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Italian paradox: homeless people, vacant apartments

It is early evening, almost the end of a long working day in Florence, and none of the tired faces crowded into the waiting room looks very happy. A young man scanning the evening paper, a tired husband hunched over his briefcase, a mother with a restless child, an elderly woman clutching her purse - all of them have the look of people who would rather be at home.

But ''home'' is, in fact, the problem. These people either have none or are about to lose the one they do have.

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They are part of the swelling human statistics that mark Italy's crisis of the ''sfrattati'' - or evicted tenants. And they are waiting here for officials of SUNIA, the United National Union of Tenants and Landlords, to help them.

In 1979, the problem was estimated to touch about 200,000 families. Statistics recently released by the Italian Ministry of the Justice show that since then the number of requested evictions handled by the nation's courts has been growing steadily. It is now estimated that just in Italy's 10 largest cities the courts execute about 500 forced evictions a month. (And, according to SUNIA, these 500 represent only the tip of the iceberg, as the worst of the problem is found outside these cities.)

What renders the situation grave is that these ''sfrattati'' have nowhere to go. Anyone living in Italy today knows that the search for an apartment is one of the most frustrating and difficult features of Italian life. There simply aren't any to be found.

Grown children stay at home with their parents. Young couples postpone their wedding dates. Seven people live crowded into two rooms - not because they can't afford an apartment, but because they can't find one.

But what renders the situation still more explosive is that, at the same moment, thousands of apartments in Italy are standing empty. In Florence, for instance, SUNIA estimates there are currently 2,000 homeless families - and 3, 000 empty apartments. The situation is similar in many other cities. In Rome, former Mayor Giulio Carlo Argan commented in 1979 that the city risked becoming a mass of ''homes without people and people without homes.''

So why not rent the homes without people to the people without homes?

Nothing relating to Italy's housing crisis is that simple. Any number of factors and policies can be and are cited as cause for the current tangle: a ''medieval'' construction industry; constantly rising building costs; laws that discriminate against the tenant in favor of the landlord; clumsy government intervention in what ought to be a free market; and many more.

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But the immediate cause of the current homeless people/peopleless homes paradox is the famous Legge Equo Canone (fair rent law) of 1978. Ironically enough, the law was intended to help renters. It establishes a legal ceiling for rents, determined by building condition, room size, and other factors.

But the effect of the law has been to make it unprofitable for many landlords to legally let out their apartments. So what a number have done instead has been to evict present tenants and then either leave the apartment temporarily empty, hoping for better days to come, or place it on the black market, where those who can afford to are willing to pay exorbitant rents.

The result has been what one nationally known economist calls ''the jungle of the rents - the minimum incredibly low, the maximum impossibly high.''

SUNIA, an organization that officially came together in 1975, has stepped forward as the advocate of the ''sfrattati.'' The group lobbies for legislative change, organizes demonstrations, and offers legal counsel and representation to tenants threatened with eviction.

It argues for a freeze on evictions (which has been won in some cases - although everyone agrees that it's a temporary expedient at best). It also calls for a law requiring landlords to let out their empty apartments, and the granting of emergency powers permitting local governments to house the evicted temporarily in vacant buildings.

Needless to say, such proposals are not popular with property owners. La Confedilizia (a group that defends the interests of the country's wealthier property owners) claims such action would be unconstitutional, while the Italian Union of Small Property Owners pleads with its fellow Italians to recognize that tenants are often better off than their less fortunate landlords.

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