The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma


Greece is in the grip of a severe cold snap, which has brought snow and sub-zero temperatures even to urban areas. This is an extreme event, but not entirely unexpected – winters in Greece can be cold, particularly going into spring. With a mean minimum temperature of 10°C in winter, some form of indoor heating is necessary by most peoples’ standards. Two years ago I spent the winter months in Athens in slightly less severe weather conditions, living in an uninsulated, barely heated apartment and house-hunting. I spent a lot of time thinking about heating, not just about the practicalities of generating physical warmth as the wind whistled through the single-glazed windows, but about the way peoples’ decisions around heating were already starting to leave permanent marks on the physical and social fabric of the city.

(Not) Hot in City

The standard dwelling in Athens is an apartment in a polykatoikía (πολυκατοικἰα) – a multi-storey apartment block; literally, a multi-residence. The majority of the housing stock in Athens (around 80% of dwellings in the central municipality of Athens) dates to before the 1980s. Buildings of this age were fitted with oil-fired central heating which is centrally controlled, meaning that there is one central boiler that comes on at set times during the day, and all tenants contribute to buying the fuel through a service charge known as κοινόχρηστα, koinóchrista, meaning a common (facility) charge. A polykatoikía is governed by an homeowners’ council according to a set of rules that owners sign up to when they purchase the property. The owners (or their delegates) take it in turns to chair the meetings, which decide, among other things, on the purchase of heating oil and on operating the heating system. This means that the basic decisions about heating are not individual but collective. Under normal conditions, individual decision making is limited to whether or not to turn on the radiators and how high.

But of course these are not normal conditions. As family budgets have been shrinking and energy prices have been increasing, people have been pushed to take more drastic choices, choices that tell us a lot about the limits of collective decision-making under these stressed conditions.

The concept of ‘fuel poverty’ or ‘energy poverty’, which describes the condition of being unable to afford to keep one’s home adequately heated, has only recently gained currency in Greece (for a European perspective, see here). It has not been reliably tracked, and there is still no agreed metric used by the Greek government, but every conceivable form of measurement testifies to the increasingly inability of households to pay for heating in the years since the financial crisis took hold in 2010. There is an abundance of statistics for this period, many of which are collected in this recent survey (an interesting read which is, however, marred by sloppy referencing). Among them, we can see that between 2008 and 2013, domestic heating oil orders in Athens dropped by an astounding 70%. A survey carried out at the start of winter of 2013-4 showed that over one in three households did not intend to turn their central heating on at all. Indeed, between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of households using central heating has more than halved, from 76% to 35.5%.

Since 2010 household disposable income in Greece has shrunk by more than a third, due to the poor economic environment and increases in taxes and other contributions; but income is only one term in the fuel poverty equation. In addition to losing income, Greeks have also seen the price of heating fuel rise, primarily due to increased fuel taxes. In a monumentally short-sighted policy, successive Greek governments have increased the special consumption tax on heating oil to bring it in line with automotive diesel, ostensibly in order to discourage fuel fraud (the two products can be used almost interchangeably in some engines, and filling up on the cheaper ‘red’ heating oil has been a common money-saving trick among professional drivers for some time). The result was that between 2010-2013, the price of heating oil more than doubled (a 119% increase compared to a European average increase of 57%), making it far and away the most expensive heating option available to Greek households.

Opting out of central heating is made easier by the availability of alternatives. Plug-in heaters, electric inverters which double as air conditioning, fireplaces (where available), wood-pellet stoves and an expanding natural gas network offer options that are, or appear to be, cheaper on an individual household basis. Most of the decline in the use of oil central heating is accounted for by a shift to other heating modes. Most households also cut back on heating compared to past habits: surveys show that around three out of four report have been using less heating, and measured declines in consumption of electricity seem to bear this out. A small minority of households stop heating altogether – in 2014, 1.8% households in a nationwide survey declared that they had no form of heating at all, up from 0.5% in 2010.

Households have simply opted out of the built-in central heating, either because they can’t pay the fuel bills or because they have chosen other solutions. But because they are part of a collective process, their individual choices have wider and potentially long-lasting consequences.

… which brings us to the dilemma of the title.


