A nod and a wink for illegal homes

The government yesterday unveiled a series of measures effectively legalizing up to 300,000 illegally built homes by allowing them to be connected to public utility networks. The measures, unveiled by Environment and Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou, were condemned by opposition parties and criticized in the Cabinet by Minister for the Aegean Nikos Sifounakis, who objected to the provisions that effectively unfreeze many blocked building projects on the Aegean Islands. Ostensibly, the government’s project is aimed at preventing the further construction of illegal homes. But by providing permission for owners of older illegal houses to be connected to the water and electricity networks, it effectively encourages others to build, knowing, by experience, that, come the next general election, they are likely to be legalized as well. As Sifounakis, an architect by training, pointed out, there have been 16 such laws since 1974, each providing protection for illegal home owners while ostensibly pretending to fight illegal construction. Prime Minister Costas Simitis responded to Sifounakis’s criticism by saying, «We are discussing how to deal with an already existing problem.» According to the draft law, the old illegal homes that can be connected to water, sewage and electricity networks are: first, those that are first homes (and not holiday dwellings) and are up to 120 square meters in area for a family of four. The area is increased by 30 square meters for each additional family member; second, illegal habitations within city limits or within a settlement existing ahead before 1923 or in an area designated for housing development by a general town plan. This latter provision applies, for example, to dwellings in the area of Mesogeia, near the new Athens international airport, which will be developed in the future. Buildings constructed in stream beds, beaches, forests or archaeological sites, those that exceed the guidelines referred to above and those lying in areas which, according to city plans, will be used as public spaces, are to be torn down. To be eligible for connection to public utility networks, illegal house owners must apply within six months of the law’s publication in the Government Gazette. The connections will only be valid for three years. New applications must be submitted for their renewal. Asked why the law does not provide for permanent solutions, Papandreou replied, «No one can solve this problem with a single law… the goal is to prevent new illegal building and provide relief to a certain category of citizens.» Another controversial provision will allow land plot owners to built houses in areas without access to roads. Further provisions for legal building place greater obligations on engineers for safety in construction and speed up the process for issuing building permits. Opposition New Democracy spokesman Savvas Tsitouridis criticized the government for providing only a temporary solution to the problem, while the Synaspismos Left Coalition said that the ruling Socialists and New Democracy effectively agreed on measures that would further degrade the environment, disagreeing only on technicalities.

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