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Invisible Greeks

Foreign Notebook: Athens

Henry Staley
August 11, 2021

Athens is at most a two day kinda thing.” Visitors headed to the Greek islands have historically been discouraged from spending much, if any, time in the Greek capital, often by Greeks themselves. Substantiating complaints cite Athens’s concrete sprawl, with the same style apartment building haphazardly replicated from the Acropolis to the port of Piraeus. Tourists typically assume this drab uniformity must be the work of stylistically unimaginative bureaucrats working in service of authoritarian regimes.

In reality, these apartments, which the Greeks call “polikatoikias,” are the result of a decades-long practice initiated by Athenians themselves, without any participation of local or state governments. This spontaneous, extra-governmental building boom created long-term housing solutions for generations of Greek families. But today, this same lack of political oversight is leading to the exodus of Greek nationals from entire neighborhoods of Athens. Foreign investors have exploited the financial precarity of Athenians and the disinterest of local authorities to make way for “ghost hotels,” residential buildings evacuated and converted into short-term rental units. How could the successful, commonized housing practices of the twentieth century be so vulnerable to the social atomization and inequality of our current moment?

In the sixty-year period between 1920 and 1980, Athens’s population exploded from roughly 300,000 to three million residents. Although Greeks sometimes use the term “astyphilia” (the “city-friendliness” which attracts people to the big city) to account for the capital’s transition into a modern megalopolis, the conditions for this period of Athenian expansion were far from idyllic. The increasingly dire condition of Greeks in Turkish territories after the First World War forced the government in Athens to negotiate the repatriation of at least a million Anatolian Greeks to the Greek homeland in 1923, concurrent with the removal of Turks from Greece to Turkey. Greece was a poor country that had been at war with the Ottoman Empire for a decade. Athens had to build rapidly. The war had diminished public reserves, necessitating a decentralized system of construction that doubled as a mass employment project.

As refugees were arriving from Asia Minor, Greece was celebrating a century of independence. Greek architects had spent much of that century fine-tuning a neoclassical style to make Athenians feel like heirs to an ancient empire rather than embittered victims of a series of foreign colonizers, Roman, Byzantine, Phoenician, or Ottoman. Even then, the Athenian variant of neoclassical style was a bargain between vernacular pride and appeals for cultural legitimacy from wealthier Western European nations (which had invented neoclassicism to legitimize themselves during their “golden years” of imperial domination). These remnants of neoclassical Athens possess charm, but their lineage involves an uncanny configuration of removal and imitation—Athenian neoclassicism is a local interpretation of a foreign simulation of a local ancient typology. Athens’s search for an independent vernacular ironically produced the look of a colonial outpost, awkwardly incorporating Latin, Venetian, and even Germanic architectural traditions as its own.

This spontaneous, extra-governmental building boom created long-term housing solutions for generations of Greek families. But today, this same lack of political oversight is leading to the exodus of Greek nationals from entire neighborhoods of Athens.

Many Athenians were eager for modern appliances, and the war had made them aware of the cultural and technological innovations in other European capitals. (Wooden bathtubs were still quite common.) Neoclassical homes were also structurally and aesthetically resistant to any sort of modifications that would accommodate the growing population.

Surprisingly, many Athenians welcomed their homes being torn down. Contractors and homeowners began reaching agreements: contractors would raze a family’s home, build a polikatoikia in its place and give the family two to three apartments in the new structure, which they could rent out or pass on to family. This system was called “antiparochi.” Athenians were eager to participate in the modernization of Athens, and beneficiaries of antiparochi exchanges earned a social prestige that encouraged their neighbors to opt-in. By 1929, the government began offering tax breaks to antiparochi contractors and apartment owners. True to its name, (which roughly translates to “mutual exchange”) antiparochi agreements were settled horizontally, without any intervention from bankers, lawyers, or housing authorities.

Antiparochi survived the political turbulence of the post-World War II era and maintained a level of relative social equality through decades of right-wing governments hostile or indifferent to such a concept. The demand for housing in Athens was met. Whereas neoclassical Athens separated social classes by neighborhood, families with varying incomes now lived in the same buildings. Construction became a major industry, bringing many into the trade. Athens linked up to various international architectural movements (most antiparochis deployed Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino plan—a model that eliminates load bearing walls and allows for modular floor plans), giving Athenians a renewed pride in their now exceptionally modern city. The omnipresence of balconies on polikatoikia allowed outdoor space for almost every dwelling and guaranteed a controlled variable for the “eyes on the street” theory of crime prevention. To this day, Greek homeownership hovers around seventy percent.

