OPINION

Bricks and air

Greeks are obsessed with owning their own homes and developing them to the greatest extent possible – even by stretching or breaking the law. Nowhere is this more evident than in the illegal construction of buildings across the whole country, from cities to remote rural areas. People build what they can, where they can, when they believe that they will get away with it. In this, they have had a willing partner in crime in the Greek state – at all levels. Local authorities are all too willing to turn a blind eye to illegal construction or alteration of buildings if the perpetrator is someone who can repay the favor either politically or in cash. Politicians buy votes by assuring illegal homeowners that they will get electricity and other public utilities. Urban planning offices, the «poleodomia,» are perennially at the top of the Public Administration Inspector’s list of most corrupt services, followed closely by the tax department, which is also supposed to keep an eye on construction and alterations. The root of the problem is the lack of credibility of the Greek state and the citizens’ lack of faith in it: People do not expect the law to be imposed; worse, they feel that it will be imposed arbitrarily, in accordance with the wishes and interests of those who are responsible for enforcing it. This leads to a conviction that a) it is OK to flout the law because everyone does it, or b) you are being punished already by the arbitrariness of those in power, so try to get as much as you can out of the situation. Another factor is that when the local, provincial and national authorities are so slow in designating areas for development (and then ensuring that people build only there), they cannot stem the tide of people needing to build new homes or holiday homes, prompting illegal construction on a national scale. The unspoken understanding between an incompetent state and a restless citizenry found its truest expression in the so-called «semi-open» spaces of houses and apartments. The current law allows buildings to have spaces that are part of the construction but do not count in terms of taxable square meters because they are supposed to serve as balconies, basements, lofts and so on. So, to date, contractors immediately leaped at the chance to increase the size of buildings by incorporating these ostensibly open spaces into the houses that they sold. Buyers also thought that they were getting a bargain by getting more rooms than they were paying taxes for. And the authorities allowed the situation to fester because everyone seemed to be happy. Now the government is trying to bring some order to the chaos by imposing fines and offering homeowners «amnesty» for the next 40 years. This is a refinement of the previous government’s effort to legitimize illegal constructions by offering a permanent amnesty in exchange for a fine. That failed because people did not trust the state to keep its side of the bargain but also because the legalization of an illegality could not stand up in any court. This time, the government is trying to sidestep the paradox of legalizing the illegal by placing a time limit on it. This may just work in court. What is not as simple is getting citizens to believe that they should accept the deal and finally contribute toward imposing some order on the chaos. For this problem to be solved, Greece has to complete its land registry and its zoning laws and – at long last – begin to plan ahead where people will build and what they will build. Otherwise, we are not only cheating the revenue service but we are also destroying our countryside and undermining our quality of life.