Home auctions have been the source of anger and protest in Greece, where austerity continues to take its toll on many.
In January, Stella Andrikopoulou’s family was informed that they had 30 days to reach an agreement with the water company or see the home she was raised in auctioned off.
The prospect of losing the home the family has owned for decades was a daunting one, and that fear prompted her family to move quickly to strike a deal, despite the hardships it entailed for them.
Andrikopoulou’s father is an employee at a university, making a meagre 900 euros (about $1,111) a month that often comes in partial payments. Her mother and grandmother are both pensioners who have endured cuts in their payments owing to the austerity programme, and her two siblings, like her, are university students.
Since reaching a settlement with the water company – and later the electricity company – they are obligated to make hefty payments of upwards of 1,000 euros ($1,238) on their overdue balance throughout the next year, in addition to their regular monthly bills.
“It’s very difficult for us to pay this much every month,” she told Al Jazeera, sitting in a bustling cafe in central Athens. “That’s why we’ve had to rely on the help of family and friends.”
If that help runs dry and they cannot pay the bills, the house could eventually end up on the auction market.
“We are always worried that a worker from the electricity company could show up and cut the power, or that another letter threatening to auction our home could arrive,” she said.
With working-class Greeks struggling to make ends meet across the board, the auctions have grown to symbolise the government’s acquiescence to European-imposed austeritymeasures.
In January 2015, the left-wing Syriza party came to power after campaigning on promises to support struggling Greeks who had endured years of economic crisis. It has since come under fire for what many view as reneging on its pledges.
Last year, electronic auctions were launched as a substitute to courthouse auctions and sales overseen by notaries, which had faced mass protests.
Auctions of properties valued at less than 300,000 euros (more than $370,000) were initially delayed, however, that grace period recently concluded.
On May 1, electronic auctions for homes owned by people who are in debt to the tax authorities are set to begin.
Around 18,000 homes are expected to be auctioned throughout 2018.
The auctions are mandatory as part of Greece’sinternational bailout programme, which is slated to come to an end in August.
Lendors have conditioned further financial disbursements to Greece on the number of auctions carried out.
But the deeply unpopular auctions have sparked protests, rallies and clashes in Athens, Thessaloniki and elsewhere.
‘Crucial to keep banks afloat’
Giorgos Kyritsis, a legislator and Syriza member who has supported the auctions, defended the government’s measures.
“It’s crucial to keep the banks afloat,” he told Al Jazeera, claiming that the auctions will not impact “poor people or the unemployed”.
With growing fury in the streets and a spate of direct actions targeting notaries, the auctions have proved to be a rallying call for many Greeks fed up with years of crippling austerity.
In February, Rubicon (or Rouvikonas), an Athens-based anarchist collective, raided a notary office and smashed computers and printers in protest of the auctions.
In a statement subsequently posted online, the collective said it targeted the offices because its notaries execute auctions of people’s primary homes.
Kyritsis downplayed the anger. “There are some notaries who have been threatened or their offices had some minor damages but that’s all.”
For their part, notaries have taken the situation more seriously. In November 2017, the Notary Association of Athens announced a two-month strike, accusing the government of failing to adequately protect them against backlash.
The protests have stretched well beyond the actions of the collective, however, with thousands of people flooding the streets every few weeks to rally against the latest symbol of the austerity programme.
‘People are afraid’
Panagiotis Sotiris, an academic and member of the left-wing Popular Unity (LAE) party, dismissed the Syriza-led government’s promises to ensure the protection of impoverished people’s homes.
Sotiris said that for “practical and political reasons” the government has avoided scenes of desperate people being thrown out of their homes, such as the wave of evictions that took place in Spain after the 2008 housing market crash.
According to Eurostat data, more than 73 percent of Greeks own their homes. That number is slightly higher than the EU’s overall rate, which Eurostat puts at 69.2 percent. Germany, for instance, has a home ownership rate of around 51 percent, according to the monitor.
Throughout a decade of economic crisis, Greeks have struggled under the weight of a period of capital controls, increased taxes, high unemployment and other hardships.
In December, unemployment hit a six-year low, sinking from just above 20 percent, compared to the EU’s 7.1 percent. Yet, youth unemployment in Greece remained at 45 percent.
Despite the government’s insistence it is working to keep many struggling families in their homes, Sotiris argued that the logic of the foreclosures will inevitably result in harm to poor and working-class Greeks.
“This can explain why there is this anger regarding auctions,” he told Al Jazeera.
“People are afraid that this is just the beginning of things getting much worse. So far in the crisis, we have not seen people thrown out of their homes.”
Sotiris warned that an escalation in the auctions could spark a more sustained protest movement
“Right now, it’s one of those issues that if there is an abrupt deterioration in the situation, such as if mass auctions start, this could indeed ignite a broader protest movement and in a certain way change the political landscape,” he said.
“They [the government] are trying to downplay the potential impact that auctions might have… We are in a very delicate balance regarding the political climate.”
Activists and opponents of austerity have accused the Syriza-led government of a crackdown on resistance to the home auctions.
In December, a bill was introduced into parliament that sought to criminalise protesters who “obstruct” the auctions of foreclosed homes.
In recent weeks, dozens of demonstrators have gathered outside notary offices in central Athens to rally against the property auctions. Riot police were deployed each time.
In early demonstrations, police were criticised for using tear gas and other riot dispersal means to attack protesters.
On March 14, an anti-auction rally turned chaotic when clashes between protesters and police erupted. Demonstrators flung eggs and rubbish at the police officers before eventually trying to reach the building.
The police responded by attacking them, leaving at least five injured, including a photojournalist covering the incident.
Leonidas Papadopoulos, a member of the I Don’t Pay movement, was among a handful of people detained on February 14 during a protest outside a central Athens notary office.
Those detained were eventually released without charge.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Papadopoulos decried the police for acting as “bouncers” for the banks and the notaries.
“They have decided to take stand against citizens, and they will be the ones who will put people out of their houses,” he argued.
“When a government undertakes those actions and becomes the government of foreclosures, then that government has no future in this country.”
Back in the cafe, Stella Andrikopoulou explained that the threat of losing their home had compounded the difficulties of getting by in the austerity-ravaged country.
The economic difficulties have led her and her siblings to avoid eating out and to opt to stay home rather than go out on weekends, for instance.
“During the summer, we barely go out because we don’t have any money,” she said. “We just stay in.”
For her part, she hopes more people join the movement against the auctions.
“People need to be one with that movement and fight back against the auctions,” she concluded.
“This movement has put pressure on the government, and the government knows this movement can do things.”
by Patrick Strickland & Alexandra Tanka – aljazeera