A perennial concoction of legislative omissions, bureaucratic limitations, heavy taxation, and lack of financial state support is the reason why hundreds of historical listed buildings in Greece have been falling into disrepair and decay, private owners complain.
The situation has been costing the country a glorious part of its distinct architectural identity as thousands of buildings are forced by circumstances to be abandoned at their fate.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that responsibilities for maintaining the cultural heritage falls within the remit of various government agencies. There is no single authority that can take the initiative to deal with listed buildings in danger. The Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Culture did not respond to Greek Reporter’s request for comment or interview.
According to the President of Greece’s Union of Owners of Listed Buildings, Ploutarchos Yannopoulos, a civil engineer and former professor at the Athens Polytechnic University himself, consecutive Greek governments have made the maintenance and restoration of privately-owned listed buildings practically impossible -if not downright torturous- for the majority of owners.
“The hassle and financial exhaustion is beyond imagination”, he tells Greek Reporter in exasperation as he starts to explain the labyrinth of laws and regulations which seem to be adding to the problem rather than resolving it.
Greece’s obligation to protect listed buildings
With more than 85% of its historical buildings destroyed during the rapid post-WWII urbanization of the country, Greece has an estimated 20,000 individual listed buildings left, plus another 200,000 that form part of protected traditional settlements.
Greek-American Peter Poulos, who now lives in Athens, has been documenting the listed and neoclassical buildings of the Greek capital for years. He spoke to Greek Reporter recently about abandonment, indifference and squatting. A large number of old buildings have been simply left to their fate, sitting vacant for decades.
“I’m always shocked to see the amount of vandalism on Ministry of Culture buildings, especially in Plaka,” says Poulos.
He notes, as an example, a historic neoclassical building at the very end of a Aiolou Street, in central Athens. “This fantastic Ministry of Culture building is covered in graffiti. And it’s been like that for years, and you’re talking about the showplace of fifth-century BC Athens.
“And if you if you walk around the Roman agora, which has some of the most beautiful buildings in Athens, many of them are covered in graffiti, and many of them are Ministry of Culture buildings.”
Poulos blames the Ministry of Culture for not understanding that buildings such as this need to be protected and cared for.
“I also find it sad that that the interwar buildings, the buildings from the 1920s 30s 40s 50s, aren’t protected. They need to be protected. They’re architectural masterpieces. And they’re all over every neighborhood!”, Poulos told Greek Reporter.
Listed buildings an obligation of the state
Yannopoulos tells Greek Reporter that the preservation of listed buildings ia an obligation of the state.
“Article 24 of the Hellenic Constitution states that historical listed buildings are to be protected, and that this protection constitutes an obligation of the state. Greece has also signed the Granada Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe since 1985, which is a law of the European Union.
“The latter declares the obligation of the owners of listed buildings to maintain them, but also the obligation of each member-state to allocate funds and tax incentives to these owners with the purpose of maintaining this cultural heritage”, Yannopoulos emphasizes.
Still, six decades since the Constitution was voted for, and three since the adoption of the Convention, the owners of listed buildings say they have received no feasible support by the Greek state.
The provisions in the archaeological law of 2002 for financial incentives to the owners of protected buildings were never applied either, Yannopoulos adds, since the presidential decree which would put them into motion is still pending.
On the contrary, legislative gaps have laid the ground for confusion and discrepancies in the interpretation of the law by local authorities, as testified by the numerous pleas for help that the Union regularly receives from desperate owners.
In a recent example, a citizen was reportedly denied the 20% applicable discount in their inheritance tax because the local authority would not implement the existing provision which allows buildings in traditional protected settlements to automatically qualify for it.
“The majority of owners of listed buildings are not moguls; they are low-income people, who usually acquire these properties through inheritance”, Yannopoulos notes.
“In any other case, one must have been ignorant to acquire a listed building in Greece -because they won’t be able to touch it. The construction studies, the duration and complexity of the required works… One would be consumed”, he sighs.
High maintenance costs and lengthy procedures
In consequence of the lack of adequate state funding, the owners of listed buildings in Greece have always been struggling with the costs of maintaining the properties, which are at least three or four times the respective costs for a contemporary concrete building, Yannopoulos contends.
