Housing cooperatives in Italy

From historic cooperatives to self-recovery

Madalena GUERRA, 2008

Collection Passerelle

This sheet presents the Italian cooperatives, which, since the 19th century, have been fighting for the right to housing. From the first workers’ cooperatives to self-recovery and then self-rehabilitation housing cooperatives, this sheet offers a reflection on the innovative devices that make it possible to resolve the housing crisis.

The state of housing in Italy

Despite official statistics which list a number of dwellings greater than the number of Italian families (28.3 million dwellings for 22.8 million families in 1995), the most vulnerable social categories have the greatest difficulties in finding housing (families with low incomes, single-parent families, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, etc.). We find this situation of residential precariousness mainly in large metropolitan areas.

In Italy  : more than 80% of families are owners and people living in rentals are among the social categories most in difficulty.

Recent data shows that 75% of rental families earn less than € 20,000 per year and spend more than 50% of their income on housing, especially in urban areas.

These households in difficulty live in the private residential stock since few of them have access to social housing. The latter represents only 6% of the total residential stock and this rate is falling since the Italian state is currently selling its rental property.

These few figures make it possible to understand the establishment of parallel circuits to existing social housing. Housing cooperatives in Italy are an alternative to the disengagement of the state and are bringing together more and more people in precarious situations around the fight for the right to housing.

Varied cooperative housing networks

There are many housing co-operatives in Italy, the « social » vocation of which is to guarantee all those who live on Italian soil, local or immigrant, access to decent and inexpensive housing.

Co-operatives are autonomous associations of individuals who join together voluntarily to meet their own economic, social and cultural needs. Together they constitute a common property company which is democratically controlled by all members.

Housing cooperatives are non-profit and must allow their members to build housing with a quality / price ratio similar to or lower than that of social housing.

The first Italian cooperatives date back to the beginning of the 19th century, when masons self-built workers’ houses in the « green » districts of Milan. Their association in the form of common and indivisible property has made it possible to reinforce their importance and their credibility and to build a heritage of thousands of housing units belonging to all the members of the cooperative. This working class tradition is now embodied by la Lega Nazionale cooperative e mutue, a large network of cooperatives with a «   red » - communist - influence in Italy.

A second Christian-influenced cooperative network, la Confederazione cooperative italiane, operates a little differently  : the implementation of the project is common, but the homes are then sold to each member at the time of occupancy. The cooperatives therefore do not own any real estate assets. All of the dwellings become a co-ownership and may not have had the status of a cooperative until it was built.

A new challenge for housing cooperatives  : self-recovery (autorecupero)

Faced with the evolution of demand for social housing in Italy and the concomitant disengagement of the State in this area, some cooperatives have emerged in an intermediate niche, that of rehabilitation and management public heritage apartments. This is called self-recovery and is now supported in part by government programs.

These cooperatives recover unoccupied premises (schools, hospitals, military barracks) and in a state of neglect through legal rental agreements with town halls, regions or even individuals. The buildings are identified as vacant by groups fighting for the right to housing or by families united in associations. Even before entering the official self-recovery process, these groups often occupy buildings illegally. When the public authorities finally agree to give up the spaces that belong to them, they launch a call for tenders to the cooperatives for them to propose development projects at low prices. The selected cooperative must carry out the rehabilitation work on the building and therefore benefits from low-interest loans and repayment facilities.

To have access to the means made available by the public authorities within the framework of self-recovery support programs, cooperatives must be made up of members whose incomes are equivalent or lower than those of the beneficiaries of social housing. The rehabilitation works are carried out by the future inhabitants. The shares of the loan taken out to finance the development are repaid monthly by the members of the cooperative and are equivalent to a very moderate rent.

According to the cooperatives, the conditions of access to housing which become available in the rehabilitated buildings differ. While ownership of developed buildings remains public, the allocation of housing that becomes available is regularly checked so that it benefits families who are on the waiting list for social housing. In other cases, the allocation of housing is managed by the managers of the cooperatives and the criteria may vary (registration date, financial criteria, urgency of the situation, etc.).

The 1998 law in the Lazio region was a pioneer in the legalization of auto-recupero by allowing the rehabilitation of 11 public buildings. Since then, several bills have been considered: a national law could become an effective tool in a housing policy aimed at people in real difficulty.

The interest for the public authorities in developing such support for auto-recupero is very clear. This mechanism allows them to reduce their housing effort since the costs of self-recovery are much lower than the construction of new buildings. This solution responds within a short time frame to the urgent need for poor housing, both quantitatively and qualitatively, since some cooperatives are showing imagination and are now working to use methods of «   bio edilizia   ”(Bio-construction) in their rehabilitation projects. From a more global point of view of the city, these rehabilitations make it possible to partially resolve the problem of urban degradation experienced by certain neighborhoods.

However, the process leading to the self-recovery of a public building does not always go smoothly. Power relations are established between residents and public authorities, either because the occupation of the place is illegal, or because the municipality wants to intervene in an authoritarian manner in the allocation of housing after their rehabilitation. In the case of illegal occupations, residents are regularly threatened with eviction by the police. The reasons given are often security or unsanitary conditions, while few funds are allocated to remedy these situations. The occupants of several buildings in Rome or Milan literally experienced states of siege for several weeks or several months.

The Vivere 2000 cooperative in Trastevere, Rome

In the heart of Rome, a building was occupied in 1989 by a group of people, supported by the Unione Inquilini association.

After studying the situation of this empty building for many months in the Trastevere district, a group of families and singles experiencing housing problems decides to occupy this space left abandoned by the municipality. Numerous and stubborn, they managed not to be evicted by the town hall and immediately began restructuring work on the building. The families in the most precarious situation are helped by others and, 4 or 5 months later, they are installed almost properly. Each apartment will be built at its own pace, according to the possibilities and needs of each.

This self-recovery project interests the municipality of Rome, which is even trying to take over this idea. The building therefore acquires the status of a auto-recupero cooperative and the transactions to establish an official contract with the town hall are still ongoing, while the occupants have built their apartments themselves.

Today, each apartment has its own personality and all the inhabitants wait for a contract with the town hall in order to start paying them rent. Once the work is completed and the loans paid off, the rents must return to a public social housing system. Thus, the town hall has already taken possession of a space on the ground floor where cultural and activist activities take place.

Rehabilitation works of common and exterior spaces were carried out by the town hall from 2005, following a project approved by all residents. The installation of solar panels and the use of special materials was planned and had to be supervised by a « bio » -architect.

For all its inhabitants, this building belongs to the town hall and they want, the day they leave, the apartments return to public property. This proves that these occupation actions are politically motivated, even if they initially correspond to an individual need.

So, when one of the residents died, one of his grandsons wanted to get his apartment back. He was answered firmly   «   struggle is not inherited so easily  ".


Un tetto per tutti  : Autocostruzione associata: una risposta al disagio abitativo

The site of the inhabitants’ cooperatives  : (http://www.fundicot.org/) www.fundicot.org

The site of the (http://www.comune.roma.it/pcr/do/jpsite/Site/home) town hall of Rome

The website of the International Alliance of Inhabitants, (http://fre.habitants.org/content/view/full/6975) article on Vivere 2000 (in French)

This sheet was originally published in n ° 1 of the Passerelle Collection. You can find the PDF of the issue (https://www.coredem.info/IMG/pdf/europe_pas_sans_toit-2.pdf) Europe  : not without a roof  ! The accommodation in question