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Changements et dynamiques récentes des pratiques habitatives dans les métropoles de l’Europe du Sud

Re‑inhabiting central Athens: urban planning, housing and the claim for socio‑spatial justice

Ré‑habiter le centre d’Athènes : urbanisme, logement et revendication de justice socio‑spatiale
Dimitra Siatitsa
p. 7-29


En partant de la discussion sur “le retour du logement” dans les quartiers centraux et défavorisés d’Athènes, cet article examinera comment ces préoccupations ont été débattues et quel type de politiques ont été proposées ou mises en œuvre à différents moments. Plus précisément, il examine comment la question du logement a été perçue dans les politiques de régénération urbaine depuis les années 1980, et comment le débat a évolué en relation avec le système de logement et d’urbanisme grec et d’autres facteurs conjoncturels. Malgré les efforts et les revendications visant à renforcer le rôle de l’État en tant que garant de l’intérêt public et de la cohésion sociale, dans l’ensemble, les interventions de régénération urbaine ne prennent guère en compte les effets négatifs de la mise à niveau sur ses habitants et utilisations les moins protégés. Tracer la mémoire institutionnelle de la politique urbaine pour le centre d’Athènes contribue à une meilleure compréhension des dépendances de chemin, des perceptions courantes et des potentiels inexploités. L’article souligne la nécessité de reconnaître la fonction sociale du centre-ville et de recadrer la question de la ré‑habitation du centre-ville du point de vue de la justice socio-spatiale, en accordant la priorité à l’accessibilité du logement et à l’inclusion sociale.

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  • 1 The terms “enhancement of housing” and “re‑inhabitation” are literally translated from Greek texts (...)

1The “return” to the city centre, the “enhancement” of housing and the “re‑inhabitation” of the central neighbourhoods of Athens, have been recurring themes in the public discourse and urban policy debates, since the 1980s.1 The debate has evolved in relation to broader socio-economic and political transformations that affect, at each conjuncture, the urban planning rationale and the way urban problems are being constructed. However, given the lack of a social housing policy sector, the weak planning tradition and the highly fragmented and socially diffused property structure (including the absence of large housing land-owners and a professionalised or social rental sector), it has remained rather vague regarding what kind of public intervention is needed, and mainly echoes expectations for the attraction of middle‑ and upper‑middle classes and capital investment, as a solution to urban degradation.

2Within a framework of broad consent regarding the right to property and micro-speculation, the claim for the “re‑inhabitation” of central Athens and its policy responses rarely take into account issues of housing and real‑estate affordability or the negative effects of upgrading on its less protected inhabitants and uses. Strategic plans and urban policies focus mainly on physical interventions on public space, leaving the upgrading of private space and housing to market processes. The weak development of institutional intervention tools and the lack of previous experience make it difficult to even imagine the policy strategies that could be mobilised towards a more socially just and inclusive urban policy. Moreover, attempts to formulate proposals that prioritise social goals, together with economic or environmental ones, are usually deemed as out of scope, confusing or unrealistic.

3Yet, within the existing institutional and legal framework we can trace efforts made at different moments, to strengthen the role of the state as a guarantor of public interest and social cohesion, and to equip central and local administrations with policy tools for urban regeneration processes towards less market-based directions, aiming at mitigating socio-spatial inequalities and ameliorating living conditions for all inhabitants in an equal way. These were the outcome of prior processes of intense scientific and public debate dealing with the “crisis” and downgrading of the city centre, to find solutions for environmental problems, congestion or depopulation, de‑industrialisation and economic decline. However, in most cases, these legal provisions remained incomplete, inactive or did not have the expected outcomes.

The inclusionary function of urban housing and its limits

  • 2 Leontidou 1990; Mantouvalou, Mavridou, Vaiou 1995.
  • 3 Arapoglou et al. 2015; Vaiou et al. 2007.
  • 4 Dimitrakou et al. 2022.
  • 5 Alexandri 2014.
  • 6 The familistic welfare model in comparative studies refers to welfare systems where the family is a (...)
  • 7 Emmanuel 2004; Papadopoulos, Roumpakis 2013; Siatitsa 2016.
  • 8 Maloutas, Siatitsa, Balampanidis 2020; Balampanidis et al. 2021.

4Urban sociological and geographic literature since the 1990s has contributed to this debate by highlighting the unintended, still socially positive, outcomes of the Athenian urbanisation trajectory. Besides the important urban problems that have been created, housing production mechanisms and processes of urban development, contributed also to the social inclusion of different waves of incoming population and have produced lively and socially mixed neighbourhoods particularly in the central areas.2 At the same time, the scientific debate brought to the fore hidden inequalities and processes of social exclusion.3 Social segregation and unequal socio-spatial hierarchies in this densely built urban environment, took the form of vertical micro-segregation within the dominant urban residential unit, that of the multi storey apartment building.4 The socially dispersed housing ownership, the structural inertia of the fragmented residential fabric, together with external conjunctural factors that overturned anticipated urban upgrading processes, have often been pointed as the causes of delayed, postponed or incomplete processes of gentrification.5 Factors that also make public intervention more complex. This has given the alibi for not questioning the prevailing approach to urban regeneration processes, that reduces the role of the public sector to the facilitator of private interests and avoids responsibility for the negative socio-economic implications. It is thus expected that urban populations will make their way on their own, based on available assets and networks. Nevertheless, the neoliberalisation of the economy since the 1990s and the last decade of austerity, economic recession and multiple crises, have reduced the resources and resilience of the Greek familistic welfare model6 and small-scale property.7 The recent uncontrolled market‑led urban renewal processes, supported by the diffusion potentials of the platform economy and policies seeking to attract real‑estate investment, are reducing available pockets of affordability and are putting pressure on less affluent inhabitants and small-businesses, potentially leading to their displacement.8

Questions for equitable urban policies

  • 9 The proposal for the creation of a “Grand promenade” in the centre of Athens was included in the pr (...)

