Fines for illegally altered homes
Athens Plus, 23 April 2010

Building regulations rarely make for exciting reading and, at first glance, a bill due to be passed through Parliament on Thursday, April 22, seems both complicated and dull, but in fact it is very significant as it will lead to more than 1 million homeowners having to pay fines of hundreds or even thousands of euros for violating previous construction laws.

The draft law allows homeowners to declare any parts of their properties that have been illegally altered and then pay a penalty to ensure they will not be subject to any further action, including demolition and more penalties, for the next 40 years.

The proposed law covers areas of homes that were originally planned as balconies, garages or basements but have since been turned into living spaces, known as "imiypaithrioi" · (semi-open) in Greek.

The construction industry has for years taken advantage of legal loopholes to build homes with much more living space than they were permitted. This allowed the builders to increase their profits while the buyers paid less in taxes. There are few apartments that have been built over the last 15 years that do not have at least a few square meters of "semi-open" space that has been incorporated into a bedroom, bathroom or living room. Similarly, it is unlikely that anyone who has bought a maisonette since the mid-1990s has not benefited from a basement or a loft being illegally turned into rooms.

Governments turned a blind eye to this practice for years until last summer, when the New Democracy administration attempted to impose some order by introducing a law that allowed homeowners to pay a one-off penalty that exempted their properties from any further action. Although the conservatives stressed this did not amount to legalization of the properties, their plans hit legal obstacles, as the Constitution does not allow illegal constructions to be recognized in this way.

PASOK is hoping its legislation will be approved because it has set a 40-year time limit and, unlike the ND law, all the money raised from the new penalties is to be reinvested in projects to create more parks and playgrounds. "It appears that the new regulations are within the spirit of Article 24 of the Constitution because they do not legalize an illegally built area but impose a flat-rate fine for the homeowner to maintain this area for a given period of time," Aristotle University law professor Constantinos Gogos wrote in Sunday’s Kathimerini. New Democracy had estimated it would raise some 2 billion euros for the public coffers from its law. PASOK’s proposal will, in most cases, lead to homeowners paying a little less.

The success of the measure - in terms of whether homeowners voluntarily step forward to admit building law transgressions - will depend on whether proper inspections are carried out and if those who do not declare illegally altered areas in their homes will face stiff penalties.

Aware that previous building regulations have been flouted due to a lack of checks, Environment Minister Tina Birbili, whose department has drafted the law, said that private inspectors and officials from town-planning offices would be sent out to check on buildings. Anyone not declaring their illegally converted areas over the next eight months would face a steep one-off fine and then smaller fines each year, she said.

There is, however, a more serious underlying problem that could scupper the government’s plans, which is the sense of injustice many homeowners feel at having to pay fines for properties they bought after town-planning offices, land registries, lawyers and notaries had signed off on the deals. Despite the fact that, in most cases, the properties were illegally altered before being sold, no developers are facing penalties or legal action.

Homeowners who see a group of society, in this case developers, who have been pampered by governments over the years and have never been brought to account over their disregard for the law may well think twice about paying the fine.

"The crucial question concerning these regulations is whether citizens will abide by them in the face of a state that is unreliable and has been pushing illegal construction for years," Yiannis Alavanos, head of the Technical Chamber of Greece, wrote in Sunday’s Kathimerini.