritage buildings should be demolished.

Nassos Iliopoulos (“Athens from the beginning”): Short-term rentals and rules. We propose three rules. First of all, the exception of legal persons. A business can not use short-term renting; it needs to regulate like a normal tourism business. Secondly, there must be a limit in apartments per Taxpayer Identification Number; up to two apartments per TIN. Third, there must be a specific time limit for short-term rentals. We know from experience with foreign cities that you can have different zones within the city, according to the availability of houses. In the city centre, where there are fewer available houses, the limit has to be more strict. The problem is that, until now, the municipality was neutral. This is the reason why we announced that in the next city council we will present a proposal. The Municipality of Athens has to be engaged, because the problem is not the same for Athens and for other cities, such as Tripolis. In regards to abandoned buildings now. At this point, the Municipality of Athens can not inform a citizen about the exact number of buildings that belong to the municipality. Thus, it is also a matter of safety that there should be no abandoned buildings. When you abandon a building, it is the same as letting a neighbourhood die. When the Ministry of Education left its building on Mitropoleos street, three blocks around Mitropoleos street were affected. When Hotel “Electra” opened in the same building, the whole neighbourhood came back to life. The municipality needs to act as a hastener. First, all municipal buidings will reopen; public buildings that are run by instiatutions such as the University of Athens will have a social function as well. This is the part where the plan for the abandoned buildings will fit. We agree completely with the fact that the historical memory of the city has to be preserved; we can not tear buildings down, nor can we live in a void. The houses built for the refugees and the “Columbia” recording studios are a part of our historical memory. These are very important places.

(from the public): You can start from here; That, over there, is a beautiful building.

F. T.: That’s the 9th High School of Athens.

Pavlos Geroulanos (“You are Athens”): When Airbnb started, it saved families from poverty. Today, Airbnb has become something completely different. It has become a business activity. Rich people are taking advantage of the obscure regulatory framework and are running businesses. I agree with Mr. Iliopoulos’ propositions, except one; I do not believe that there should be a time limit, rather a neighbourhood limit. For two reasons. First off, neighbourhoods must not be altered; secondly, the profit from Airbnb must be divided equally amongst the neighbourhoods. The best way to achieve this is by setting a neighbourhood limit and not a time limit. I agree that there need to be rules. Regarding the abandoned buildings. There is a great need for buildings right now. The municipality does not have a shelter for homeless people with mental health isssues or substance use disorders. Many buildings are occupied by squatters. There are also vacant buildings that could be used to promote the Greek entrepreneurship and to host new businesses. There is a framework that allows the Municipality to use these vacant buildings, which has been signed by 17 ministers. The plan hasn’t been put into action yet because it has gone over to Anaplasis S.A. and it is being delayed for bureaucratic reasons. So, there is a plan and the only thing we have to do is use it, in order to allow the municipality to use the buildings.

Stelios Lamprou (“Popular Rally”): There are many needs. One example is student accommodation. Right now, not even 10% of the students who are away from home live in resident halls. Not just in Athens, but in other cities as well. Abandoned buildings, or a part of them, could be used in such cases. Secondly, Airbnb. The freedom of the market knows no limits. However, we propose that the houses used on Airbnb should be considered businesses. Therefore, they should not pay a property tax, but a business tax. This is the only way to regulate the situation and both the government and the municipality will receive their share from the taxes. In this way, we will steer more people towards long-term renting and the rent prices will not increase.

Kostas Bakoyiannis (“Athens Up”): Airbnb is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it has helped a lot of people make ends meet and it is a curse because it has disrupted the way in which the city functions. What do we say propose? We believe that we should establish a regulatory framework following the example of other foreign cities. The regulatory framework should not suppress economic growth, but rather ensure that it is sustainable and balanced. We heard some very good initiatives today. I should point out that it is very important for us to take into account the needs and particularities of each neighbourhood. Petralona and Koukaki are full, whereas the neighbourhoods of Thymarakia and Agios Pavlos need more Airbnb. That said, the Municipality should be responsible for taking iniative, for intervening and for creating motives and counter-motives, so that we can all move forward. Abandonded buildings. I have counted them, they are 10.600.

I. G.: Not just the abandoned ones, all the old buildings.

K. B.: 10.600 buildings from 1840 to 1940 have survived until today. A truly great legacy. And what are we doing about it? Basically, we do not care and we let them get demolished or collapse. This is a tremendous disaster; our children will never forgive us for it. In the same manner that we can not forgive, for instance, those people who tore down the theatre on Kotzia Square 50, 60 or 70 years ago. Right now, the government only creates more bureaucratic, financial and institutional burdens for property owners. It adds more and more; it makes everything difficult. The Municipality should create motives. We visited the European Investment Bank, we addressed the issue and we agreed that we could offer almost interest-free loans that can be paid off in the long run. In this way, owners will be motivated to restore the buildings and use them in whatever way they see fit. Funding exists and we need to use it as soon as possible, because these buildings are our true legacy.

Translation: Christina Divari