5The debate on the “return of housing” re‑emerged recently in the framework of municipal plans for the regeneration of the centre, mostly through pedestrianisations and urban space redesign, having as a main frame “sustainable mobility” and “public space upgrading”.9 Middle and upper classes, young creatives and digital nomads are portrayed as the desired city centre inhabitants that will give a new boost to the local economy, which is becoming increasingly dependent on tourism. Once more, the proposed policies from both the local and central state, rather seek to enhance processes of urban speculation, contributing to gentrification and touristification that jeopardise the inclusivity and multifunctionality of the centre. At the same time, demands for assessing the social and economic impacts of such policies, particularly on housing prices, and claims for inclusionary urban policies, are discursively acknowledged but practically ignored.

  • 10 Bengtsson, Ruonavaara 2010.

6The chapter revisits urban policies for the centre of Athens in relation to housing and traces the institutional memory and concerns of the urban planning community. The historical evolution of a specific policy field, that of urban planning and housing policies, is narrated in order to contextualise how the issue of housing has been introduced within urban policies in the Athenian context. It is argued that a historical perspective can shed light on the process of policy evolution, and explain prevailing or common perceptions and attitudes in relation to specific policy fields (what is considered possible, legitimate, efficient or not).10 By looking at shortcomings and potentials, it seeks to contribute to the reframing of the issue of “re‑inhabiting” the centre and urban upgrading within urban policy debate and practice, from the perspective of socio-spatial justice, prioritising housing affordability and social inclusion.

7The first part of the paper briefly refers to inner-city urban regeneration processes in Southern European Metropolises and explains Athens’ particular characteristics. The second, traces how public debates and policies for the centre of Athens have dealt with the issue of housing and social inclusion since the 1980s. The third part discusses urban regeneration in Athens from the perspective of spatial justice and concludes with some closing remarks.

Inner-city urban regeneration in Southern European cities and the case of Athens

  • 11 Smith 1996; Atkinson, Bridge 2005.
  • 12 Leontidou 1990; Mantouvalou et al. 1995; Maloutas 2012; Allen et al. 2004.
  • 13 Malheiros 2002; Arbaci 2008; Arapoglou et al. 2021.

8Re‑inhabiting city centres emerged as an urban issue in most European and north American cities as suburbanisation trends, de‑industrialisation, changing urban economies and consumption standards lead many historical, inner city and old business centres to depopulation and decline. The inward trend of middle and upper classes – “rediscovering the centre” – that followed, led to processes of gentrification and displacement of working and lower income classes, in many cases supported by state‑led inner city regeneration projects.11 The distinct trajectories and characteristics of such processes in Southern European (SE) cities have been studied by many scholars, stressing also the need to contextualise urban concepts and policies.12 In SE cities, late urbanisation, predominance of home-ownership and low levels of residential mobility did not lead to a complete abandonment of the central areas by middle and upper classes. At the same time, weak zoning systems, urban informality, and the gradual ageing of older city parts, created diversified and dense urban environments, combining low levels of socio-spatial segregation, together with high group deprivation and marginalisation.13

  • 14 Arbaci 2008.
  • 15 The decontextualized use of the term “gentrification” has been strongly criticized (see Maloutas 20 (...)
  • 16 Well known cases in the literature are the Raval and Casc Antic in Barcelona (Arbaci, Tapada-Bertel (...)

9Despite important differences in timing, extent and local specificities, processes of urban renewal and gentrification in SE urban cores started since the mid‑1970s with programmes for the rehabilitation of older city parts and historical centres focusing on urban conservation and land‑use control. In the 1980s and 1990s such processes have been influenced by the European Union (EU) towards more integrated socio-economic and environmental approaches (at least on a discursive level), while globalisation trends and the neoliberalisation of urban policies established market‑led urban regeneration models, promoting private-public partnerships, and focusing on strategic urban redevelopment projects. According to Arbaci,14 the typical modi operandi for dealing with issues of urban poverty, marginalisation and degradation in Southern Europe, privileged area-based urban programmes, and emergency policies. Processes of gentrification,15 gradually altering the socio-spatial hierarchy of central neighbourhoods, started in a scattered way and intensified as a result of specific urban and economic strategies.16 The effects of the global financial crisis and austerity regimes, increased the dependence of Southern European local economies on global capital, adopting strategies and policies to attract investment, particularly on urban real‑estate markets, further aggravating problems of housing affordability and social marginalisation. Touristification is currently a major problem that Southern European cities are facing, and although the Covid‑19 pandemic caused a pause, the goals of sustainable tourism and inclusivity remain critical.

  • 17 Karadimitriou, Maloutas, Arapoglou 2021.
  • 18 It is worth noting that this exchange‑in-kind mechanism was not a product of any specific policy bu (...)
  • 19 The rental sector is 38% in the municipality of Athens and 20% nationwide (National Statistical Aut (...)
  • 20 Maloutas, Karadimitriou 2001; Dimitrakou et al. 2022.
  • 21 See Arapoglou, Maloutas, Siatitsa 2019; Dimitrakou 2021.

