‘All my wage goes to the house’: A rental crisis brews in Greece

Athens, Greece – As she prepared to meet a property agent in the Greek capital, Athens, Christina Velliou felt hopeful, despite having had little success in finding a new home.

Over the past two months, she has been on 20 similar viewings.

“It has been extremely difficult to find a decent place to stay. It wasn’t like this some years ago. I am shocked by the current situation,” she told Al Jazeera.

Velliou and her family have been at the same place in Ano Patisia since 2009.

“It’s not a fancy neighbourhood where the rich people live,” she said.

At 500 euros ($511) a month, their two-bedroom apartment has a closed garage, solar-powered heating, natural gas, double glazed windows and large balconies.

It was new when they moved in, but the landlords now want to live in the apartment themselves.

Every day, Velliou and her husband scan listings online and in newspapers. The cheapest options they find start at 550 euros ($560) a month for much older houses that have few or poor amenities. Many need investment for repairs, that landlords appear unwilling to do.

For better properties, the rent almost doubles.

Christina and her husband work as civil servants and feel grateful to be a two-income family.

“Can you imagine how things are for those living alone?” she said. “I have a niece who lives alone and if she didn’t have the support of her family whenever she needs it, or if she had to look for a new home right now, she would be in a very difficult position.”

A country’s housing cost overburden rate refers to the portion of the population that spends 40 percent or more of their disposable income on housing.

According to Eurostat, Greece has the highest rate among all European Union countries. In 2020, when the data was last available, Greek cities had a rate of 37 percent, followed by Bulgaria’s 14.4 percent.

But the situation for those who rent is even more challenging. More than 79 percent of renting households spend 40 percent or more of their disposable income on housing.

Although there are no official records on how things look today, it appears that the pandemic has weighed on many.

In a survey conducted between May 24 and June 3, 2022 by aboutpeople for Eteron, a Greek think-tank, about half of renters struggle or are unable to make rent, while 83.1 percent feel somewhat or very concerned about the current rental housing crisis.

Renters said they were mostly worried about expensive energy, high rent, difficulty finding property to rent, poor-quality housing and the lack of heating or cooling system in flats.

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Christina Velliou, whose landlords have given her notice to leave, said she is ‘shocked’ by the current situation [Demetrios Ioannou/Al Jazeera]

“I have been looking for an apartment since early January and I just found one,” said Maria, a friend of Velliou.

“I pay 800 euros [$817] now and this is a ‘friendly’ price, because we found the place through a friend. They asked us to give one year ahead plus the deposit, which is a lot of money but I prefer that rather than not having a place to stay.”

She added: “All of my wage goes to the house. This is just a lot of hassle and a lot of stress. All we want is just a house to live in with dignity.”

Gabriel Sakellaridis, head of Eteron, recently referred to the tensions over housing as a “‘silent crisis”.

He told reporters: “It concerns households to a great extent, becomes the subject of discussion in families and groups, and determines both family budgets and the emotional state of all of us. The issue of housing and rent in particular is an important thorn in society.”

Rents have risen over the past four years as Airbnb and similar enterprises grew and as new construction projects were paused because of economic concerns.

At the same time, many Greek homeowners who lost their properties during recessions are still unable to climb back on the property ladder.

Lefteris Potamianos, the head of Attica, a real estate association in Athens, said the price rebound to pre-crisis levels was slow.

“If for example, in 2010 a rent was at 1,000 euros [$1,021], in 2015, at the lowest of the recession, the same rent had fallen by 35 percent. Today, seven years later, it has recovered at least 30 percent of what it lost, which means it is close to its 2010 prices.

“What has happened is that at the same time that the rents regained their lost ground, the wages, which also fell in 2015, did not rise as well. So the purchasing power of the people remained at the 2015 numbers and rents returned to their natural base of 2010,” he said.

Increasingly frustrated, those who rent say landlords have taken advantage by boosting their prices, hoping they will regain lost income.

“The other day, I called for an apartment [near our home],” Velliou said. “The house was built in the ‘70s, they have somewhat renovated it. When I asked about the price, the landlord told me it’s 900 euros [$920]. We are talking about Ano Patisia, an urban area.”

To solve the issue, Potamianos said, young people should be incentivised to buy houses.

“The culture of ownership in Greece has changed. This is because young people cannot afford to buy a house,” he said. “The market must be stimulated again and new areas for housing must be opened, or we will see rents continuously rising. Otherwise, we will end up like Paris, where [a] 50-square metre [apartment] is rented for 1,600 euros [$1,634].”

Looking ahead, the current global energy crisis is yet another strike on Greek households.

“Both oil and natural gas are now too expensive,” Velliou said. “We pay way too much for heating. We have many reasons to be depressed, let’s not add another one.”