“Not One Home in the Hands of Banks” – Greek Foreclosures Roll On

FILE - Protesters in Athens against houses foreclosures. (Photo: Eurokinissi/Kostis Dadamis)

ATHENS – Reneging on his campaign pledge, “Not one home in the hands of banks,” and already allowing electronic foreclosures, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ ruling Radical Left SYRIZA is letting bailed-out banks take more homes even with elections coming and his fortunes falling.

Betting on a recovery from a nine-year-long economic crisis after the Aug. 20, 2018 end of three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($365.5 billion), the government backed off pledges to protect primary residences even though many people can’t pay their mortgages because of harsh austerity measures repeated by SYRIZA, which had promised to stop them.

Worn down by high taxes, pay cuts, slashed pensions, worker firings, and banks selling bad loans to collection agencies that Tsipras said he would forbid but allowed, homeowners are being besieged to pay what they owe even if they can’t.

The government said it would subsidize part of the mortgages of the most vulnerable but it hasn’t helped people losing their homes or about to, such as a woman the financial news agency Bloomberg identified only as Dimitra D. in a feature about the home confiscations.

The 53-year-old civil engineer could lose her family home after her bank threatened to seize the 140,000-euro ($157,000) apartment used as collateral against a 50,000-euro ($56,057) loan she’s unable to repay. After years of going back and forth with her bank, she said she’s giving up.

“I prefer to lose my home even though I know that it doesn’t make sense in financial terms,” she said, declining to give her family name because she’s embarrassed by her financial situation. “I don’t care anymore. I’ll live in a 50 square-meter rental apartment but I’ll have peace of mind.”

Dimitris Anastasopoulos, a lawyer who handles cases to stop banks from taking over primary residences said many people just can’t take the pressure anymore as the government ended a foreclosure prevention law put in place by a former coalition led by the major opposition New Democracy Tsipras had criticized as being callous and uncaring.

“It’s not so much a financial issue as a psychological one, with the whole procedure wearing them down,” he said. “They now say let the bank take the home. They can’t stand collection agencies reaching out to them for their debt,” Anastasopoulos told the news agency.

HOUNDED, HARRASSED

Borrowers feel harassed, with the collection agencies calling them on a daily basis, Anastasopoulos said. “I know of some cases where my clients had a heart attack or a stroke due to the constant pressure,” he said.

Tsipras surrendered to pressure himself, from the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) which put up a third bailout in the summer of 2015, this one for 86 billion euros ($96.42 billion) and squeezed him to let banks take homes, once anathema to the Leftists who said they are the party of the people.

Banks are under a mountain of some 81.8 billion euros ($91.71 billion) as people crushed by austerity can’t pay but are being hounded, apart from New Democracy and its previous coalition partner, the now-defunct PASOK Socialists, who owe 250 million euros ($280.29 million), they aren’t fully repaying and with the bank officers approving the loans without sufficient collateral being given immunity from prosecution.

Trying to ameliorate the hit on homeowners, the government’s legislation will let distressed homeowners apply for help, and if they meet the criteria, banks will restructure the loan with the state subsidizing a part of the installments and the borrower having to repay the rest without any new delays.

Greek banks are auctioning off repossessed residences to clean up their balance sheets but have also been the buyers as few other bidders are taking part. In 2018, some 10,000 properties, or about 85 percent of the ones put on the block, were bought by the banks. Lenders estimate they’ll buy back some 15,000 homes this year.

That’s too late for some homeowners. Bloomberg reported the case of a woman identified as Georgia D. who lost her home in an auction in 2018 after she and her husband lost their jobs.

She said they even went to the United States for a while, joining the exodus of scores of thousands of people who fled Greece in search of work and a better life but found that it was too expensive, forcing them to come home.

They managed to find small jobs to make ends meet, but were too dispirited to try and save their home. “I was so depressed that I didn’t even try to reach a deal with the bank,” she said. “We were left to our own fate.”