10Athens stands out as a particular case due to its specific land ownership and housing structures, but also due to the predominance of central politics on the city’s development, low administrative decentralisation, and the underdevelopment of urban policy mechanisms, including area-based urban programmes. The explosive post‑war population growth of the city gave rise to a model combining expansion and intensification, resulting in a dense multifunctional urban fabric and high mixity of uses and social strata.17 Central areas became congested, with lack of urban amenities, incompatibility of uses, as small‑scale manufacturing activity often developed within residential areas (and vice versa), and loss of their architectural heritage. Rapid uncontrolled reconstruction and densification processes through a particular exchange-in-kind (land-for-apartments) housing production model (called “antiparohi”)18 that dominated in most of the central neighbourhoods of the municipality of Athens and adjacent municipalities, particularly between the 1960s and the early 1980s, resulted in the replacement of most of the city’s old residential stock and the production of an abundant – and diversified‑ housing stock belonging to small-landowners of a wide social range. The private rental sector in these areas is significantly larger than the national or the city average19 and has provided affordable housing solutions to home-ownership outsiders (low incomes, transitory workers, students, youth and migrants). After a period of population boom culminating in the 1980s the city witnessed important demographic shrinkage slightly mitigated by the settlement of migrants since the 1990s. Suburbanisation trends, residential mobility of upper and middle classes and migration, changed the social composition of central areas, parallel to increasing marginalisation and concentration of poverty. The outcome has been high social mixity and low levels of neighbourhood segregation, which instead followed a pattern of vertical social differentiation at the micro-level of the apartment building.20 Today, most of these densely built areas have a very fragmented and ageing housing stock, renovated and maintained, dilapidated or deserted, depending on the financial capacities and the exploitation strategy of its owner(s). Additionally, in the same areas a very large and diversified vacant stock of housing, office, retail and former manufacturing buildings remains unused.21

11Of course, the centre of Athens is not homogenous. It comprises a multiplicity of different neighbourhoods requiring more targeted planning approaches. The Historic Centre was legally defined in 1979 and includes the old core around the Acropolis, the traditional commercial centre (the so‑called Commercial Triangle), the old administrative and business centre (between Syntagma and Omonia squares), former mixed housing and manufacturing areas that have developed leisure and entertainment activities (such as Psiri, Metaxourgio, Gazi, Kerameikos) and the neighbourhood of Exarchia, well known for its youth and political culture. On a Metropolitan level, the broader centre identifies with the administrative boundaries of the Municipality of Athens, including most of the old neighbourhoods of antiparohi (such as Kypseli, Patissia, Koukaki, Pagrati). In the public debate on the “re‑inhabitation” of the city, the limits, definitions, and perceptions of the centre, change according to the main issues at stake during different conjunctures, and so does the location of proposed public policies (Map 2). However, public policies have focused mostly on the historic centre, and the north-western neighbourhoods that combine high rates of socio-economic deprivation (Map 1) together with physical deterioration of the built environment due to decades of disinvestment.

Map 1. Social differentiation of residential areas in Athens (Based on the spatial distribution of “upper professional categories”).

Map 1. Social differentiation of residential areas in Athens (Based on the spatial distribution of “upper professional categories”).

Produced by S. Spyrellis.

Re‑inhabiting central Athens: how is housing introduced in the public debate and urban regeneration policies

  • 22 Due to weak decentralisation and lack of a strong local administration, the city centre is the terr (...)

12In this section we will try to follow how the debate on the “re‑inhabitation” of the centre is reflected in the institutional framework and policy tools. The paper adopts a broad perspective on the definition of urban policy, and looks at different legal, regulatory and strategic plans, projects and funding schemes, that are articulated around the centre and promoted by different actors and governance levels.22 The aim is to understand the interplay between different public initiatives and dominant perceptions of urban regeneration for the centre and the central neighbourhoods of Athens, and how these have dealt with the issue of housing. These policy-making processes are influenced by broader socio-political restructurings, antagonistic political agendas, private economic interests, conflicting views about the role of the centre and social movements actions and claims (having the centre of Athens both as a terrain of their activity and a political stake per se).

  • 23 See also Pagonis 2013.

13Important milestones in the formation of the urban planning institutional framework during the last four decades have been: a) the Operation of Urban Restructuring during the 1980s, b) the development of the legal framework for urban regeneration interventions influenced by the EU urban policy directions in the 1990s, c) the 2004 Olympic games that reoriented urban policy towards a more neoliberal agenda promoting the “international role” of Athens, and d) the “crisis” of the city centre in the post-Olympic period and during the first years of the crisis-management austerity regime and economic recession (2007–2015).23 The following years of gradual but feeble recovery were strongly determined, first by the so‑called “refugee crisis” since the summer of 2015, that resulted in the informal and formal settlement of refugees and asylum seekers in central areas of Athens. Later, since 2017, by the tourist‑led reheating of the real‑estate market mainly through short‑term rentals and international investment schemes, particularly affecting the central neighbourhoods of Athens, after almost ten years of economic stagnation. More recently, policies targeting the centre have been oriented towards promoting Athens as a tourist destination and attracting foreign real‑estate investment. The pandemic has added another important turning point, putting new challenges on urban policies, and urging us to rethink how to collectively (re)‑inhabit our cities.

The era of progressive planning reforms

  • 24 Triantis 2017; Poulios 2022.
  • 25 Pagonis 2013.

14The progressive and radical socio-political processes of the post-dictatorship era, culminated in the case of urban planning, in the Operation of Urban Restructuring (EPA) that resulted in the consolidation of the spatial planning system in Greece in its current form.24 The Regulatory Plan of Athens (RPA) since 1985 has been the main reference for the development of urban policies. Despite its weak implementation and subsequent reforms (the last one in 2014), it has guided the implementation of important interventions and flagship projects25 and has set recurring strategic planning goals for central Athens. Concerns of that time had been the excessive concentration of population and activities in the Municipality of Athens and the congestion and deterioration of environmental conditions in central districts. Key goals have been to enhance a polycentric metropolitan organisation, decentralise public administration, restrict unwanted activities, promote the historic character of the centre, ameliorate the environmental conditions (by reducing traffic, preserving green areas, reducing building volume and implementing urban regeneration projects) and support residential uses. Similar goals were included in the General Urban Plan (GUP) of Athens in 1988.

15In the consequent years, the perceptions for central Athens reversed, due to the sharp decline and ageing of its population and urban degradation, parallel to the continuous and uncontrolled urban sprawl. In relation to residential uses, concerns were expressed for its changing social structure and the growing concentration of working classes, low incomes, and migrants. Following the EU urban discourse, preparatory debates and RPA reforms promoted the idea of the “compact city”, sustainable development and social cohesion. The measures proposed intended to attract new inhabitants, cultural and economic activity towards the centre.

