Commentary. It is reductive to talk about a ‘housing crisis.’ What we have is a ‘housing problem’ — a structural issue, with powerful implications regarding income, development, the environment, urban growth and urban quality, and social relations.

Italy’s occupation movement resembles the struggle against large estates

In the heart of Rome, people are experimenting with a new conception of what it means to inhabit a place, and to provide housing and home care services. A co-working space has been set up, in an open relationship with the residents of the neighborhood. What exactly is “illegal” about any of this? Are we supposed to choose urban decay over cultural vitality?

Cardinal Konrad Krajewski’s actions in Via S. Croce in Gerusalemme, where he personally reconnected the electricity supply to the former INPDAP building, have reopened the debate about homelessness and about the urgent need for welfare policies for social housing, and for taking concrete actions for social and cultural integration. The categories of “being illegal” versus “following the rules,” with which the Salvinian right and some in the media are trying to dismiss the whole argument, are not useful for addressing the issue, and, most importantly, fail to respond to the tragedy and suffering of those who don’t have a roof over their heads. Nor do they do any justice to the creativity and wealth of innovative experiences of those who are living in the condition of “occupier.”

Faced with the glaring failures of the government and local institutions, people have organized themselves and are working to adapt the old offices of the former INPDAP and turn them into small and medium-sized apartments, and to convert the building’s auditorium and basement halls into workshops for carpentry, writing, screen printing and more, as well as local eateries, spaces for concerts or exhibitions, spaces to accommodate the young people who are publishing a monthly magazine (named Scomodo –  “Uncomfortable”), and spaces for film clubs and book presentations.

While not forgetting the important distinctions to be made, we can still say that occupation movements such as the one in Via S. Croce in Gerusalemme can be compared to the historical struggle of the poor peasants for land, who launched an assault on the big estates after WWII. Back then, just as now, their movement was joined by priests and by many intellectuals of different political, cultural and religious orientations.

The big estates were built according to the principle of land rents, the number one cause of the intolerable social inequality, illiteracy and abject poverty in which the great majority of the people lived. Now, in a different context, unused or abandoned buildings are the home of urban rents, even if these manifest in nothing other than vacancy. Today’s occupiers are the vanguard of the struggle against rents of every kind, a struggle that lies at the core of most redistributive policy.

The notion of “real estate rents” is not an abstract concept. The combined interests of the landowners, construction companies and banks lie at the origin of uncontrolled urban sprawl, of run-down peripheries, of inefficient or non-existent services. They lie at the origin of territorial and environmental degradation, of the lack of public housing, of evictions due to delays in payment, of foreclosed houses due to peoples’ inability to continue to pay the mortgage. To sum up, “urban rents” have both decimated the income of middle-class families due to the exorbitant price of housing, and, at the same time, have led to a sharp increase in hardship and poverty.

It is impossible to talk about the housing problem if we ignore the role and the weight that rents still have in Italy. The myth of homeownership, fueled in every way over the past decades, has been the driving force of a massive transfer of resources from labor over to real estate and financial rents. Home loans and rental income are just some of the ways in which this transfer has been accomplished. The growth of social inequality in Italy is simply the flipside of the growth of rents. Its unstoppable advance has gone hand in hand with the permanent shutdown of the housing welfare policies which had been a constant in Italian politics from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. With the blessing of the governments that followed, overbuilding and land exploitation have been pursued with impunity, and periodic amnesties for illegal buildings have created the perfect conditions for the proliferation of unauthorized construction. Over the last thirty years, house ownership has been encouraged in every way in Italy, and the most unscrupulous laissez faire attitude of Berlusconian fame (“Every man a master in his house”) has prevailed.

As a result, these radical forms of struggle regarding the housing issue are the consequence of a problem for which there is no outlet through institutional channels. That’s why it is overly reductive to talk about a “housing crisis.” What we have, instead, is a “housing problem,” i.e. a structural issue, with powerful implications regarding income, development, the environment, urban growth and urban quality, and social relations.

The key for successfully managing the current strife and the new housing demands is thus to engage in a paradigm shift: namely, a shift away from property rents in the balance of housing policy. It must be done through rediscovering the use value of a house, and by questioning the so-called “brick by brick financialization,” based on an idea of inhabiting that is reducible to “exchange value,” with little or no “use value” left.

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