Loose earth stirs on the ground of the Olympic Village in the dry air of Athens’ early summer. As far as the eye can see, low-slung buildings are laid out meticulously over the site. The buildings are rimmed with brightly painted verandas. Inside the complex’s 2,292 apartments, living quarters and ample storage space are kept cool by central air-conditioning. A garage underneath each building provides at least one indoor parking space for every unit—a rarity in Greece.
But what makes the complex even more unusual, not only in Greece but also among Olympic host cities worldwide, is that long after the 20,000 star athletes and international visitors left town in 2004, this beautifully appointed housing did not turn into sleek dormitories or luxurious condos. The entire village became home to low-income families; the first of the expected 10,000 people moved in last February.
Olympic organizing committees “don’t want to convert [villages] into affordable housing because they will lose a lot of money,” explains Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, author of Inside theOlympic Industry: Power, Politics and Activism (SUNY Press, 2000). What’s worse, the University of Toronto sociologist found that hosting the Olympics invariably wreaks havoc upon a city’s poor. The homeless are swept up and jailed. Families are evicted so that swaths of low-income neighborhoods can be redeveloped.
The fight for a more positive Olympic legacy is now raging in Canada. Activists in Vancouver, host of the 2010 winter games, have organized to protect tenants from inflated rent and evictions and to ensure that more than half of the village is reserved for affordable housing. But this early set-aside commitment already has been curtailed by newly elected conservative city council members.
For housing activists, the Greek example is instructive. The government put the Labor Housing Organization—created in 1954 to ensure housing for Athens’ postwar influx of rural workers—in charge of building the $398 million Olympic Village soon after the city won the bid to host the 2004 games. It was the first time that a social housing organization took over Olympic construction.
On the 306-acre site in Acharnes, nine miles northwest of Athens, the Olympic Village has blossomed into a newfangled town, with a health clinic, a fire station, schools, day care centers, and a church. An ancient aqueduct has been preserved as part of the landscaping, and bus lines connect the village to the commuter train network. In early 2005 a national lottery assigned the housing to some 2,000 families.
Not all of the housing stories coming out of the Greek Olympic Games were quite so rosy. Many Roma people in and around Athens were reportedly evicted from their settlements, and seven construction workers died in what was believed to be the worst accident in housing construction in the history of modern Greece.
The incidents marred the city’s later successes, but by planning ahead, Athens ultimately was able to turn the games into a boon for low-incoming housing rather than a death knell, which was the case in Atlanta.
Two of Atlanta’s oldest and largest public housing projects, Techwood and Clark Howell Homes, had influential, land-hungry neighbors—Coca-Cola’s corporate headquarters and Georgia Tech. These power brokers held sway over the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games, which prepared the bid in a process shrouded in secrecy. Soon after the bid was awarded in September 1990 local activists began to organize in earnest, but it was too late. Nearly 1,200 units ultimately were razed to make room for downtown redevelopment.
“The minute the bid is mentioned” is the time to get organized, according to Anita Beaty, a longtime housing advocate who, as executive director of the city’s Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, galvanized opposition to the demolition.
Vancouver’s activists apparently have heeded Beaty’s advice. In 2001, as the city was preparing to bid for the 2010 games, housing, labor, transportation, and environmental advocates formed the watchdog group Impact on Communities Coalition to negotiate with city officials. The coalition is working closely with the Vancouver Organizing Committee to make sure the city’s commitments are carried out.
Meanwhile, five U.S. cities—Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—are vying to host the 2016 games. These host city officials would do well to follow their counterparts in Athens, who claim in the Labor Housing Organization’s glossy brochures to have lived by this philosophy: “We want the games to be at the service of the city, and not the city at the service of the games.”