Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Panayiotis Tzamaros / Fos Photos

COVID-19 Is Exposing Inequalities of the Past

With a new recession looming, and an already massive housing crisis, tenants are building towards new models of social solidarity.

Sotiris Sideris
May 1 · 10 min read

Illustration & Data Visualization by Olga Souri / Noucmas

“Not all quarantines are the same. This family allowed me to take a picture of the only window in their semi-basement studio, we also talked for a while. Their house is 28 square meters, the wife was working in a cafe which has closed [due to the pandemic], the husband was laid off shortly before the [COVID-19] crisis began, he was working for a security company and is still waiting to receive compensation. They have two children, aged three and nine. They own a very old TV, they don’t have an internet connection, but they have a mobile phone, the second one is cut off. Fortunately, the municipality provides them with food and basic goods daily. No one has interviewed them, they have not appeared in any spot for ‘Menoume Spiti’ [the government’s social distancing campaign ‘We Stay at Home’ to contain the local spread of the coronavirus pandemic either.” This was posted on Facebook on April 21 by photographer Haris Papadimitrakopoulos.

The post got an overwhelming response online, receiving thousands of reactions and shares and hundreds of comments, none of which registered surprise but a sense of solidarity: “We can donate some food and toys to the children.” Or “Let me know if they need clothes for the children.” Someone else wrote: “That’s the other face of quarantine. We should be grateful for what we have.” “We all can help. Let the family know that there has been a great response and convince them to accept our help.” The multiple shares on facebook brought more attention, and even realization: “Congrats to those who want to help. However, this family is not the only in need of our assistance. Unfortunately, there are many others like them in every neighborhood of Athens.”

One day later, the photographer updated his post: “Just a while ago the husband informed me that he will start working again tomorrow, a good Facebook friend will hire him. I shared your very moving replies with him. He thanks you all and asks you to help any neighbor in need. Thank you too.”

In a country like Greece, where austerity cuts over the last ten years have had a significant impact on the health system’s ability to prepare for the pandemic, decent housing has inevitably become the frontline defense against the coronavirus, but also one of the hardest things to afford.

The case of the four-member family in Kallithea is not a rare case though. With COVID-19 response interventions in effect, millions are being forced to live with less. For a great number of households, the pandemic meant job loss, reduced work hours, unpaid sick leave, or even an inability to undertake informal sector work due to lockdowns.

As utility bills pile up, the rent (or mortgage) can sometimes be the most difficult expense to pay, especially in Athens where the average two-bedroom apartment currently leases for €10.5 per square meter per month and the minimum monthly wage for a 40-hour workweek is at €637.

“Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation,” says Leilani Farha, the Global Director of the Shift and UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, in her recommendations for governments as part of their response to the pandemic.

While Greece’s current administration is earning international praise for its swift reaction in handling the healthcare crisis — as of April 30, cases stand at 2,591, and deaths at 140 — a new financial meltdown is looming. “A great number of people are facing unprecedented economic insecurity and precarity putting at risk the very thing they are being told to do to help flatten the pandemic curve: stay home,” underlines Farha.

With the net number of jobs created in Greece reaching minus 41,903, this was by far the worst March in the two decades the government has tracked the data.

The latest figures from the Ministry of Labour, reflecting last month’s job losses, illustrate how the downdraft has spread to every corner of the economy. 114,905 layoffs have been imposed across an array of industries, but cafes and restaurants have suffered the most with minus 21,919 net job openings.

Each day seems to bring new challenges. On April 1, the Foundation for Economic & Industrial Research (IOBE) reported the steepest month-to-month drop in consumer confidence since 2007, with the overall economic sentiment indicator falling at 109.4 points in March as opposed to 113.2 in February. But, even that figure doesn’t capture the full impact of the sudden economic freeze on the industry. The report points out that part of the survey was conducted before the shut-down of nonessential businesses and the implementation of the movement ban, meaning data for the current month could be worse still.

The mounting unemployment figures along with the drop in retail spending have added to the pressure on the government to ease the lockdown. This is why the Prime Minister announced on Tuesday a roadmap indicating which of the restrictive measures will be gradually lifted and in what order.

“We were confronted with an invisible and sneaky enemy, we took unprecedented measures, the economy paralyzed, we stayed away from those we love and from the churches,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said while he addressed the nation.

Starting on May 4 government plans extend over a period of 45 days, which takes them through to the beginning of July. Small shops and beauty salons are expected to open first.

“We cannot stay in lockdown forever,” professor Sotiris Tsiodras told reporters at his coronavirus-related briefing Saturday evening, emphasizing that Greece’s re-emerging strategy is based on scientific data and not social pressure.

In the meantime, it seems that a clear plan for businesses to keep proper hygiene and social distancing methods does not exist. The roadmap is based on the assumption that everything will go according to plan, the citizens will continue to comply with social distancing and hygiene measures while they will avoid crowding so there is no resurgence of the coronavirus. Investments in public health, however, have been minimal. While the Greek government has promised that the Greek National Healthcare system will be benefited by the pandemic, testing remains sparse and shortages in ICU beds, staff, and PPE are widespread.

The pandemic hasn’t created a housing crisis. It is merely exposing the pre-existing structural inequalities.

As Greeks look forward to returning back to ‘normality’ in the months ahead, the question is how quickly spending will pick up once the economy recovers. Ultimately, how many households and small businesses will survive until then?

Economists and financial institutions already forebode a grim near future. Approximately 100,000 small businesses in Greece (that is, one out of seven) face closure after the lifting of the measures, while the biggest problem is expected to be the lack of liquidity.

