Tenants, Senators, and “Democracy in the XXI Century” in Rome

Wade with Senator Lucio D'Ubaldo at lunch before speaking on "Democracy in the XXI Century" in a room in the Parliament Building

Rome   We started out the day with a run by the office where we are “bunking” for free to meet three tenants from Rome who were making the final decision about joining ACORN Italia and “registering” their landlord, which means putting his property on the state tax rolls and off of the black market.  They left the meeting with David Tozzo, ACORN Italy’s head organizer, raring to go.  By doing so they will pay their small share of back taxes, but will also save 90% of their rent for the next 8 years.  Thus far our Tenant-Landlord Registration Campaign has won similar savings of over 4 Million Euros and gained us pages of publicity and members all over Rome, but also in Venice, Turin, Bologna, and elsewhere in Italy.

For a treat we then bused into the center of Rome and visited Sant Eustachio il Caffe, the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse of Rome, but that’s a longer story for another day or go right to Fair Grinds Around the World.

After a lunch with Senator Lucio d’Ubaldo, our very generous host, where we dissected the impact of new requirements for voter identification in the USA and what it might mean for the Obama candidacy as well as the retrenchment of democratic principles.  The room at the Ristorante da Sabatino a S. Ignazio, near the Parliament, was far in the back.  As I looked on the right was a newspaper report on a meeting that ex-President Bill Clinton had with the Ukrainian Premier in the restaurant and how much he liked the classic Roman pasts, the carbonera.  On my left were a dozen Christmas tree ornaments sent over the years from the White House and a framed picture of Barbara Bush with a personal note of thanks to the restaurant’s owners for past pleasures.  This was no Tea Party, but a working lunch, but I still wondered what any of us would think about spending our tax money to send these baubles over to this fancy restaurant in Rome.

Senator Ubaldo is with the more liberal Democratic Party, but after a tour of the Senate (and, yes, there is a mural of the Roman Senators from thousands of years ago in debate that rests on a wall over the modern Senate meeting spaces!), he introduced us to the his more conservative colleague, Senator Baldassarri, who heads the Finance Commission.  We had a most engaging conversation with Sen. Baldassarri, who also carries around a Phd in Economics from MIT and a thesis signed by three Nobel prize winners from Paul Samuelson to more recently Paul Krugman.  He argued in elegant English that we should not be confused by looking at the Greek crisis as if we were “looking at a finger and didn’t realize it was pointing at the moon,” meaning in his words the financial mess in the USA and the huge debt now owned by China.   Importantly Sen. Baldassarri understood ACORN International’s Remittance Justice Campaign immediately, making this meeting invaluable.

I made it through my presentation on Democracy in the XXI Century, with no huge problems, despite the fact that the broadness of the topic was wide enough to crush me with its weight.  Great questions from both long time observers of the US and other countries and smart-as-a-tack younger professors and policy people.  Very engaging!

And, exhausting!  By the time we crawled off of the bus at rush hour we were barely able to make it through a rice-and-tuna fish dinner, since there’s packing to do, and my horoscope reportedly says, “Go home!”

David Tozzo, head organizer of ACORN Italia, and 3 new members signing up to join the tenant-landlord registration campaign

Visiting the Metropoliz Squatters in Rome

IMG_1363Rome A great adventure and advantage of my work is getting to see parts of a city that even long time residents cannot imagine.  I may not see all of the sites in the tourist guide books, but I see amazing things where people live and work behind the walls of most visitors.

On arriving in Rome Saturday afternoon, Senator Lucio D’Ubaldo gave me a ride into the city since he was landing at roughly the same time.  He insisted before visiting over lunch that I see some of the massive fascist architectural projects around the EUR district that had been largely abandoned with the advent of WWII, but were still deeply planted as governmental facilities in this very upscale Roman neighborhood.  Being largely ignorant of these Mussolini-era projects, it was both fascinating, education, and almost frightening in its symbolic scale and ideological power.

David Tozzo of ACORN Italy and I had a different reaction on Sunday IMG_1425afternoon as we spent several hours touring “Metropoliz,” a “squat” and cultural project in a massive, former pig slaughterhouse in the eastern part of Rome.  We had been introduced to this project through connections made with some of the volunteers helping ACORN International who were part of the graduate design and architectural projects at University of the City of London, and had promised to check it out during my visit.

