Golden Visas, Airbnb Replacing Tenants with Tourists, Investors in Greece

March 22, 2019

From the grimy, graffiti-filled anarchist stronghold of Exarchia, to the new trendy area neighborhood of Koukaki under the Acropolis with views of the Parthenon, whole swathes of buildings that were rentals or empty during Greece’s economic crisis are being filled.

Not with tenants but legions of tourists using short-term rentals like Airbnb or rich foreigners scooping them up to be eligible for five-year residency permits that come with European Union passports if they spend at least 250,000 euros on them.

That’s even if they don’t live in them, but rent them out, at far higher prices than what what beleaguered Greeks have been paying they try to scrape by and now are seeing themselves displaced by overnight or weekly or short stays in their former apartments now housing a transient parade of people from the United States to China to Russia and elsewhere.

It’s the selling of Athens through the so-called Golden Visa program which provides the residency permits and passports for rich foreign investors who bypass the notorious Greek bureaucracy that can even hold up dual citizenship or residency permit requests from those in the Diaspora.

In a feature, The New York Times reported on the Golden Visa and Airbnb twin phenomena that have combined to give some Greeks a bonanza in selling or using previously devalued properties for short-term rentals, but squeezed out others who can’t afford their apartments or are being pushed out to make way for the waves of tourists and new owners, particularly from China.

That has coincided with the Aug. 20, 2018 end of three international bailouts of 326 billion euros from international creditors and with Greece showing signs of a rebound, despite the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA delaying or blocking major investment projects such as the $580 million makeover of the port of Piraeus by the Chinese company Cosco which runs it, and obstacles for a near one-billion euro development of the old Hellenikon International Airport on Athens’ coast.

Carrie Law, CEO of Juwai.com, a Hong Kong-based real estate investment group, told the paper that Greece is now a magnet for Chinese with enough money to buy property, because of the Golden Visas and that they don’t have to live in the properties they acquire.

She said many Chinese buyers come to Greece with suitcases filled with cash, the easiest way to get their money out of China, although it has led to investigations in that country over whether residents were circumventing money transfer laws and with critics saying the program can be used for money laundering and to hide criminal cash.


New hotels with views of the Acropolis are going up, leading residents in areas around the famed site to get the government to temporarily ban those blocking their view but with an investor boom underway, including the swank hotels and residential buildings apparently aimed at bringing in big buyers or lucrative short-term rentals that can bring in far more money than a monthly rent for what had been devalued apartments, some as cheap as 200 euros a month.

It’s not just in Athens, but in the most desired islands, such as Corfu and Santorini, where the foreigners are snapping up properties to qualify for the visas, with the effect of pricing out local residents, many of whom still trapped by austerity and the effects of big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings.

In some neighborhoods such as Koukaki, restaurant and taverna tables that used to seat local residents are now daily turnovers of fresh faces of tourists renting the places for short-term stays, bringing in money but changing the character and culture.

Stavros Siempos, 53, the owner of Pantopolion, a grocery in Koukaki that sells feta cheese, olives and other traditional Greek products, sair Airbnb has driven out his regular customers who can’t afford to live there anymore.

“We don’t have Greek neighbors anymore, we have Airbnb neighbors,” he said. But it is good for business, he added. “We’re better off now, because tourists have money,” he told The Times.

The Golden Visa program has drawn about 10,000 investors from China, Russia and other non-EU countries, bringing in about 1.5 billion euros in the real estate sector, Enterprise Greece told the paper, with Chinese investors making up 40 percent of that.


Between the investors buying properties and Greek owners converting them to Airbnb it has led to a shortage of affordable rentals. “It’s like what happened in Barcelona, where everyone was forced from the center,” said Maria Dolores, a young artist who lived there before moving to Athens four years ago.

She and three roommates were evicted from a €400-a-month rental in Athens in November as the landlord weighed converting it to an Airbnb or selling to a foreigner, the paper said.

On paper, it’s been good for how much money it’s bringing in, unless you’re one of those evicted from an affordable apartment and unable to find another.

The popularity of short-term rentals, which Greek hotel owners have complained about, hasn’t kept big hotel investors and chains from developing more luxury hotels in Athens, whose revival has been helped by the $643 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation on Athens coast.

If Piraeus and Hellenikon are developed, a major US casino owner said Greece’s capital could become one of the world’s hotbeds for tourists and bring as many as 50 million visitors by 2030. A record 33 million came in 2018 and another record could come this year.

Big investors, including Thomas Cook and Wyndham Hotels, are pouring billions into the tourism sector, and dozens of hotel and resort projects are opening or underway, according to Enterprise Greece, the government agency promoting investment and trade. “We are seeing renewed investor confidence in Greece,” said Grigoris Stergioulis, the agency head.

Private equity funds are also investing in Greek real estate investment trusts. And some are starting to buy mortgage- or property-backed securities sold by Greek banks that are looking to unload piles of troubled mortgage loans accumulated during the crisis, the paper added.

In 2018, when the bailouts ended, real estate prices rose by nearly 2 percent, the first increase in nine years, according to the Bank of Greece. Building permits jumped more than 10 percent, reversing a seven-year fall, coinciding with the heart of the crisis and real estate investment grew some 20 percent in a year.

The number of units converted to short-term rentals was reported to have grown 400 percent in the last five years, leading the government to consider restrictions on how many nights a year they could be let out although enforcing laws in Greece is difficult.

Argiro Fouraci, 29, a teacher who lost her job during the crisis when landlords couldn’t find tenants, said five apartments in her family in Koukaki for years are now being advertised through Airbn and bring her family 400 euros each a month, reviving their lives.

recently began renting five apartments that have been in her family for years. A teacher who lost

Yannis Anastassiadis, CEO of Anastassiadis Group, a real estate company that works with many Chinese investors, said companies typically renovate an apartment and then sell directly to clients seeking visas.

Lefteris Potamianos, President of the Athens-Attica Real Estate Association, said the visas have helped revive the market but pushed up rental costs in some areas as much as 30 percent, a prohibitive rise for many Greeks suffering from austerity who can only sit and watch while where they used to live has become a kind of quick-turnover hotel.


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