Workers’ homes "to become expat apartments?"
25 September 2013
ROME - San Saba is a peaceful neighbourhood on the Aventine hill. Architect Quadrio Pirani envisaged an entity “tailored to human size” and “rather rare” for the type of housing. Indeed, the yellow ochre villas around the main piazza evoke a cosy provincial town. The piazza is meticulously trimmed: every day, a team of gardeners takes care of the greenery. Local residents have that arrogant and distrustful look that comes with wealth and privilege. At noon and in the evening, Roman dialect sounds from the terrace of the local pizzeria “Al Callarello”. The serenity of San Saba is a relief from Rome’s rumble.
At the newspaper kiosk, I chat with the owner. He tells me the villas, which are protected historic buildings, form a council estate. I had noticed that both the socialist and the liberal parties have branch offices in the neighbourhood. But I had also read the discrete “ricerca affitti per clientele selezionata” ads. “Council houses?” I ask. “But what about those Jaguars and SUVs?” He laughs and turns to the next client.
Rome has a history of housing shortages. In a city that is at a time a capital and a tourist hotspot, finding a roof above one’s head can be quite a challenge. Rome’s entity for council housing, ATER, manages 52,474 houses and apartments. Its waiting list counts 30,000 families. People have to wait years for a council house; entire families live in dormitories or campers.
After years of allegations in the national press, ATER issued a list of illicit tenants. All over Rome, 5,378 council houses are allotted to falsi poveri: well-heeled people who own businesses and property in Italy as well as abroad and who buy and sell on the stock exchange. Some council tenants even own a yacht. In a city where students pay €650/month for a single room, ATER tenants pay between €7 and €55/month for an entire apartment.
Last December a popular television program confronted ATER’s managing director with Anna Maria Addante, president of the Association of ATER Tenants and Owners. Anna Maria denounced the widespread practice of subletting: absentee tenants are renting out their council houses. The program included an interview with a young couple. The couple rents a council apartment from an official tenant. Depending on her financial means, the official tenant charges the couple ten to twelve times the official rent (but still less than half of what a similar apartment would cost on the private market). Each time ATER inspects the apartment, the official tenant is tipped off. She receives the inspector in the apartment while the couple stays outdoors.
During a heated debate, ATER’s managing director explained that whereas ATER belongs to the region, the instance that allots the lodgings belongs to the city. The program then revealed that people who want to bypass ATER’s waiting list can pay up to €50,000. Cash in hand, of course.
When ATER’s managing director asked for the name of the official tenant who rents out to the young couple, the television presenter refused. He explained that he wouldn’t tell any names because “I know what will happen. Whereas this young couple will be evicted, the official tenant will just carry on.” The audience applauded. Anna Maria concluded that Roman politicians allot council houses to gain votes. The following day, Anna Maria’s car was set afire.
Though left-wing and right-wing politicians differ in public, they think alike in private. In 2007, ATER sold one-third of its housing stock. No less than 16,000 council houses have been sold at bargain prices. In upscale areas like San Pancrazio, 100m2 apartments have gone for prices so inexpensive that one could not even buy a garage in the periphery at the value.
The list of beneficiaries reads like a Who’s Who in Roman politics. Walter Veltroni, the former leftist mayor of Rome, bought an apartment for €373,000. Located near Via Veneto, its market value exceeded €1,000,000. The fact that Veltroni already owned property, among which a New York apartment, made ATER not conclude that some other citizen might be more in need of a council apartment than the mayor of Rome.
Roman politicians manage to first rent a council house, then buy it at half its market value and finally –the icing on the cake– sell it at a premium price. Nicola Mancino, the former Senate president, bought a council house along the Tiber for €815,000. He later sold it for €2,800,000. In the Trieste neighbourhood, former president of the Chamber of Deputies, Pier Ferdinando Casini, bought an entire council estate and turned it into luxurious flats. The new, market-rate rent pushed out all former council residents.
The San Saba council estate dates from 1914. It is subject to a 100-year moratorium. When ATER will sell these houses and apartments, each tenant will have a right of first refusal. In September, two tenants were evicted. Another 600 are to follow. The first eviction was the ex-husband of right-wing MP Renata Polverini. The Left has won the elections and the winner takes it all.
Next to the Baths of Caracalla and at a stone’s throw from the Coliseum, Quadrio Pirani’s spacious buildings are premium property. Will the apartments, once they are ceded by ATER, multiply in value overnight? Will they turn from €55 to €1,800 rentals? What will happen to the cosy villas? Will they be converted into hotels and B&Bs?
Maybe the homes that were built for blue-collar workers will end as furnished apartments for fat-cat expats –- the FAO is in walking distance –- and Globish will replace Romanesco in “Al Callarello”.