By Prof Ares Kalandides
Finding an affordable flat to rent in Athens has recently turned into an almost impossible affair. In the past five years, rents in the Greek capital have risen sharply, whilst at the same time period real wages have collapsed. One of the many possible causes behind the scarcity of rental space is the transformation of dwellings into short-term holiday flats. Airbnb is not the only provider, but definitely the largest and most iconic one.
Indeed, in the centre of Athens alone, the number of listings on the platform rose from 1,500 in 2014 to 7,500 two years later, and up to 16,000 by June 2018. These flats are not distributed evenly in the city, but affect certain areas more heavily (Plaka, Thisio, Koukaki, Exarcheia). In 2016, Koukaki featured as number 5 of Airbnb’s sixteen recommended neighbourhoods worldwide causing residents to form an association in order to stop their displacement. A recent law has made attempts to regulate the development: limits to the rental period (max. 90 days a year); the prohibition to rent out more than one flat under the same tax number (and thus avoid businesses with multi-site rentals); and a progressive tax system for income from short-term rentals.
When the housing market crashed at the beginning of the banking (later sovereign debt) crisis of 2009, many small owners lost their properties, as they were incapable of keeping up with mortgage payments and the newly imposed property tax. The increase in the number of visitors in Athens, together with the spread of short-term holiday rentals, have worked small wonders for people in risk of losing their property. According to a 2015 study commissioned by Airbnb and conducted by the Athens University of Economics between October 2013 and September 2016, Airbnb contributed €65 million to the Greek economy, creating 1,000 new jobs. According to the same study 68% of the flat owners said they would only be able to stay in their homes through renting out. Finally, the study showed that almost half of all the visitors’ expenses were spent locally.
Many tourists enjoy sharing locals’ homes, instead of spending the night in an impersonal hotel room. Staying in somebody’s home, being able to shop locally and cook, provides travellers with a feeling (or illusion) of authenticity. In Athens, with the exception of Plaka, i.e. the old town at the foot of the Acropolis, most holiday flats are outside traditionally touristic areas of the city, bringing visitors into neighbourhoods previously only inhabited by locals. Hotels are obviously not happy and consider the competition to be unfair, as holiday flats do not have to comply with any of the expensive standards (safety, hygiene and labour) hotels must abide by. According to a study conducted in 2017 by Grant Thornton on behalf of the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels, the platform economy in Greece was worth around 1.71 billion euros, half of which was accommodation. The same study shows that for hotels this means € 525 million in lost lodging revenue annually.
In urban space this development has produced very different effects, depending on the neighbourhood: In Koukaki (s. above) the rise is so dramatic, that real estate agents speak of a 30% price increase in a year, making it impossible for locals to find housing. Exarcheia is now turning into a nightlife neighbourhood catering to young hipsters keen to discover Athens’ allegedly most edgy area. What a change from the massive depression that were the streets of Athens in the midst of the crisis, when shops, bars and restaurants were closing one after the other, and the streets of the inner city at night resembled a desert.
The main obstacle in regulating short-term holiday rentals is the availability of data. It is practically impossible for public authorities to detect and punish infringements of the law (assuming there is one) so long as the provider platform refuses to cooperate. Authorities in Paris have managed to reach an agreement with Airbnb, which collects tourist tax on behalf of the city. In Barcelona, Airbnb is faced with high fines for allowing the listing of non-licensed apartments In June 2018 they agreed to forward their data to the city. In a similar vein, on December 2018 a court in Munich declared that Airbnb is obliged to provide its data freely to municipalities.
It is still difficult to show clear and unique causality between the affordability crisis, overtourism in general and short-term holiday rentals in Athens in particular. The real estate market is complicated worldwide as western metropolises have become safe havens for the overaccumulation of capital in very few hands. Athens is currently experiencing the massive sell-off of property to non-EU foreigners – in particular the Chinese. Greece offers a so-called “golden visa” (which translates into free movement between certain European countries according to the Schengen treaty) to anybody who invests over 250,000 Euros in the country. According to Enterprise Greece, half of the 3,400 golden visas granted since 2013 were granted to Chinese citizens.
However without in-depth research, we can only make informed guesses about what is occuring in Athens at present. Although short-term rental may be one of the factors behind the affordability crisis in certain areas, we must also seek culprits elsewhere. A combination of forces – some close by, some very far away – are radically reshaping the Athenian real estate landscape and its human geography. A look at how other cities have dealt with it, both successfully and unsuccessfully, may help us to mitigate the worst consequences of this development.
I would like to thank Jeroen A. Oskam who shared with me his thoughts and insights from his still unpublished book The Future of Airbnb and
the ‘Sharing Economy’. The Collaborative Consumption of our Cities. (Channel View Publications, Bristol & Blue Ridge Summit) .
 The rate of home ownership in Greece is 73%, slightly higher than the EU average (69%) https://www.statista.com/statistics/246355/home-ownership-rate-in-europe/