  • 26 Triantis 2017.

16A series of special regulatory use zoning frameworks were developed from late 1970s until 1998, following the regulatory plans goals, for areas of the centre, such as the historical core, the traditional commercial centre, former manufacturing/industrial areas and traditional residential neighbourhoods. The protection and enhancement of residential activity included in the institutional framework produced during that period, remained rather normative and was never promoted with more proactive interventions. Housing upgrading and provision was left to the initiative of owners and private investors. As Triantis26 explains: “In the case of Plaka (the historical core) the policy has been effective in “cleaning” unwanted uses and protecting cultural heritage, contributing as well to the gentrification of the area. At the end it did not manage to control the domination of tourism and entertainment, while housing is mostly addressed to high incomes. In the other central areas, especially the commercial centre and former manufacturing areas (Psiri, Metaxourgio, Gazi), residential activities were only sporadically enhanced, as the anticipated demand in the real estate market did not develop”. The main reasons behind the ineffectiveness of these institutional attempts to enhance housing according to Triantis have been the uncontrolled and “aggressive” expansion of leisure activities, the exclusion of residential activities for non-residential initial land uses (such as the prevailing typology of the manufacturing/office building) and the normative character of the measures that was not supported by an adequate driving framework for their implementation.

  • 27 Aravantinos 1997.
  • 28 The proposed interventions ranged from complete or partial demolition of blocks in order to rebuild (...)

17In parallel, several urban upgrading studies were commissioned by the Municipality of Athens between 1992 and 1996. These tried to find solutions for the amelioration of the urban environment, particularly in the degraded central neighbourhoods. The proposals included improvements in traffic arrangements and parking, preservation of significant buildings and monuments, protection and upgrading of green and open spaces, and completion of urban infrastructures. Improving urban life was expected to attract middle / upper classes and produce a positive multiplier effect on local economies and urban upgrading. Ideas to enhance residential uses, particularly for the commercial triangle of Athens, included the refurbishment of empty public service buildings to create housing for students and young people and the imposition of residential uses on upper floors.27 The growing number of empty buildings and apartments, was contrasted with the housing unaffordability and housing inadequacy that different groups were facing. The need to develop social housing in the existing stock to address the housing problems of the local population, was broadly mentioned in some of the studies without further elaboration. Different ways of intervention at the level of urban blocks or at the level of the multi-storey apartment building were explored.28 The solutions proposed, mainly of aesthetic and technical character, have haunted the architectural and urban planning imaginary regarding the manifold potentials of upgrading the typical Athenian urban block and residential building. Nonetheless, such ideas never managed to be implemented, due to the fragmented ownership structure, weak public intervention capacity, but also weak social and political consensus/understanding on collective intervention in private property.

  • 29 Emmanuel 2004.
  • 30 Urban regeneration schemes to address housing needs have been scarce in Greece and have been implem (...)

18During that same period, housing policy had crystallised in its typical post-war Greek version, characterised by limited direct state intervention and predilection towards homeownership.29 By the 1980s the main public body with housing competence, the Workers Housing Organisation (OEK), had significantly reduced its construction programme and was oriented towards rent and loan subsidies. An interesting attempt to develop innovative housing production mechanisms, has been the Public Company of Settlements and Housing (DEPOS), that experimented with housing upgrading in dilapidated refugee and workers housing complexes.30 Both organisations did not implement programmes at the centre. Besides tax reductions and subsidised loans for first home buyers and the rent benefit provided by OEK for workers of the private sector, owner-tenant relations and rent prices are regulated through the market. Rent control was imposed at different phases since the 1920s and was abolished in 1996, viewed as a measure that caused shortages and disinvestment. All in all, we could say that given the absence of a strong housing policy agenda, housing and social inclusion have been handled with indirect policy interventions, while sectoral policies such as education, employment support or migrants’ integration did not develop a particular spatial approach.

Incorporating the EU urban agenda and betting on globalisation

  • 31 Tasopoulou, Lainas 2017.

19The term “Degraded Urban Areas” was introduced in the legal framework for urban regeneration projects in 1996, under the influence of EU policy and the repercussions of the debates of the previous decade. The law remained rather inactive and was never fully exploited or updated. Its weak implementation has been attributed mainly to its rigid, bureaucratic, and state-centered approach,31 but it also relates to changing priorities since 2000. The framework for urban regeneration, refers to housing only in terms of degradation of the residential stock. In the definition of urban regeneration, there is a provision for special “Social Housing Regeneration Projects” to address housing needs in the area of intervention or in a broader area. This planning tool was intended to upscale the previous experience of DEPOS, however, it was never activated in the central areas (nor elsewhere).

  • 32 Tsoulouvis 1996; Karadimitriou, Maloutas, Arapoglou 2021.
  • 33 Karadimitriou, Maloutas, Arapoglou 2021, p. 21.

20Eventually, what prevailed was a narrow type of urban regeneration based on physical upgrading of public space, pedestrianization and urban infrastructure.32 Consequences, in terms of real‑estate price increases and use changes are rarely evaluated, while the role of such interventions in indirectly redistributing urban values among the broad social category of small-landowners and small entrepreneurs, results in their widespread acceptance. It is the most disadvantaged groups which are “not only excluded from planning but suffer the exercise of real and symbolic violence by the state.”33

  • 34 See for example Economou 2000.