The Dilemma

The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is a scenario which is used to model shared decision making. It belongs to the branch of economics known as ‘game theory’, which is also used to model decision making in other areas of life such as politics and international relations (it gained notoriety recently as the specialism of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who clearly chose the wrong ‘game’ on which to model his negotiating tactics). The prisoner’s dilemma predicts that if two or more parties who don’t have a relationship of trust are forced to make a collective decision, they will make choices that appear rational to each of them individually, but result in a poorer outcome for all of them compared to a cooperative decision. The prisoners in the eponymous scenario will turn one another in, assuming that their partner will do the same. The cold war nuclear powers will continue to arm themselves to the teeth, assuming that the other party will be doing likewise, taking away resources from areas like education and health, and decreasing national security. It doesn’t matter what their ideologies or their political systems are: mutual disarmament would result in more prosperous nations, but unilateral disarmament is too risky an option to contemplate when you don’t trust your opponent to do the same.

When you have more than two ‘players’, the prisoner’s dilemma results in what is known as ‘free riding’. When a public transport relies on an ‘honour system’, a certain number of users won’t buy tickets, resulting in fare rises for honest users. If the public transport system goes bankrupt, travel becomes more expensive for everyone (does that ring a bell?). The result is what has been termed ‘the tragedy of the commons’: rational self-interest combined with mutual mistrust results in widespread shirking (because it is assumed that ‘everyone does it’). As long as individuals feel that they are getting something for free (or without significant penalty), common resources are degraded to the point where everyone suffers.

A frequent criticism of ‘game theory’ is that it requires us to assume that people act out of pure self-interest, and as such it dehumanises decision making, ignoring factors such as culture, emotion or the potential for altruism. It is therefore always slightly disheartening to come across clear-cut real-world examples. I am by no means an expert and it this is not a piece of systematic analysis, but there is a pattern here. In the crisis-era polykatoikía, the extent to which collective decisions on heating conform to the predictions of the prisoner’s dilemma suggests that any inherent altruism is too weak to overcome household self-interest. We can all point to instances of neighbourly support and solidarity, but the combination of a failing economy and a toxic policy framework seem to have reduced household decisions as close as it comes to pure self-interest (or, as we say in Greek, καθἐνας για την πάρτη του, kathénas gia tin párti tou: ‘each for himself’).

If the occupier of a single apartment choses not to use the central heating, they can get a free ride (or an almost-free ride), in the form of what could be called a ‘heat dividend’ – a small uplift in the temperature thanks to the heat loss between apartments. This is anticipated by the standard terms of building rules. To ensure that no one gets an entirely free ride, most associations impose a nominal heating charge even on apartments where the occupant opts to ‘seal’ their radiators permanently, and that includes vacant properties. Clearly many households have decided that this is a penalty worth paying – either that, or they have decided (or been forced by circumstances) to start ignoring their maintenance bills, at which point their neighbours have to cover the shortfall. Either way, if enough occupants decide to opt out of central heating, the benefit of the ‘heat dividend’ is lost to all, at first gradually and eventually completely. It is now not uncommon for polykatoikía council to vote not to purchase heating oil at all, meaning no-one gets penalised by the standing charge, but that each household must find its own way to heat their space and the walls around them. But the penalty is more far-reaching that loss of shared heat.


The tragedy of the koinóchrista

Many of us who grew up in a polykatoikía genuinely find it alien not to live cheek by jowl, smelling the neighbours’ cooking and overhearing their arguments and more intimate moments. In architectural and town planning circles there is a new found appreciation for the form and the practical function that the polykatoikía fulfilled in the post-war growth of Athens. People can get quite misty-eyed about an ideal; no-one misses the decision-making process and the petty micro-politics associated with it, the disputes over parking, garbage disposal, balcony watering and noise.Indeed, critics of the polykatoikia say that its basic design, with a single-minded focus on maximising private space and a lack of usable shared spaces like gardens or courtyards, encourages radical individualism and makes it easy to retreat into self-interest.  It does not take much for neighbours to fall out, and the stresses of the financial crisis were the last straw in many cases.

In the predominantly middle-class neighbourhoods where I grew up and where I went house-hunting, the signs were clear. Many buildings were part-vacant. With the first signs of the crisis, many apartments that were previously rented emptied out, as tenants moved to cheaper alternatives, or moved back in with parents, or displaced them to an early retirement in the village or the holiday home. This was clear from the shuttered exteriors, and the desolation of the communal spaces. Even in nicer apartment blocks, it was not unusual to see final demands and threatening notes pinned to the notice boards. Peeling paint in the stairwells, dust balls, a penetrating chill, silence, the absence of the tell-tale smell of oil fumes and the hum of the boiler, testified to a breakdown in neighbourly relations, or at best a consensual suspension: a ‘tragedy of the koinóchrista’.