The law, he describes, holds them responsible for the necessary repairs, but only “to reasonable extend”. Hence, if the owner cannot afford the repair, the state has to step in and fund it.
This applies to 95% of the cases, says Yannopoulos, but authorities have been turning a deaf ear to the state’s own statutory responsibilities over the years, calling upon the absence of allocated funds.
“The owners can’t afford the restoration works that they are obliged to perform. Many of them live on the minimum pension. Where would they find the resources? They contact me seeking legal advice as many cases are taken to court. Depending on how much they can afford, and how much knowledge they have on the matter, they go to trial where they might get justice or not.
“If the state wants the Greek people to be able to enjoy its listed buildings as part of their cultural heritage, then it finally needs to contribute financially”, the President of the Owners’ Union declares.
Nonetheless, the problem doesn’t end in the co-financing of restoration repairs for vulnerable owners.
Even when one has the resources to fund the works themselves, procedures for a large-scale intervention on a listed building could take between three and ten years before approval and permits are granted.
“The legislation needs to be simple and the regulations need to be improved. Currently, this is an Odyssey”, Yannopoulos opines.
High tax and lack of compensation
The inexistence of essential legal compensation is another thorn on the matter, particularly for the owners of properties on which it is prohibited to intervene.
Yannopoulos recounts how the deadlock measure of transfer of building-plot ratio further mounted the problem.
The incentive, introduced decades ago, was supposed to be compensating the owners by offering them the opportunity to build on a different land plot they might own, what they could have built on the property where the listed building stands, had it not been there.
Upon application though, the measure proved extremely problematic due to the state’s failure to define the receiving zones for the new building rights, and has also been ruled anti-constitutional by Greece’s supreme administrative court on more than one cases, for the exact same reason.
The arrival of the Unified Property Tax, introduced during the infamous fiscal crisis in 2014, made matters even worse.
Owners that had been granted titles for transfer of building-plot ratio, have since been called to pay onerous tax not only for their old buildings, but also for the air rights, although they remain unable to apply or redeem the latter.
“Supposedly, the owner is allowed to build upwards on those air rights – but they actually can’t, because the state doesn’t give permits. So the owner can neither sell nor build, but is taxed anyway”, Yannopoulos exclaims.
In yet another case example, an owner of two listed properties, one of which is a 600 sq. m. plot with old buildings behind Monastiraki, in Athens city centre, pays 28,000 euro in Unified Property Tax every year, without profiting from the property.
“That is because the zone value there has been set at 3750 euro. If you calculate and multiply and add the air rights -which, in reality, you don’t own- you end up with sums as high as you like”, the professor adds.
On top of that, the tax does not take into account any obsolesce over 25 years, which basically equates edifices of any age and build to modern ones, without considering their increased needs.
“How can listed properties be of equal value to a modern building, given how probable a 150-year-old stone building is to fall into rumble at the next big earthquake, or even the ageing of the concrete in a 70-year-old building?”, Yannopoulos wonders.
A cry for solutions
The local press has often evoked alleged governmental plans for privately-owned listed buildings to be exploited by authorities over long periods of time, in exchange for full restoration.
Yannopoulos dismisses those publications as frivolous, answering that such efforts had been abandoned in the past due to having been proven blatantly anti-constitutional.
On the other hand, the Union has repeatedly pleaded that the Unified Property Tax becomes aborted for listed buildings, to help ease the burden on their owners. Given that listed buildings make up for just 8‰ of the total taxed properties in Greece, their exemption would not make any noticeable difference to the state budget, they argue.
Most importantly, European Union or other funding should be secured in aid of those who wish to restore their listed properties and to fortify them to last further in time.
“In most listed buildings, only the facade is protected. That means their interior qualifies for a reconstruction with new metal or concrete framework, to give the building great endurance and make it functional”, Yannopoulos specifies.
He says that the Union has received new promises by state officers for drawing financial support for listed buildings from the next European Structural and Investment Fund.
Yannopoulos warns, however, that any funding schemes should provide for full-scale remodeling, including expensive procedures such as structural design and analysis, and not be limited to superficial expenses like the replacements of window frames and casings.
“That is the only correct way to truly protect and give prominence to a listed building”, the professor concludes.
Related: The Greek-American Guardian of Neoclassical Athens