21Since the late 1990s, parallel to the process of European unification, there was a clear neoliberal turn in spatial politics, promoting the “international role” of Athens that focused on the preparation of the Olympic games in 2004.34 During that period housing does no longer seem to be on the agenda. The liberalisation of the financial market and the expansion of cheap credit counterbalanced the sharp increase of the living costs due to the entry of Greece in the Eurozone in 2001. Mortgaged baked housing production and consumption intensified urban sprawl and led to sharp increases in prices, also setting the floor for household indebtment. Complex and integrated regeneration programmes were abandoned, in favour of infrastructure works and large construction projects consuming important land reserves and driving the process of urban growth. The increase in funding flows of that period accelerated the implementation of important flagship projects in the centre of Athens, the most emblematic one being the unification of archaeological sites. Still, the main goal has been the aesthetic upgrading of the city centre and the enhancement of tourist and cultural industries.

Discussing the social dimension in crisis‑ridden Athens

  • 35 Siatitsa 2016; Chadjimichalis 2014.

22It was during the post-Olympic and early-crisis years, that the lack of social and public benefit concerns in urban policy became more evident. The economic recession, abrupt pauperisation of the population and urban decline were particularly felt in the neighbourhoods of Athens, while the centre also became the scene of mass social discontent and protest. Privatisation of public assets and increases in property taxation for repaying the public debt became main strategic goals, accelerating processes of housing and land dispossession.35 The restriction of available resources suspended plans for urban interventions. The advent of a socialist government in 2009 triggered a turn towards green politics, prioritising environmental concerns. Policy initiatives targeting the centre included improving the energy efficiency of the building stock and promoting sustainable mobility, in line with EU guidelines and funding frameworks. A debate for the reform of the RPA started in 2009 and a draft law was completed in 2011. However, its current version was legislated in 2014 in a slightly different form by a right-wing and socialist party coalition, clearly promoting a more pro‑growth and entrepreneurial approach.

  • 36 Ministry of Environment June 2010.
  • 37 Ministry of Environment July 2011.

23The actions proposed for the centre, within the broader programme “Athens-Attica 2014-Vision, Priorities and Initial Actions” by the Ministry of Environment and Planning,36 promoted typical public space upgrading projects, described an Integrated Urban Regeneration process for the centre with interventions on both public and private, built and unbuilt space, and to a certain extent, reproduced the dominant discourse about the ghettoization of central areas, giving the lead to the Ministry of Public Order. Housing proposals included incentives for property owners and tenants in order to reactivate businesses and residential uses, and collaboration with OEK (in order to develop a new approach for social housing) and with the Ministry of Interiors (in order to develop temporary shelters for vulnerable groups). However, they remained quite vague. Emphasis was given on low energy consumption housing and environmental technical standards for a “Green city”. The policy report “Strategic Priorities for the RPA 2021”, published in 2011,37 promoted the concept of the “compact city” and intended to give incentives to the construction sector for the refurbishment and reuse of urban land and buildings. It was suggested that urban regeneration policy should combine urban planning and social welfare targets, towards social cohesion, environmental protection, and development of cultural activities.

  • 38 Koutrolikou, Siatitsa 2011; Encounter Athens 2011; Maloutas et al. 2013.
  • 39 Balampanidis, Siatitsa, Vatavali 2011; Chatzikonstantinou, Samarinis, Spanou 2011.
  • 40 Koutrolikou, Siatitsa 2011.

24The “Action Plan for the Centre”, announced in 2011 by the Municipality of Athens in collaboration with the three ministries mentioned above, included measures to prevent petty crime and increase policing, amelioration/beautification of public spaces and care structures. The promotion of typical urban regeneration projects for the centre of Athens – the pedestrianisation of Panepistimiou street, named “Rethink Athens” being the most emblematic one – as a means to overcome the already evident economic collapse and “urban crisis”, triggered a broad and intense dialogue.38 The social usefulness of the proposed interventions for the vast majority of impoverished and deprived urban population was questioned, while it was estimated that socio-spatial injustices would increase.39 The claim for the “return of inhabitants” became again central to the policy debate. Within increased stigmatisation and immigrant scapegoating that nurtured far‑right attitudes, the diagnosis of the “flight of the middle and upper classes from the centre”, also became an issue of “Greek flight”.40 The strategy adopted aimed at attracting higher incomes in the most degraded areas, providing tax incentives for real‑estate buyers and renters. Existing conditions of extreme deprivation or the socio-economic impact of the measures in the area, were not addressed.

Map 2. Boundaries of intervention plans in the Municipality of Athens.

Map 2. Boundaries of intervention plans in the Municipality of Athens.

Produced by S. Spyrellis.

25In 2014, an “Integrated Urban Intervention Plan” (SOAP) for the western neighbourhoods of Athens was issued, activating for the first time a strategic planning tool introduced in the spatial law of 1999 with the aim to address critical and complex issues of developmental lagging, social and economic cohesion, environmental degradation, and quality of life. Although it was supposed to deal with the most deprived areas of the centre, it included a very broad – and rather incoherent – range of targets and fields of intervention aiming at rebranding Athens. Issues of poverty were approached from the perspective of safety and criminality, while instead of dealing with housing precarity and inadequacy, the plan proposed actions to activate the real estate market for refurbishing vacant buildings. The action plan was never really implemented and was bypassed in 2017 by Athens’ Integrated Territorial Investment (OHE) with the title “Athens 2020: Sustainable Development for Tourism, Culture, Innovation”, submitted in the framework of the EU structural funds. Its limits extend beyond the SOAP confines, further blurring the targeting of deprived areas. Housing related actions include temporary accommodation for homeless people and energy upgrading of buildings, with limited allocation of funds.

Recent trends: refugee housing, the rent issue, and an emerging debate on housing policy

  • 41 Papatzani 2020.

