Rent Reduction Campaign in Rome and Occupy Octopus

ACORN International International

IMG_1346Rome With hustle and grit, David Tozzo, our intrepid volunteer organizer in Rome, had secured a free office for ACORN Italy in a community center of sorts called Case de la Quartier…the House of the Quarter.  Most of our beginning work is in the 4th Quarter, the largest of the 19 quarters or districts with 350,000 residents.  We finally kicked off our meeting in the basement of the office with the first 20 people and gradually as the meeting went on the number rose to 30 or so.  Not only were we introducing ACORN International and ACORN Italy to some new people, but we were also moving forward on our campaign to win rent reductions for tenants with unregistered contracts where a new national law is a tool in breaking down the black market.

IMG_1344In the cutthroat “jungle” of housing shortages, landlord tax evasions, and a tight market  in apartments for students, the poor, and many others, frequently landlords are renting simple rooms on the black market for 500 euros.  The new law allows tenants to turn in their landlords if they have an unregistered “leases” and win huge reductions of up to 90% of their rent and have that amount frozen for 8 years on the lease and options.  Furthermore, since the state designed this law to catch tax evasion, it also forbids the landlords escaping the penalty by selling the aprtment, since in effect they are paying back the tenants they exploited, rather than the government they cheated.  Amazing!

Yet real life is more complex than simple self-interest.  At the meeting in Rome and earlier in Palermo, questions were raised, particularly by young women tenants, about the uncomfortable interpersonal situation created in turning in a landlord where they were essentially also living in the same house.  There were also concerns about intimidation, harassment, and threats.  These were not easy conversations, partially because we need to reach some critical mass in this effort.   Most bizarrely in Rome two journalists, playing the devil’s advocate, felt sorry for the landlords, but when I pointed out it was the first time that I had ever been chastised for organizing people to follow the law, since usually we are accused of advocating that people ignore the law, they answered simply, “Welcome to Italy!”  What a country!

IMG_1341Earlier I found myself meeting with a mayor of a small suburban town on the outskirts of Rome and several young and coming political figures at the grassroots basis at a superb lunch with excellent conversation thanks to Lucio D’Ubaldo, an elected Senator and publisher of a monthly political magazine, who also happened to be the co-author of a book on the correspondence between the French philosopher Maritain and Saul Alinsky.  He and our firecracker, David Tozzo, have a volume coming out next year discussing Alinsky and community organizing, and no doubt I owe Saul thanks after 40 years for this connection – a gift that keeps giving!

Not surprisingly they ALL wanted to talk about Obama, the USA, and now, the stirring of a possible Occupy movement in America.  It was easy to be positive, because the reach of the activity is so wide, even if not yet deep.  There is clearly a stirring of the forces on the ground who have been desperate for a banner.  I can IMG_1347partially judge this as I see so many veterans of our work in community organizing joining the lists.  There was Helene O’Brien, ACORN’s former field director, in the bottom left hand corner of the New York Times picture from Occupy New Orleans yesterday.  My offer of meeting space at Fair Grinds is being welcomed.  All of our folks in New Orleans were in the march.  Dewey Armstrong from ACORN in the late 70’s and 80’s sent me his thoughts on having attended the organizing meetings of Occupy Miami.  Ex-ACORN state operations are widely reported as involved in New York, California, and Massachusetts.  Craig Robbins from Citizens United in Philadelphia reached out to say how interesting it looked in his state and how close he was following the activity.  John Anderson in Vancouver couldn’t control his frustration at the disorganization of Occupy there, but was definitely in the room during the planning.

Rome or the USA, there is pent up frustration at the inability of the progressive forces to unite and move effectively to actually win change.  This is an opportunity that we should not squander, but should advance at every turn.  It may not be perfect or exactly what we might have put together, but we have to go with what is moving, and right now Occupy has a new heartbeat and a quick step, and that’s worth our investigation and effort.