The (in)visibility of housing precarity in small greek municipalities

It may seem strange, in front of such an audience, at an event with a very specific goal! However, in this ten-minute presentation I would like to talk about visibility.

The first point about visibility: Housing researchers have identified the vertical social differentiation within our apartment buildings. People living on higher floors, possibly members of a more affluent social group, do not experience the same housing situation as those living on lower floors.

I point this out as a geographical and social fact: if a person holds a more privileged position in geographic space – for example, if they live and/or work in a good neighbourhood – but also in social space – if they live within more socially and economically enabling relationships – it is difficult for them to consider or meet people who hold weaker positions in the nooks and crannies of our societies, trapped in social relationships that absorb more energy and time.

Socially and geographically differentiated locations shape our daily lives so that we see nothing but people we look like.  It is therefore difficult to have an understanding of the problem of homelessness by people who are not affected by it, at least not in its most visible form.

That is why I am glad that we are invited by the central union of Greek municipalities, that is, among people who are politically active on an administrative scale that enables elected officials to have better communication with the people whose lives the govern with their decisions or lack thereof.

The second point about visibility: Although there are people who would prefer that some of our findings that emerge from our research on the small municipality of Naoussa not be made visible, or that they be made visible in a way more compatible with their institutional protocols, or that they be made visible to the extent that they agree with the prevailing positions of the organizing authorities, we insist that they should be made visible in the way our research team H.A.R.T.A (Housing Affordability in Real Terms Act) understands them.

The study, elements of which I will present, was mainly done with the cooperation of researchers and people who are familiar with the localities of Naoussa. It focuses on the housing challenges in Naoussa, in an attempt to make visible an unenlightened area: the lack of housing in small Greek municipalities, in an attempt to open cracks in the powerful myth according to which «small municipalities do not face housing challenges».

The studies and policies about housing, as well as the perception of the problem, are based on what is found in the country’s large cities.

This reproduces the lack of visibility of the housing needs of people in peripheral zones and smaller municipalities. It is typical that the available programmes, such as the Ministry of Labour’s ”Housing and Work” programme (Στέγαση και Εργασία), are not activated by small municipalities. This is because of:

(i) the inadequacy of local service providers

(ii) the lack of information

(iii) the low priority given to housing as a social issue in general but particularly in small municipalities.

This study documents that housing challenges and problems exist in smaller municipalities as well.

So I come to the following issue: the visibility of the problem.

I’m talking about the visibility of the problem — to understand something as a problem — as a concept that has two dimensions.

First, there is the concept in its simplest form: what we see to be a phenomenon that in its appearance is understood to be a «problem» (for example, rooflessness). The gravity here is given to the first word: visibility. Here, then, what probably needs to be done is to better illuminate the problem, to interrogate it in order to reveal its invisible, structural dimensions.

But there is also a problem that exists but we have been taught to look at it in a way that we cannot see it (for example, the invisible stigma of women living in violent patriarchal environments). There are variations of homelessness, involving a multitude of unseen situations of housing insecurity and deprivation that escape both public discourse and public policy.
Here the emphasis is given on the second word: problem. Here, then, rather, what needs to be done is to broaden the concept of problem so that invisible social relations of oppression become visible.  This is what FEANTSA is doing, for example, with the ETHOS typology that disconnects the concept of homelessness from rootlessness (the most extreme version of homelessness), and tells us that there are people who yes live in houses, but these houses are so inadequate, so inaccessible, so poorly maintained, so violent, so temporary, that the people who live there are homeless despite finding themselves in a house.

In Naoussa, there is the following problem: Even the most visible, the most blatantly visible cases of homelessness are treated as invisible. For example, the municipality of Naoussa, despite the myth according to which ”populations in small municipalities do not face housing problems”, has 8 roofless people, 56 people living in free allocated housing, 100 people fed daily in soup kitchens offered by the church. This is a large number when compared to the small, total population.

The political management of the issue is as follows: the municipal authority put 3 of these people, informally and temporarily, in the dressing rooms of the municipal theatre in the city, which are not often used. When there is a new play in town, these people are forced out. The remaining five roofless people live on the outskirts of the town and the local villages, in abandoned buildings, and their pleas to the municipality for shelter provision go unheeded.

Characteristically, an elected councillor told me in an interview: «These people are not wanted by their families either, even their own people kicked them out.» In other words, the administration refuses to see as structural, this blatant exclusion.

A similar example — and this was the triggering event for this study — is that in November 2019, when the Ministry of Migration decided to relocate about two hundred asylum-seekers to hotels around the city of Naoussa under the Philoxenia programme (by IOM), part of the local community reacted, even resorting to physical violence against the arriving families, while many elected representatives in the Naoussa Municipal Council took a defensive stance, using the argument that «the carrying capacity of the Municipality is limited» and that it cannot accommodate refugee families.