26The agenda for the city centre changed since the summer of 2015, which besides the heated political events of the referendum against austerity, witnessed the abrupt increase of refugee flows. The centre of Athens, a transitory station towards Europe, became the scene of solidarity actions and public policies for receiving and accommodating refugees. The lack of social housing policies and inclusion mechanisms was very much felt when a more permanent support system for the newcomers was needed. The relocation programme for asylum seekers by the UNHCR that provided short-term accommodation in apartments, was one of the few public policies that since 2016 indirectly channelled public funds into the deprived areas of the city, by renting often low quality and less desired privately owned apartments. The positive effects of such programmes on local economies and neighbourhoods, as well as on the integration of refugees, has been stressed by research.41 The conditions in the real‑estate market in 2015 (low prices, high rates of vacancies, low demand, tenants-owners mistrust due to high levels of arrears) were favourable for the programme, allowing the municipal agency and NGOs responsible for its implementation to access in less than one year a large number of apartments and buildings, albeit concentrated in the most deprived areas where there was abundant offer. The situation was quite different some years later, when the reactivation of the real‑estate market and the increased tourist demand increased housing prices and made it much more difficult and expensive for accommodation programmes to rent apartments.

  • 42 Balampanidis et al. 2021.

27Boosting the real‑estate and tourist sectors as a way out of the crisis was a strategic choice of international players that strongly affected the southern European economies and cities. Special agreements and legislative reforms facilitated capital investment on residential real‑estate, enabled by mechanisms of the platform economy, deeply affecting housing systems, unequally distributing gains to specific areas and social groups, while increasing inequalities and marginalisation for the many.42 Attempts to regulate the expansion of short‑term rentals has focused mainly on fiscal aspects (registering, taxation), while there is a hesitance in imposing land use restrictions and stricter operational standards, due to the widespread participation of small-scale owners and professionals in this business. Despite the short disruption of the pandemic lockdowns, the transformation of housing units and buildings into touristic uses and luxury products is expanding, as institutional and professionalised actors are activated in the housing market and residential real‑estate management, accelerating processes of commercialisation and financialisation of housing.

  • 43 A new package of housing measures was introduced by the government in December 2022 in reaction to (...)

28Skyrocketing rents and housing prices, parallel to the cost‑of living and energy crisis, affecting broader parts of the population turned the housing issue into a political priority, enhanced by the European priorities to address housing affordability and the “European Green Deal” funds for upgrading the building stock. Concerns have focused mostly on the issue of younger generations, their reduced access to mortgage lending and declining home-ownership rates, linked also to the country’s demographic decline. However, besides a nationwide means-tested rent subsidy introduced early 2019, Greece still lacks a coherent and long-term affordable and social housing policy.43 The effort to develop integration policies for newcomers, has been abandoned by the current government, reducing public resources, shutting down the urban accommodation program and evicting many refugee squats from the centre. Available alternatives for refugees and the homeless are reduced, leading to the congestion of accommodation camps, growing visible and invisible homelessness and precarious housing. Controlling short-term rentals, housing prices and real‑estate investment are still deemed as counter-productive. At the same time, the accessibility of the centre is further jeopardised by ongoing urban regeneration projects, such as the plan to remove nine ministries and 14,000 public servants towards a peripheral brownfield redevelopment area, the upgrading of the archaeological museum and other public spaces, backed by strong entrepreneurial real‑estate and touristic interests. Certainly, the rapid touristification of the city and uncontrolled real‑estate market reduces the margins for the implementation of socially just urban policies and produces further inequalities and exclusion.

Discussing re‑inhabitation under the frame of socially just urban and housing policies

  • 44 Fraser 2009.
  • 45 See Lees, Ley 2008; Shaw 2008.
  • 46 Arbaci, Tapada-Berteli 2012.
  • 47 Branco, Alves 2015; Balsas 2007.
  • 48 Arapoglou et al. 2021, p. 17.

29The three-dimensional conceptualisation of justice proposed by Nancy Fraser44 incorporates the political dimension of representation (how), alongside the economic dimension of distribution (what) and the cultural dimension of recognition (who). However, framing and operationalising these dimensions into urban policy discourses and practice in order to achieve transformative impact against injustices, misrecognition and misrepresentation is not an obvious task. The development of socially just urban policies that can improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of deprived central neighbourhoods, while at the same time protecting and boosting local economies, without triggering gentrification processes, is a major concern in critical urban policy debates.45 Area‑based regeneration programmes, similar to the ones implemented in other SE metropolises, such as Barcelona46 or Lisbon,47 have never been really tested in the Athenian context. Still, as Arapoglou et al.48 stress, the urban intervention model that has prevailed for the centre of Athens reproduces injustices, through misrecognition of the needs of the many and redistribution in favour of well‑placed private interests. At the same time, it lacks structures and processes of representation.

30Efforts made in previous decades to introduce socio-economic concerns into urban policy, expressed first through a more normative perception of planning rule and second through EU directions for the development of integrated interventions to address urban poverty, remain pending. Considering the challenges and uncertainties posed by the ongoing multiple crises, and strong dynamics of commodification of housing and urban space, the questions for urban interventions and regeneration policies for the centre of Athens remains: what kind of “re‑inhabitation” and for who?

  • 49 Emmanuel 2002.

31A first crucial step towards reframing the claim for the “re‑inhabitation” of the centre, would be the recognition of its social function. Market-oriented approaches posit that “trickle down” effects through market upgrading processes will benefit broader parts of the population, however this stance has only reproduced inequalities and intensified pockets of deprivation (or reversely pockets of wealth). The established urban regeneration policies in Athens work unilaterally from the perspective of the real‑estate market, targeting more affluent city users, resulting in either displacing weaker populations or disinvestment in areas with less demand.49 Still, there are no mechanisms to systematically document their economic impact (i.e. on land and housing prices), changes in use and social composition and the uneven distribution of resources, that could contribute to the broader delegitimisation of the prevailing policy approaches and give voice to the social groups affected.

  • 50 Shaw 2008; Emmanuel 2013; Kotsila et al. 2020.