Forfeiting so many units to the short-term rental market has led to a distortion of housing prices and the complete disappearance of Greeks from significant portions of their own capital city.

But the drawbacks to such an unregulated, ad hoc system are obvious in retrospect. Many of the contractors were amateurs who sought corners to cut, particularly with regards to crucial steel foundations. Many of the polikatoikia had to be reinforced or their facades remodeled (a program for beautifying apartment exteriors named “prosopsi” (frontage) was rolled out in anticipation of the 2004 Olympics). Pollution billowed out from a now uniformly concrete city. The spontaneity of antiparochi construction provided little opportunity for planners or activists to leave room for green spaces. Older Athenians lamented the old Athens, the neoclassical village with porous flow between the rural outskirts and the city center.

For a time, the antiparochi period provided so much affordable housing that it nearly eradicated demand for social housing. As a result, very little was built and Athens maintains a conscious “non policy” with regard to stabilizing housing markets. Today, this oversight has come into relief. Greece maintains the highest unemployment rate in the European Union, and yet housing costs are rising at an alarming rate. Since the financial collapse of 2008, many Athenians with non-performing loans have been forced to hand their apartments over to the banks. Austerity politics have forced many pensioners or other state beneficiaries to likewise vacate their apartments. Oftentimes, these units end up auctioned off to a handful of international investors who convert them into short-term rentals.

Forfeiting so many units to the short-term rental market has led to a distortion of housing prices and the complete disappearance of Greeks from significant portions of their own capital city. Sotiris Sideris, a data journalist, has found that in the Koukaki neighborhood, just south of the Acropolis, seventy percent of former residences are now Airbnbs. More than half of short-term rentals are now owned by “superhosts” who’ve bought up multiple properties backed by private equity funds managing Greek real estate investment trusts. “Antiparochi families” that formerly benefited from extra units to pass on to relatives have been incentivized to rent to tourists, breaking with a tradition that brought prosperity, longevity, and cohesion to Greek families.

Many posts for rooms in high Airbnb density neighborhoods offer depressing promises of invisibilizing the remaining Greek tenants, lest tourists be exposed to the burden of Greek hospitality. “There is no direct contact with people living in the building, which is an advantage to feel comfortable during your stay in the apartment” one post reads. Another: “The flat has an incredible view over Athens with absolutely no neighbours in sight.

Meanwhile, the most gullible travel writers on the internet offer unpersuasive celebrations of the neighborhood as a hotspot of artists and locals, with some calling it the “hippest” neighborhood in Europe. The Washington Post writes, “Koukaki is a once-quiet corner near downtown Athens that used to be home to families and, later, to an older generation of Athenians. Their grandchildren have since moved in and brought an injection of vibrancy, creativity and new ideas that have revitalized the neighborhood. Today, it’s where the city’s artistic types are most likely to be found, or just those who know where the good bars are tucked away.” These accounts obfuscate the devastating effects of Airbnb for long-term residents of Athens. It takes someone wholly unfamiliar with Greek socioeconomic realities to claim that the “new Koukaki” is the result of some peaceful transition of ownership between Athenian age groups. Neither the elderly, many of whom have seen their pensions reduced by half, nor the chronically unemployed Athenian youth are in any position to contest for Koukaki’s rental units. It’s not a story of local creativity generating income, either, but of well distributed middle-class ownership capitulating to speculation and consolidation.

So far, the local government hasn’t even bothered to measure the extent of this consolidation. The site Inside Airbnb and Athens-based activist groups have found more than twenty thousand short-term rental units not registered as such, thereby avoiding tax collection. While the noninterference of municipal governments suited the horizontalism of the antiparochi era, it now offers no protection from the takeover of Athens’s housing market by tech companies and foreign speculators. Athens could follow the lead of Amsterdam, Lisbon, Paris and Barcelona in taking steps to push units back into the residential market, reclaiming housing for long term residents. If the Athenian government fails to do so, it will return Athenians to a familiar situation: rule by faraway powerbrokers. This time, they will be oligarchs in Moscow, San Francisco, and Beijing rather than emperors.

Henry Staley is a film worker and occasional writer living in Los Angeles.