Despite their efforts to find a house in the municipality of Naoussa, asylum seekers were unable to gain access to any of the houses. At the end of the Philoxenia programme no family stayed in Naoussa. A municipal official was retrospectively asking himself: ‘I wonder why they did not stay’. They did not stay because there are structural, insurmountable barriers for these people that prevent them from accessing services that are inaccessible even to the local population, which leads to their further exclusion.

We initiated this study to test the validity of the claim about the «limited carrying capacity», whatever that means.

The hypothesis was simple: in the municipality of Naoussa, as in every small municipality in the country, there are a number of good quality houses that are vacant, which could, within the framework of a local housing strategy, adequately meet the housing needs of individuals and households facing housing problems.

We have methodologically chosen to collect data mainly – but not exclusively – through observation and interviews with people who have experienced homelessness. We supplemented these data with significant quantitative data (e.g. the number of benefit recipients and unemployed people in order to estimate how many might be at risk of poverty) or census data

(i)  to estimate how many people are experiencing homelessness

(ii) to estimate the state of the housing stock and the number of vacancies.

During the survey, we collected people’s testimonies and supplemented them with quantitative data. However, we wrote in reverse: we started from the big picture and got to the personal testimonies.

These data helped us document the housing paradox facing the municipality:

-Demographic shrinkage, an aging population, an outflow of the young population.

-The working population decreased from 12,216 people in 2001 to 9,774 people in 2011 (20% decrease), while the number of people looking for work increased from 1117 to 2013 people (80% increase).

– The predominant household structure changed from multi-member to two/one-member households. There are small households in large houses, while at the same time smaller households are looking for adequate housing but cannot find any.

-Of the 15,140 dwellings, 3,376 dwellings were inactive or sparsely occupied in 2011.

-There were 3,058 unemployed people in 2019, a trend that increased under Covid. In February 2021, there were 719 beneficiaries of Minimum Guaranteed Income, and there were 1,492 tenant beneficiaries of Housing Benefit. 8 people living on the street, as there is no local policy on homelessness, nor formal homeless shelters. 

-37.4% of the total population lived in uninsulated homes, with a significant number of people living without basic amenities such as heating and bathroom. Overall, 13.5% of the total population faced more or less acute forms of housing problems. 

It is important to mention the pressure experienced by young people forced to return to parental housing and women trapped in oppressive environments. Let alone asylum seekers and those who do not have access to the resources of the informal family welfare system that makes up for the absence of formal welfare structures.

The distillate:

The Municipality of Naoussa, like many other regional municipalities in Greece, is a demographically and socially shrinking municipality. The younger population is moving away to larger urban centers in Greece and abroad, and this migration creates a multitude of inactive housing resources. Already, according to the 2011 census data, it appears that almost 1/5 of the building stock in the municipality remains vacant and unused, while at the same time there are still people living on the street.

On this basis, the refusal to create this mechanism to provide housing assistance to asylum seekers hurts the large number of poor households and people who do not have access to affordable housing and could benefit from a local housing strategy.

Another point about visibility: Growth, is tautological with a process of adapting localities  to make them fit and attractive to international and domestic investors, mainly for tourism. What has not yet become visible is the potential that a social policy can have as a local infrastructure to meet the basic needs of residents and improve the quality of life as a whole.

It is significant that an anonymous source, working for the municipality reported that the request of the Local Welfare Centre to be relocated from the building on the outskirts of the city to a more central location where it could be more easily accessible, by residents, was turned down because the space was reserved to become a tourist information centre.

Instead of seeing welfare as a burden on the budget, housing can be part of a broader policy of peripheral regeneration. But first we must agree that housing policy is not just based on subsidies, but consists of a web of interventions that is needed.

The steps we propose:

-to expand and strengthen financial support for populations in housing precarity. Financial support to beneficiaries should be strengthened, but also include those populations who are now not benefiting from existent support programmes, to facilitate their access to adequate housing, based on local needs and specificities.

– A local survey of the number and an assessment of the quality of unused houses and buildings in the Municipality of Naoussa and the identification of their owners.

-The creation of a municipal body to manage the available housing stock, ensuring its long-term affordability and adequacy.

– The provision of incentives to owners of vacant and unused housing to facilitate the reintegration of the dwindling housing stock into the local market at affordable prices in a way that is mutually beneficial to all parties.

-Upgrading, maintaining and/or reconfiguring the available building stock to increase the supply of affordable housing in line with the housing needs of the City’s residents.

The timing is favourable as financial resources from the Recovery Fund are available for the repair and energy upgrading of the cities’ building stock.

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