32Reducing housing inequalities, providing access to decent housing and urban resources to less affluent groups and decommodifying housing and land, is a core part of a fairer urban regeneration policy.50 The lack of a specific strategy and tools to address negative social implications of urban development and provide affordable housing as part of urban regeneration policies in Greece (and Athens in particular) is an important deficit from the perspective of socio-spatial justice and social sustainability. Particularly in the current conjuncture, imagining and implementing urban policies based on the principles of participation, recognition and equitable distribution of resources should be prioritised against narratives of exclusionary city branding and tourist development.

  • 51 Bengtsson, Ruonavaara 2010.
  • 52 Arapoglou, Maloutas, Siatitsa 2019; Hatziprokopiou, Karagianni, Kapsali 2021.

33Historical perspectives on housing remind us that “the material, mental and social characteristics of housing as a good tend to create strong elements of inertia that housing policies have to deal with.”51 The small-scale and socially dispersed property structure of Athens, the fragmented, differentiated and densely built urban unit of the multi-storey apartment, and the particular expression of micro-level (vertical) socio-spatial segregation, set the canvas upon which urban and housing policies have to be shaped. Opposing visions about the role of the state, public intervention and urban planning produce different policy scenarios for the re‑inhabitation of the central neighbourhoods. For example, an issue at stake is the reactivation of the large number of vacant housing and building stock. While the mainstream approach seeks to leverage private investment and unconditionally channel public resources for the sake of physical upgrading, alternative views suggest the need for robust public intervention mechanisms at the local level that can safeguard the existing building stock as a common resource for affordable housing policies and sustainable urban development through third sector non-profit partnerships.52 To more vividly illustrate the stake, the abundant EU funding targeting building energy upgrading and retrofitting (through the Recovery and Resilience Fund, Renovate wave etc.) if not linked to particular goals for socio-spatial justice, could be another lost opportunity to address pressing social needs through urban renewal and a further burst to the exclusionary dynamics at play.


34The paper provided a review of the evolution of ideas, debates and urban policies targeting the central neighbourhoods of Athens, focusing particularly on the way housing has been perceived, framed and impacted by these discourses and policies. Throughout the years, the role of the state in urban policies has been mostly that of a facilitator of urban dynamics, adopting policies of a rather normative character, without strong public control mechanisms, while housing within urban regeneration policies has remained a private affair. In spite of successful, failed or incomplete attempts to regenerate the centre, the central areas of Athens have provided pockets of affordable housing, allowing also for the implementation of social policies for an array of vulnerable populations, mostly in the private rented sector. As critical urban studies scholars have demonstrated, Greek cities, and Athens in particular, have shown a certain inertia to processes of gentrification and socio-spatial segregation, often, despite the dominant policy agenda that aims to support market‑led upgrading processes in these areas. The fragmented and socially dispersed structure of land and real‑estate property has been an important obstacle both for large capital investment, and for the implementation of effective area-based urban regeneration projects, beyond public space upgrading.

35During the last years, processes of financialisation and tourist driven intensive exploitation of urban space and housing in inner city areas, are paving the way for a more dispersed pattern of urban speculation and are challenging once more our ability to imagine and put forward equitable urban policies. The narration of the evolution of debates and policies that preceded, is understood as a process of policy memory and learning. Understanding how issues have been framed, debated, and translated into public policy at different moments, gives a historical perspective on current policy stakes, shedding light on the limits and potentials of public and collective urban interventions. It is intended as a contribution to the ongoing quest and claim for more equitable and socially just policies to address issues of urban deprivation and exclusion, protect vulnerable populations from negative effects of urban upgrading and ameliorate urban living for all.

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1 The terms “enhancement of housing” and “re‑inhabitation” are literally translated from Greek texts and refer to the policy intention to support the development of residential uses in central areas facing decline and depopulation. The rational of this approach is based on Athens’ shrinking population and the flight of middle and upper classes towards the suburbs since the 1980s and 1990s and stresses the need for policy measures to support their return in central neighbourhoods.

2 Leontidou 1990; Mantouvalou, Mavridou, Vaiou 1995.

3 Arapoglou et al. 2015; Vaiou et al. 2007.

4 Dimitrakou et al. 2022.

5 Alexandri 2014.

6 The familistic welfare model in comparative studies refers to welfare systems where the family is a key provider of care and welfare for its members, while acting also as a key agent for the model’s socio-economic and political reproduction (see Allen et al. 2004; Papadopoulos, Roumpakis 2013).

7 Emmanuel 2004; Papadopoulos, Roumpakis 2013; Siatitsa 2016.

8 Maloutas, Siatitsa, Balampanidis 2020; Balampanidis et al. 2021.

9 The proposal for the creation of a “Grand promenade” in the centre of Athens was included in the pre-electoral programme of the current right-wing mayor, based on older plans for the unification of archaeological sites. Its implementation was accelerated during the pandemic as a “tactical urbanism” pilot project, following a worldwide trend in many metropolitan centres. The outcomes and governance of the whole project have been quite controversial and generated once more tensed debates about urban policy priorities for the city centre (see also Karadimitriou, Maloutas, Arapoglou 2021).

10 Bengtsson, Ruonavaara 2010.

11 Smith 1996; Atkinson, Bridge 2005.

12 Leontidou 1990; Mantouvalou et al. 1995; Maloutas 2012; Allen et al. 2004.

13 Malheiros 2002; Arbaci 2008; Arapoglou et al. 2021.

14 Arbaci 2008.

15 The decontextualized use of the term “gentrification” has been strongly criticized (see Maloutas 2012). Although Athens has not experienced gentrification in its classical conception, the term has been introduced in the Greek debate and is used to describe urban transformation processes related to investments on urban space (private or public), leading to gradual rent / land price increases, and the prevalence of middle‑ and upper-middle class consumption markets. Housing affordability issues, the displacement or pricing‑out of less affluent populations and small businesses, and the gradual change of the socio-economic profile of the areas, are side effects of these processes that are not well documented, nor taken into consideration in policy practice.