This crisis is not unfamiliar to Greeks, many of whom were struggling to make ends meet even before the pandemic. As we have reported, more than 80 percent of the country’s renters are already considered ‘rent burdened,’ spending more than 40 percent of their disposable income (after taxes and social transfers are subtracted) on housing. But now, as the economy slides toward a new recession, renters are unable to pay even at a reduced rate.

How to solve this problem permanently is not clear, given the complexities of the Greek housing system, a network that includes not just renters but mainly a high number of homeowners as well as banks and, most recently, big investors.

But while there is an opportunity to ensure that, moving forward, the Greek housing system is sustainable and resilient in the face of the next crisis, the emergency financial aid package and the temporary moratorium on evictions put in place by the government to prevent individuals and families from losing their homes only delays the problem. It still leaves people subject to debt as a result of the crisis and also subject to eviction and repossession orders after the temporary bans are lifted. It should be noted that the government has chosen to first get the courts reopened and operating on April 27.

Commenting on the recent measures adopted by the government, Nikos Kourachanis, post-doc researcher and lecturer of Social Policy at Panteion University, told AthensLive: “This situation is not unprecedented, nor does it oppose pre-pandemic developments.

“The enforcement of emergency measures that focus on individual responsibility was legitimized in our country during the years of recession and by the policies adopted to manage it. Not coincidentally, this model was developed in parallel with the violent dismantling of the Greek social protection system. In this context, the already deficient housing services have been replaced by partial actions, such as soup kitchens, day care centers and night shelters for the homeless, only to prevent mass deaths of the increasingly extreme poor. Ten years later, the continued absence of social housing policies demonstrates that the mismanagement of poverty and homelessness is not a structural deficit but a political decision,” he added.

As the lockdown is evolving from a matter of public health response into an occasion for the continued expansion and normalization of austerity and law-and-order governance, some individuals, like Giorgos Tagopoulos, 31, have begun building towards new models of social solidarity.

Πρωτοβουλία Στεγαστικής Δράσης και Αλληλεγγύης [Initiative for Housing Action and Solidarity], which started from a Facebook page in March as a way to organize local solidarity, has grown into a wide network of longtime community activists, engaged academics and mutual aid groups, with strong ties to other movements for the right to housing across the globe.

“I started this page on the grounds that the government’s response to the pandemic is failing people,” Tagopoulos told AthensLive. “In the face of mass unemployment and a never-before-seen housing crisis, they are offering nearly nothing,” he added.

After weeks of sharing experiences and debating ideas on Zoom and Slack, the Initiative for Housing Action and Solidarity, together with 25 other organizations from 15 different countries, are preparing an international campaign, to begin on May 1.

Along with other demands, the move is aimed at pressuring lawmakers to cancel rent, mortgage and utility payments, and immediately rehouse the most vulnerable: the homeless, domestic violence survivors, undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, the organizers are asking those who are able to pay May’s rent to refuse to do so in solidarity with those who can’t.

For Tagopoulos rent strikes are more of a tactic than an end goal. “They are another way to put further pressure on the government to address issues such as the shortages of personnel and equipment in the Greek National Health System and unemployment. Let’s not forget that seven in ten Greeks have less than €1,000 in savings.”

But mobilizing for a rent boycott is not a simple matter, mainly because of what it might mean for landlords. “We understand that the situation here is not the same as in other countries. In Greece, there are many indebted small owners who rely on rent to cover their mortgages and other bills every month. Thousands are already facing tradeoffs about whether to pay for rent or mortgage, utilities, or purchase necessities like food medicine. We are totally with them and are trying to help by establishing a network of solidarity and mutual aid,” he said.

Although building a movement for the right to housing is relatively new in Greece, the struggles behind it are not, and they are linked to the state’s failure to legislate for tenant rights and build sufficient numbers of social and affordable housing.

“Apart from the large anti-auction movement and smaller collectives such as neighbourhood assemblies and solidarity initiatives, Greece has never had organized tenant unions,” said Panos Alexandrou, a member of the initiative who also participates in other self-organized collectives for the right to housing. “That’s because the concept of housing in Greece has always been based on property. Homeownership has a strong tradition in our country. Since the 1950’s, it has been used by many governments as a key driver for growth through the investment and support of smallholders to build or buy their own block of apartments. This shows that providing people with adequate housing has never been an obligation of the state,” he added.

“The situation is compounded by the recognition of housing as a vehicle for profit, rather than a basic human right,” Christina Sakali, post-doc researcher in the department of Conflict and Development Studies at Ghent University, told AthensLive.

Meanwhile, it should go without saying that the government had (before the coronavirus outbreak in Greece) agreed with its lenders to lift the protection of primary residences for debtors by the end of April. “Protection of the primary residence harms the economy,” Development Minister and New Democracy Vice President, Adonis Georgiadis, said in February.

With the end of the protection, the wave of evictions and auctions is expected to intensify in the coming months. And as Sakali added: “While the state should work towards a social housing policy, or at least affordable and decent housing for all incomes, it prefers to facilitate easy profits for big private investors.”

The problem is political will. We were in a national crisis before the pandemic and short-term fixes associated with it will not solve the problem that existed beforehand.

AthensLive

AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for…

Sotiris Sideris

Written by

Data journalist & co-founder @AthensLiveGr . Fellow @BerthaFN & @SNForg . Producer of @TheUndocumente3 . TA @media_uoa

AthensLive

AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.

Sotiris Sideris

Written by

Data journalist & co-founder @AthensLiveGr . Fellow @BerthaFN & @SNForg . Producer of @TheUndocumente3 . TA @media_uoa

AthensLive

AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store