About 100 people, who had been evicted or were homeless, were living permanently in Metropoliz.  Immediately I could recognize Peruvians from my many visits to ACORN Peru, and seeing one section painted Peru Piazza only confirmed what I already knew.  Other permanent squatters had come from Senegal and other countries as they were evicted from place to place.  In a adjoining building were another 100 Roma who were not part of Metropoliz, but in the same soup.  Over the two years of this experience various artists, designers, and others had joined forces with the squatters in a way that was not clear to me, but had evolved into a documentary film called Space Metropoliz. There was a large, homemade telescope at the top of the plant tower.  A friend explained that three “balls” from the plant were imagined as the base and that they were working with the squatters on a pIMG_1377roject of “imagination” to build a rocket to the moon on top of that construct.  I had some trouble following all of this, but perhaps that was the point, since the designers and cultural workers were trying an experiment to see if diverse people at Metropoliz could come together on an “act of imagination.”  The film would document that effort.

Asking what would happen after the film was finished, I was told that that was a good question, which didn’t comfort me much.  It seems that the future is also “part of the experiment” to see what the squatters will make of it all later when the film is over.  I suppose that once again the rocket may hit earth with a loud and resounding thud.

Who knows?  The space was mammoth, and in Italy access to water and lights are allowed for humanitarian reasons by the public utilities (amen to that!), so people were fashioning reasonable living quarters in some of the areas.  Others were jumbles of graffiti and mayhem.  The former “classroom” was little more than rubble with books thrown on the floor.  The most finished area was where the “rockets” were being painted by professional artists and some of the children.

As we were walked around on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon with a breeze in the air and the first hint of fall everywhere, we could tell by the steady stream of people who seemed to be going and coming that Metropoliz was something of a happening.  The permanent squatters were sanguine about all of that and largely ignored the outsiders and their trooping around cameras in hand.  This was not industrial tourism but a sort of “developmental tourism” almost similar to what we had seen in the recycling area of Cairo.

TherIMG_1402e seemed to be potential everywhere, but problems almost as large.  According to our friends from UCL, this is one of a number of similar squats around Rome.  It’s an interesting phenomena and worth a look.  I’m skeptical about how all of this plays out, but was filled with good wishes and hope for all involved.  Why not?  Something good can happen here that wasn’t possible before hand.

Huge Organizing Opportunity for Italian Tenants

Nesicilyw Orleans Over the last two years we have been in touch with organizing in Palermo and Catania, the largest cities on the Italian island of Sicily, and I had been looking forward to visiting with them after the Organizers’ Forum dialogue in Cairo later this month.  I had hoped our next ACORN International affiliate would develop out of these relationships and work.  Suddenly, ACORN Italy has jumped into reality on steroids thanks to a series of sudden events prompted by an activist/organizer named David Tozzo, reaching out to me on Facebook about his interest in building an ACORN International chapter in Rome.

The accelerated pace has been driven by a rare organizing opportunity that David brought forward in our first Skype conversation.  He had identified a handle that he wondered if it might be helpful in building ACORN in Italy.  The handle was more than helpful, it was one of those rare, classic organizing tools that with hard work and wide range can springboard mass organization.

Here’s what’s happening.  There’s a problem in Rome and undoubtedly all of Italy (and perhaps elsewhere in Europe for all I know) around collecting taxes from landlords.  The parliament passed a very interesting piece of legislation.  They created a procedure first that allowed landlords to “come clean” that they had been renting without reporting the income or registering the leases (which is required by Italian law).  They had to do so by June 6th of this year.  Failing to do so, if tenants could establish that they had been renting from a property owner through a series of steps with several agencies and a sizeable bureaucracy then their rent would be reduced to between 10 and 20% of what it was (there is a complex reckoning on the formula assessing value, penalty, and reward) and then guaranteed at those rates for the standard lease term, which in Italy is four years with a four year option extension (4×4).  Thus far from articles that David has shared with me, and I have dutifully ground through Google translate, several tenants with lawyers have navigated the rules and are now enjoying leases along these lines, establishing the precedent in stone.

Estimates indicate that no less than 70,000 tenants in Rome could be living in unregistered apartments and on the upside the numbers are huge.  Multiply that by all of Italy, and bam!  Were ACORN Italy to be able to create a campaign that effectively broke through the bureaucracy to create a streamlined entitlement millions would be collected by the state from scofflaw landlords, millions of euros would be effectively transferred in savings and increased spending power by tenants, and a confluence of interests would combine to create dramatic change.

The Italian law has created the appropriate carrot and stick.  Essentially they have created an incentive for tenants to assist the state in income tax collection, but unfortunately they did so in a quite half-step that was more threatening than real and then buried it in a multi-layered complex bureaucracy.  Now we have the opportunity to try and organize a powerful organization and campaign that can hit it squarely, shake it hard, and make it produce huge benefits for tenants that will alter the balance of power for families in the future in Rome and throughout the country.