Rome’s Housing Crisis
NIAMH MC DONALD•WEDNESDAY, MAY 25, 2016
In the suburbs of Rome in a disused college, 180 families have been occupying the building for over 2yrs. These families resorted to occupying after being evicted from their private rented accommodation due to ever increasing rents in Rome. These families are a mix of Nigerian, South American and Italian. Recently, the Municipality of Rome decided not to enact the emergency housing plan created by the regional government. May 10th, 25 of the occupiers decided to begin a hunger strike. They were joined in solidarity by housing activists supporting their occupation.
On Sunday the 23rd of May, I visited the occupation and got the opportunity to interview Frabrizio Nizi, a long time housing activist and a founding member of a grassroots housing group called The Action Rights Movement. Fabrizio is also on hunger strike, and on the day of the interview the hunger strike was 13 days in. He began by giving me a tour of the common areas of the occupation. The building has nine floors, five of these are the living quarters of the occupiers. As you walk in the main foyer of the building you are greeted by a massive green tent which was donated by the Civil Defence. This is where all the hunger strikers are residing. Many of the hunger strikers I meet were all in good spirits but at the same time you were acutely aware that these people were voluntarily starving themselves in protest.
Their faces were gaunt, their eyes sunken, many were chain smoking and constantly drinking water. Some were giddy and hyper while others were just sleeping. I cannot speak Italian so I observed more than conversed, what struck me most was the atmosphere. It was like being at a funeral – something deathly serious was taking place. The air was charged. It was a feeling I have never experienced before during my many years as an activist and something I shall never forget.
The hunger strikers have 15 doctors supervising them, visiting twice a day. They check all vital signs and also monitor mental health. As of Saturday 13th May, each hunger striker has lost between 6-11 kilos each. Two people had to step down due to serious health issues, and two more replaced them. The strikers meet at 7pm every evening to discuss how they are coping, to share the difficulties & support one another.
The solidarity they are receiving from the public and famous figures in Rome has been overwhelming and this is one of the main factors keeping them strong and united. I sat with Frabrizio for over an hour, he painted a picture of the housing situation in Rome and the organised resistance on the ground, as well as why they have now chosen to take the drastic tactic of a hunger strike.
In total there are minimum 21,000 families with a housing need in Rome. 9000 of these are on the housing list, but this is not up to date as the municipality will only release figures from 2013. 6000 families live in emergency accommodation called “in residence” – this consists of a family living in a 16 meter sq flat, while waiting for social housing – and the final 6000 live in 110 different occupations around the city.
There are 3 refugee occupations but these are not supported by any particular group – charities and voluntary medical organisations support the refugees. 30,000 families are in the process of being evicted from private rented apartments. 95% of the evictions are families unable to meet the ever-increasing rents – every year for the last 10 years rents have increased in Rome. Wages have decreased, taxes increased; social welfare cuts and precarious employment are also factors. More recently, this has started to affect middle class families with two incomes, which is a new phenomenon to Rome. The government did introduce a law to help those in rent difficulty where they pay the landlord directly, however it takes a long time for an application to be processed and it is hard to get approval, so landlords do not trust the government to approve it for tenants and they evict anyway.
There are 110 occupations in Rome and they are supported by three different grassroots housing groups in the city: Action Rights Movement; B.P.M- Block, Precarious, Metropolitan (this group is a split from Action rights Movement); and Co-Ordination for the Fight for Housing (this is the oldest group, beginning in the 1970s and came from a group called Autonomy Reality). All three of these groups work together and all are part of the college occupation and the hunger strike. In 2013 all three groups decided to organise a joint strategy to put the issue of the housing crisis on the political map in Rome.
The campaign was called the Tsunami Tour. This lasted a year from 2013-2014. During those 12 months, a total of 40 buildings were occupied to house families. On the first day of the campaign all three groups occupied 15 buildings. This strategy put massive pressure on the regional government to begin to do something about the housing crisis, as the regional government have the responsibility for the housing situation, and each municipal must take their lead from the regional government. But in Italy, like Ireland, bureaucracy and corruption take precedence over policy. The regional government lead by the Democratic Party decided an emergency housing plan was required.
Rome has 50,000 empty homes on the market for a long period with no one to buy them due to the dire economic conditions, so they set out a budget to purchase these homes and to repair existing social housing. The Municipal of Rome then announced it would take minimum 18 months to plan for this policy. They also give the total responsibility for this plan and all decision-making powers to an un-elected official who is a high ranking member of the police. The activists call him “Tronka”.
Tronka works for the office of the Ministry of the Interior; this office is held by the leader of the right-wing party currently in coalition in Italy. Tronka announced that there is no housing crisis so no emergency plan is required, he deemed all occupations illegal and they will not be recognised. He says Rome only needs 200-250 social houses per year. Tronka said “you do not have a right to a home but you do have a right to a place to live”
This announcement devastated many people they were expecting to move into their forever homes, begin a future of stability and security and rebuild their lives. On the 10th of May residents and activists decided to send a delegation to the municipal to talk to Tronka, while others went to help a sit in at the municipal in support. Tronka refused to meet with them, and the police attacked the protesters, beating them and using water cannons.
At the assembly of the occupation that evening, a decision was taken to begin a hunger strike. 25 people volunteered to partake. On May 11th they returned to see Tronka again and this time they got a meeting. However, when the delegation tried to negotiate with him, he said there will be no negotiation and he just got up and walked out. Following this, the regional government, in opposition to Tronka’s party, announced they do not recognise or agree with what Tronka is doing and denounced his plans. This announcement was a direct result of the pressure applied by the demonstration & hunger strikes. The occupiers & strikers feel this is still not enough and more pressure was required.
Currently Rome is in the middle of a municipal election season. The election is on June 5th and the Democratic Party’s housing manifesto is the same as the regional government’s emergency housing plan.
The Democratic Party are the strongest parliamentary allies for the occupiers, as there is no strong elected left in Italy. The exit strategy for the hunger strikers is for the local Democratic Party candidate Roberto Giachetti to endorse their struggle, and to announce this to the media from the occupation. He has agreed to meet and do this. When this happens the hunger strike will end as this will create the political platform the housing crisis needs, and will ensure the regional plan will be part of the next municipal. It will also ensure that Tronka will be removed from his position under the next administration.
“Why hunger strike?” I asked Fabrizio. “You have to understand there is no movement here in Italy of a strong left political power, yes we have many groups but not a movement. We had to do something drastic to push this. Also this tactic had been discussed in our Assemblies for a while, especially with the introduction of Tronka to supervise housing in the municipal. People had strong reactions to being called illegal and not recognised, told they had no right to a home, some were packing stuff preparing to move to a proper home and suddenly all of this was taken away violently from them. They felt the need to react in such a fashion.
We also want to reach out to people way beyond us to understand the seriousness of the situation. What has emerged is that an Archbishop for the Vatican came to show support for the occupiers and announced that Pope Francis is supporting them and would like to visit and wishes to speak about the housing crisis in the city. Either way the fight for housing continues, election or not, as politicians cannot be trusted, but our actions have placed it firmly on the political map for this election and the newly elected municipal.”
As of Wednesday 25th of May nothing had changed. If I get any updates I will post them to my Facebook page.