16 Well known cases in the literature are the Raval and Casc Antic in Barcelona (Arbaci, Tapada-Berteli 2012), the historical neighbourhoods of Alfama and Mouraria in Lisbon (Branco, Alves 2015) and Plaka in the historic centre of Athens (Triantis 2017). As Arbaci points out, in all of these cases, even when regarded as successful examples of urban restructuring, the result has been a rapid and highly profitable social and spatial reconfiguration of those areas potentially appealing to a middle‑ and higher-income market, and the sharp decline of the affordable segment of the housing stock in all tenures (Arbaci 2008, p. 305).

17 Karadimitriou, Maloutas, Arapoglou 2021.

18 It is worth noting that this exchange‑in-kind mechanism was not a product of any specific policy but was a market practice enabled by changes in the broader land use and construction legal framework.

19 The rental sector is 38% in the municipality of Athens and 20% nationwide (National Statistical Authority, census 2011).

20 Maloutas, Karadimitriou 2001; Dimitrakou et al. 2022.

21 See Arapoglou, Maloutas, Siatitsa 2019; Dimitrakou 2021.

22 Due to weak decentralisation and lack of a strong local administration, the city centre is the terrain where a diversified array of actors have (or claim to have) a competent role. These include the Municipality of Athens, the Region of Attica, the central administration (in different versions), cultural institutions, public benefit foundations and the private sector (Triantis 2017). An important role was played by two public organisations, the ORSA (Organisation of the Regulatory Plan of Athens, 1985–2014) and the EAHA (Unification of Archaeological Sites of Athens), both abolished by the public‑debt management memoranda.

23 See also Pagonis 2013.

24 Triantis 2017; Poulios 2022.

25 Pagonis 2013.

26 Triantis 2017.

27 Aravantinos 1997.

28 The proposed interventions ranged from complete or partial demolition of blocks in order to rebuild better ones (or to create open spaces, for services, infrastructure, parking etc), partial intervention on buildings (i.e. demolition of upper floors, or opening of basements in order to create parking space or access to the interior of urban blocks), partial regeneration of unbuilt public areas, or the unification of interior unbuilt spaces of urban plots to increase green surfaces and public spaces. Other ideas included the introduction of incentives and measures for activating private investment, such as subsidised loans for housing upgrading or higher building factors in special zones. Some of these ideas, for the unification of unbuilt inner parts of urban blocks, and the tool of “Active urban block” had been introduced in the revision of the building code in 1985.

29 Emmanuel 2004.

30 Urban regeneration schemes to address housing needs have been scarce in Greece and have been implemented exclusively in Asia Minor refugee housing complexes, most of them during the 1980s. In Athens, there are three projects in peripheral neighbourhoods promoted by DEPOS: the rebuilding of 40 houses affected by the 1981 earthquake in New Philadelphia (completed in 1985), the regeneration of Kessariani, focusing on one urban block (1984–1988), and the regeneration of a housing complex in Tavros (the largest project of this kind) with the redevelopment of 136 apartments in 8 housing buildings, including a commercial part to partially fund the investment (Nikolaidou 1991, Myofa 2020). The processes involved were complex and demanding, however the projects achieved the goal to upgrade the housing standards of the inhabitants and in some cases renew the social mix of the areas. The know‑how acquired was never upscaled.

31 Tasopoulou, Lainas 2017.

32 Tsoulouvis 1996; Karadimitriou, Maloutas, Arapoglou 2021.

33 Karadimitriou, Maloutas, Arapoglou 2021, p. 21.

34 See for example Economou 2000.

35 Siatitsa 2016; Chadjimichalis 2014.

36 Ministry of Environment June 2010.

37 Ministry of Environment July 2011.

38 Koutrolikou, Siatitsa 2011; Encounter Athens 2011; Maloutas et al. 2013.

39 Balampanidis, Siatitsa, Vatavali 2011; Chatzikonstantinou, Samarinis, Spanou 2011.

40 Koutrolikou, Siatitsa 2011.

41 Papatzani 2020.

42 Balampanidis et al. 2021.

43 A new package of housing measures was introduced by the government in December 2022 in reaction to the broad social discontent regarding the housing issue. Besides being an important step in acknowledging the problem and allocating public funds, we cannot say that the specific law consist of a paradigm change as it adopts a financialised (managed through banks) and market‑led (leveraging offer and demand in the free market) approach with loan subsidies, repair grants and PPPs on public property, with ad hoc and short‑term financing programs.

44 Fraser 2009.

45 See Lees, Ley 2008; Shaw 2008.

46 Arbaci, Tapada-Berteli 2012.

47 Branco, Alves 2015; Balsas 2007.

48 Arapoglou et al. 2021, p. 17.

49 Emmanuel 2002.

50 Shaw 2008; Emmanuel 2013; Kotsila et al. 2020.

51 Bengtsson, Ruonavaara 2010.

52 Arapoglou, Maloutas, Siatitsa 2019; Hatziprokopiou, Karagianni, Kapsali 2021.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Map 1. Social differentiation of residential areas in Athens (Based on the spatial distribution of “upper professional categories”).
Crédits Produced by S. Spyrellis.
Fichier image/jpeg, 568k
Titre Map 2. Boundaries of intervention plans in the Municipality of Athens.
Crédits Produced by S. Spyrellis.
Fichier image/jpeg, 526k
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Dimitra Siatitsa, « Re‑inhabiting central Athens: urban planning, housing and the claim for socio‑spatial justice »Bulletin de correspondance hellénique moderne et contemporain, 7 | -1, 7-29.

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Dimitra Siatitsa, « Re‑inhabiting central Athens: urban planning, housing and the claim for socio‑spatial justice »Bulletin de correspondance hellénique moderne et contemporain [En ligne], 7 | 2022, mis en ligne le 19 juin 2023, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Dimitra Siatitsa

Department of Sociology, University of Crete

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