Housing, here and there, then and now

~a column by Colleen O’Brie

Italians I met while visiting in Italy told me about “workers’ housing” built in the middle of Rome “after the War” (WWII). A fellow I met owns one of these tiny apartments, about 400 square feet. He said it is mostly old grandmothers (from whom he inherited) still living there, and their children and grandchildren…great-great-grands on the scene by now, I would think. The places are nothing much, according to him — the buildings are several stories, maybe four or five — little rooms looking down around il cortile, the courtyard. Those cortiles are the gathering place for the gossip, he said, “All the old ones going blah blah this one, blah blah that one.” He laughed. “The necessary part of their lives.”

I said it sounded like an ideal place for old people — other old people to talk to at any moment, a familiar house and neighborhood, a history of their life that comforts them, help nearby in a second.

He said that, yes, these were things that overrode the cramped quarters. And that the little places can be sold. It sounded as if this were a new wrinkle. Or maybe an old one. The rent is under $300 US dollars, but one entity pays one euro a year. The units can now be sold at the going price of $400,000 USD. This particular residential, affordable, subsidized housing is four blocks off the center of Rome’s main tourist area. The property must be even more valuable than he thinks.

When I asked how long at that rate these little places would stay in families, he said they were being sold quite quickly now because there is not enough work for the younger generation, and living off Grandma’s pension with odd jobs on the side wasn’t ideal. This generation living in the tiny places figure they can take the money and do better elsewhere.

At least they have a stake. They have something that has been passed on to them and that can be passed onto their kin. Or sold. Home owning is the road to middle class stability in any language.

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