In addition to the two extremes of public and private housing, a third kind of housing option has recently emerged in Italy. The new option is financed by private (and public/private) means through the so-called ‘ethical real-estate funds’, which are dedicated to social housing.
This option is aimed at those who find no adequate answer to their housing needs in either the public sector nor in the free market, corresponding to that ‘grey area’ of the population which represents the user base for affordable housing.
While elsewhere in western Europe the very concept of social housing was introduced in the policy arena at the end of the Second World War, in Italy the situation is different: the concept dates back to way before the War and has remained relevant up until the second decade of the 21st century. In 2008 in particular, the legislation on social housing radically changed, owing to the introduction of ‘Social Home’, which, by focusing on permanent tenancy, provides a way to tackle the lack of rental housing for less privileged individuals and families without the resources to enter the free housing market.
The introduction of Social Home led to a shift in housing policies and impacted the definition of social housing too. It extended the boundaries of the social rental market by allowing private developers to build social rental housing on private land with the purpose of supporting investments in this sector through the provision of government incentives such as tax exemptions and land-use concessions.
"It seems that the time has come to implement innovative solutions"
Old legislation was based on a traditional model of intervention: the only way to have social housing was if the state government played the roles of both planner and executor. Since 2007 new laws have tried to open up possibilities of action for private developers or public/private partnerships. In 2009, the national government approved the ‘Piano Nazionale per l’Edilizia abitativa’ (National Social Housing Plan), establishing the ‘Integrated System of Funds’ (SIF), which enabled a structured financial solution to the national need for low-rental homes.
The SIF set up the activation of the ’Fondo di Investimenti per l’Abitare’ (FIA, Investment Fund for Housing) nationwide, which made €2bn available and generated the establishment of a number of local ethical funds. The local funds have then engaged in several social and affordable housing projects, each promoted and supported by local actors committed to advance the public interest, such as local councils, banking foundations, housing providers, social enterprises, non-profit organisations and estate operators. As of December 2016 there were 31 approved local funds spread throughout Italy with nine different local asset management companies. They have the potential to execute more than 270 housing-related projects, including community and neighbourhood services.
It seems that the time has come to implement innovative solutions for structuring, financing, constructing and managing social and affordable housing initiatives that are economically sustainable and not dependent on grants. These new models have not only opened the social rental sector to private and public/private investments but have also provided a new and meaningful picture of how a virtuous intersection of the three crucial policy dimensions – housing, urban and social policies – can help redraw the boundaries of local welfare. The model’s main novelty consists in the synergy of three innovative elements: the ethical real estate fund, the PPP and the collaborative governance model established in the new housing settlements. The latter is the one that fits best to what many observers have started to point out as a ‘renaissance of the collective’, a paradigm shift in social values produced in reaction to the global real estate and financial crisis’ impact on everyday life.
Throughout Europe, studies have already described the switch from the demand of houses to the demand of housing services: within this perspective offering a house means not only producing efficient buildings but providing people with tools to build a supportive neighbourhood and a collaborative community. In recent years in Italy, too, progressively innovative collaborative initiatives have emerged, especially in the housing field.
"Throughout Europe, studies have already described the switch from the demand of houses to the demand of housing services"
‘Cenni di Cambiamento’ (which literally means ‘Hints of Change’) is the most important social and collaborative housing project ever built in Italy within the SIF. It hosts 122 social and affordable homes, rented out to mostly young people with different incomes. There are residential services for people with special needs, common spaces for tenants, public spaces for the neighbourhood as well as shops. Despite being inhabited only from 2013, it already has a long record of accomplishments. Furthermore, being the first project realised within the SIF, it has been widely recognised as a leading project of what is considered a new season of social and affordable housing in Italy.
But looking at the big picture, what really matters is that, in Italy, experimenting on real-estate ethical funding, public/private partnerships, inclusive architectural design, social management and community build-up processes began in 2005 with Cenni, and was soon followed up by similar projects in Milan and many other cities in Italy. This kind of planning experience has pushed all actors, such as authorities, non-profit organisations, landowners and investors, to pay even closer attention to the social dimension of place-making and to develop strategies and instruments to accelerate the natural process of community build-up. For our organisation, the main focus has been on making prototypes of new and more efficient housing solutions. We also help tenants to establish a high level of trust and collaboration in planning and managing shared services and communal spaces, which are at the heart of each project.
Although the SIF is regionally-based and this makes it harder to define a national policy model, this experience seems to have opened the way to a different approach to social and affordable housing planning, going beyond the opposition between housing needs and market dynamics which was typical in the public debates of the 1980s and 1990s. This way does not inevitably lead to success, but promoting co-design between public and private actors and encouraging resource- and knowledge-sharing is pushing mutual commitment of all stakeholders towards ‘new collective’ thinking on housing and urban spaces.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr - Jakub Doleza