Rebuilding progresses at glacial pace as homeowners finish projects alone

The ambitious renovation plan for the area met with obstacles from its beginning in May 2001. «If we were to start properly and move our teams into 210 blocks at the same time, the municipality should have handed over all the designs and cleared the sites,» said mechanical engineer Haim Politis, director of the project. «On the contrary, there was conflict between neighbors over property dividing lines and in many cases there were actually no ownership papers. Also, many condemned buildings were still standing because the owners had not received demolition permits from the relevant authority.» Some 1,000 homes were to be completed within 18 months – by December 2002. Delay followed delay and the project deadline was extended twice. By the end of 2003, the consortium threatened to withdraw. «Local residents, seeing that they were getting free basements and designs, thought that everything else would be free as well,» said Politis. «Moreover, many had asked for a much larger home than their original one, and larger than they could afford. That is, they received an earthquake loan from the state for the 80 square meters they had in 1999 and were asking us to build 150-200 square meters. Naturally, this didn’t happen. Others had spent their loans on cars or other consumer goods and then came begging to negotiate the loans. For one reason or another, most owners stopped paying, and the municipality didn’t want to put pressure on them.» Raftopoulos said the main problem appeared to be working out the cost beforehand. «The 163,400 drachmas per square meter was not enough,» he said. «It is also true that many owners were demanding more than they could afford. The delays, however, are the fault of the contractors, who had not brought in sufficient work teams.» To break the stalemate, the contractor asked for a clarification of which owners had paid up in full. «We worked out what each owner owed and offered them the option of accepting delivery of the home half-finished and to complete it themselves, whenever and however they could,» Raftopoulos said. They were given five choices – accepting the house with only one of four areas completed – the basement, frame, walls or other features – or accepting it completely finished. Of the 1,000 owners involved, about 350 accepted just the basement, Politis said. All the homes were handed over in 2004 and the contract with the consortium concluded. «According to the terms of the contract, of the some 1,000 homes in the project, only about 10 were not built at all because of ownership disputes,» Raftopoulos said. «Another 284 were handed over as concrete frames, 185 with the walls completed, 116 with plastering. Just 29 were handed over fully completed.» Since then, the owners of about 900 half-built homes have been trying to finish them on their own – in most cases, by taking out one loan after another. The unluckier ones were already paying off pre-existing loans. «I bought my house in 1998 with a loan. In 1999 it came down in the quake,» said Giorgos Rethymniotakis, a 48-year-old paraplegic and father of five children. «Like most of the others, we moved into a container home. When we heard about the reconstruction program we joined up and then took out additional loans, because the state loan was not enough.» The Rethymniotakis family moved in, even if the house is not finished. «We moved in a few days ago once we had put in the windows and doors. We don’t have electricity and so I have brought an extension cord from the container which is across the road, but this is illegal. Others, whose containers have rotted, have pitched tents inside homes that still don’t have walls,» said Rethymniotakis. Some are even worse off, he added. «I have heard that the banks are starting to foreclose. The way things are going, half the houses in the reconstruction program will end up being owned by the banks,» he said. Many of the homeowners will gradually succeed in rebuilding their homes, even by doing the work themselves. But some will never manage. «The Ano Liosia Municipality has decided to provide support for about 150 of these people, poor families who will never manage using their own resources,» Raftopoulos said. He believes that about 300 homes have been completed, although other sources estimate no more than 100 – a tenth of the projected total. In about 250 homes, work has stopped at the basement level, but Raftopoulos claims the program has not been a failure. «The only solution today is for the state to provide financial support for the less well-off so that they can finish their homes,» he said. According to Rethymniotakis, the solution is for the state to write off part of the debts of those who are truly needy. «After all, many in the program never even had their own home before the quake,» he said.