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Urban recycling for the housing we need: self-renovation in Rome

Rome is a city under intense rental pressure, suffering from a chronic shortage of social and affordable housing. The situation has deteriorated significantly as a result of reforms pursued since the 1990s together with the state’s progressive disengagement from public housing.

The state abandoned its financial responsibility for housing in 1998 when the job was transferred to the Italian regions. Three years later, a process was started known as cartolarizzazione, which enforced the expedient sale of large amounts of Italy’s public housing with the ultimate goal of bringing €30-40bn back into the government’s coffers. This extremely brutal process led to mass evictions of long-term, low-income renters, some of them forced into risky mortgages to be able to buy the very house they had long been occupying.

CHAIRECOOP produced an initial report on the situation in 2005, four years after cartolarizzazione. Back then, the Roman situation in terms of housing was dire. Only 5.6% of people were renting in social housing, with private rents having risen 50% in 2002-2003. Our estimates counted 115,000 vacant houses while 40,000 people were homeless, 25,000 families were on the social housing waiting list and 35,000 occupied housing illegally.

"The sale of Italy’s public housing led

to mass evictions of long-term, low-income renters"

Real estate is rare in European capitals, hence its unstoppable price growth. The situation also means building new social housing within city limits is an impossible task. But if we look beyond “legitimate” real estate, meaning the type that interests investors and institutional actors, there are solutions within reach.

Our cities have at their disposal plenty of “real estate locations with low legitimate status”, “real estate dark zones”, or “invisible territorial in-betweens”. Each of these areas is overlooked by developers but worthy of consideration if taking a wider view than the usual criteria allows. Metropolises have considerable non-negligible real estate reserves – some public property but also some private such as vacant housing or offices.

This brings us neatly to another concept, autorecupero (self-renovation), which allows the renovation of previously illegally-occupied vacant public housing through a citizen cooperative created by squatters and local authorities. Drawn from the idea of an “economy of urban recycling”, the model is free from any market speculation or obsession with capitalisation. Practitioners are able to locate local resources, formally “illegitimate” but very real, and harmoniously readjust them to social demand.

In Rome’s very tense market, this took the form of the autorecupero rezidenziali (residential self-renovation) cooperatives. Under Rome’s regional autorecupero law passed in 1998, the local authority will accept plans submitted by the cooperative for the renovation of illegally-occupied buildings so that squatters can renovate their way to rightful tenancy. These plans are assessed under guidance from an architect, and communal areas will be renovated by the city of Rome.

The cooperative Vivere 2000’s rehabilitation of the 16th century convent on Piazza Soninno is an interesting illustration of autorecupero. The building was offered to the city of Rome by the Catholic Church in the 1950s to provide social housing. In the ‘80s, the derelict structure was abandoned, so squatters began occupying in very rough conditions. The cooperative, created in the early ‘90s, started renovating with each member participating according to their own means. The cooperative’s modest capacities actually resulted in a small-scale operation costing 75% less than if the renovation had been carried out using traditional methods and channels.

"As much as a million euros are saved

for every fifty housing units renovated"

Ultimately, 600m² was rehabilitated, offering social housing units of 50m², for a total cost of €200,000 – €17,000 per unit. Twelve very low-income families were housed, with half of them having previously been evicted from their homes and living on a monthly budget of €500. Tenants do have to pay a rent, but it is low to begin with and further deductions are made based on the tenant’s investment of time and money into the renovation.

Our evaluations have shown that autorecupero is always more financially advantageous than traditional renovation methods (recupero). As much as a million euros are saved for every fifty housing units renovated. But in 2013 there were still 30,000 families awaiting housing in Rome. Following the housing crisis and the market’s failure to make any positive impact, there remained 200,000 unoccupied units and 50,000 unsold ones.

There are considerable opportunities for autorecupero initiatives in Rome today, especially given the Eternal City’s massive architectural heritage in need of constant maintenance. As a grassroots initiative, it also shows that cooperatives can be an excellent way to renovate affordable housing where real estate development appears sparse and local people are priced out of the market.


IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Anura

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