In one of our more memorable visits, we were shown a charming top floor apartment listed at a bargain price, the last push before a bank foreclosure. Predictably, there was no operational central heating in the building – we had learned to ask the question – ‘the polykatoikía’ had voted against it. We asked ourselves whether it was worth insulating the walls or installing a heat pump or a gas supply, only to end up footing the maintenance bill as the sole users of the elevator that would transport us past the empty, cold, slowly decaying floors below to the rooftop haven.

While the majority of apartment owners have opted for the most expedient solutions (electrical heaters and/or fireplaces where available), others have invested in insulation, autonomous natural gas connections or more exotic options like heat pumps, for which support schemes are periodically made available from European Funds. These are solutions that require a certain amount of cash upfront, and by definition are only available to the better off. However, what in normal circumstances would be a sensible investment is now of more questionable value. Even the relatively affluent home-owners are ultimately hostages to the building fabric and the circumstances of their less fortunate neighbours for other amenities, quality of life, and ultimately the value of their property. No one wants to live in a ghost building without a prospect of recovery. To the extent that there is a functioning property market in Greece, everyone is in the same boat, even the better-off, as the shared fabric of the building deteriorates and the desirability of everyone’s slice of it decreases. By ‘defecting’ from the collective solution, they have also penalised themselves.

The longer the crisis drags on, and the longer successive governments persist down the same policy cul-de-sac, the harder it will be to reverse these effects. Studies show quite starkly how the heating divide is sharpening social inequality and carving out social divides within the city. There is no discussion of reversing energy taxes – the advocates of the original policy argue that it has had a positive impact (albeit limited) on public revenues and on combating fuel fraud, and they view the social effects as collateral damage. The policy response has been to introduce social tariffs and fuel supplements for the groups designated as vulnerable, however the most vulnerable (for example those not able to supply the appropriate paperwork) usually fall through the holes in the safety net. Environmental groups see fuel poverty as an opportunity to promote ‘green’ solutions such as energy efficiency; however making such solutions available to those most in need requires proactive policy intervention, for which the Greek state is chronically ill-equipped. For example, up to 80% of the housing stock in some of the most disadvantaged Athenian neighbourhoods is entirely uninsulated. Insulation is the most cost-effective way to reduce heating needs, and therefore heating bills – yet a household that struggles to pay its bills by definition can’t make the outlay. Unless a body with access to funds is able to intervene, they are stuck in a Catch-22 situation. Happily some local authorities are starting to act on this front, identifying households in need and offering targeted funding, but it remains to be seen how effective the implementation will be.

It would seem that only the wealthiest, those who can afford to live in single family homes, escape the penalties of the polykatoikía-dweller’s dilemma. But even this is not entirely true. Among the first symptoms of the heating crisis were a rapid deterioration in air quality in Athens and other urban centres, with choking smog hanging over the city on the coldest days of the year, and an increase in illegal logging for firewood. The environment is the ultimate ‘commons’: everyone with lungs breathes in the carcinogens released by the copious and indiscriminate burning of wood (even in the leafy suburbs), and current and future generations will suffer the loss of valuable atmospheric cleansers in the surrounding forests.

Polykatoikía-dwellers often joke that the self-managed apartment block is a microcosm of the country, with all is dysfunctionalities; perhaps this is true in the most literal sense.


POSTSCRIPT: Another environmental effect of the fuel switch became clear as the cold weather continued to affect Greece: as people turned to gas and electrical heating, the country’s energy networks were overwhelmed by the demand, particularly during peak evening hours. This lead to emergency measures, and the Energy Ministry called on consumers to avoid using energy for any “non-essential activities”. Electricity generation in Greece is heavily reliant on burning lignite (brown coal). On average lignite accounts for around half the electricity generated, but at peak times, the ageing lignite plants bear the brunt of demand, meaning that the power generated at these times is the most polluting. Lignite is cheap, but it is also one of the ‘dirtiest’ forms of fuel, and due to their age the Greek plants are some of the most polluting in Europe. The immediate health effects of thousands of households switching on their electric heaters in Athens are ‘exported’ the neighbourhood of electricity plants in Ptolemaïda in west Macedonia and Megalopolis in the Peloponnese, increasing the risk of cancer and a variety of chronic respiratory, cardiovascular and other diseases in the surrounding population. In addition, the spike in lignite use releases more greenhouse gases, that have a much wider impact by contributing to climate change.

PHOTOS: Athens cityscape courtesy of pelly*made; back lot from; Athens by night, winter 2012, from


The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma