ATHENS: Rising poverty, pressure from creditors and a looming parliamentary revolt: Greece’s government has its work cut out as it ponders whether to broaden home foreclosures to thin the ranks of evasive debtors.
A law passed in 2010 currently protects the principal residence of debtors from outright seizure, providing a cushion of support in a country stuck in a six-year recession and four years of austerity cutbacks.
But according to Greece’s creditors—the European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB)—the measure has been systematically abused.
“The moratorium on seizures has brought about an important increase in strategic bankruptcies, meaning people who stopped repaying their loans even though they had the means to do so,” Poul Thomsen, head of the IMF’s audit mission to Greece, told the Kathimerini daily in a recent interview.
The protective measure is set to lapse in January, and has become a major sticking point in negotiations between the so-called troika of creditors and the government in return for loans under from the Greek bailout agreement.
According to Kathimerini, the ban reduced home auctions by 50 percent between 2009 and 2012, and removing it could see 110,000 homes seized and sold.
“Changing the rules on home seizures would mark the beginning of a political, economic and social rupture,” said Louka Katseli, the former finance minister who promoted the law in question.
One prominent magistrate has warned that ending the moratorium on foreclosures would cause “a second Asia Minor disasterm” referring to the traumatic conclusion of the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922 that saw the elimination of Anatolia’s ethnic Greek minority through killings and exile.
Seeking a compromise
Facing an internal revolt on the issue from its own lawmakers, the coalition government of conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is seeking a compromise that will satisfy everyone.
“The weak will be protected, poor and middle-class households will be protected,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told Antenna television on Tuesday.
“We are trying to locate freeloaders, and protect those who truly can’t meet their obligations owing to the crisis,” he said.
The European Commission this week also stressed that it was merely seeking to “rework” the ban to eliminate “systematic abuse brought about by the general moratorium.”
For Nikos Magginas, an economist at the National Bank of Greece, the problem lies in Greece’s notoriously cumbersome justice system that can take up to five years to resolve litigation.
In the case of claimants seeking protection from their creditors, “debt repayment is frozen for as long as it takes to reach a verdict,” he noted.
Greek banks estimate non-performing loans at 29 percent of total loans, of which a large share are mortgages. In comparison, Spain—where home seizures are more frequent—has a nonperforming loan rate of 12.12 percent.
Greece’s so-called troika of creditors argue that the ban needs to be reexamined to prevent endangering the banks, which were only recently recapitalized after helping a major operation to reduce the country’s state debt last year.
But a sharp increase in home auctions would be catastrophic for property prices in Greece, which are already down 30 percent from 2010 figures owing to the recession.
The government and the troika are expected to reach a deal before the moratorium expires at the beginning of January.
But with a majority of just four members of parliament, the government risks being ripped apart over the issue as several conservatives have warned they would rebel against any deal that guts the moratorium.
And critics warn that even if the government manages to extract an exception for poor households, defining poverty in a country where incomes have fallen so dramatically is next to impossible.
Consumer associations note that with taxes steadily increasing in the past three years, even people with nominally high salaries have trouble making ends meet.
According to state statistics dating from 2011, 23.1 percent of Greeks are exposed to poverty. Conditions have since deteriorated further, placing Greece at the head of European rankings in this category.