Tenants Facing Big Issues in Sicily

Catania           We might have been having an espresso overlooking the working port of Catania with its tall grain towers and massive cruise ships crowding smaller fishing and pleasure boats, as many walked along the edge of the port to breathe in the sea air, but we were talking trouble when we started discussing the issues faced by tenants all over Sicily, especially in Catania.

Laura Saija and I were talking to the head of the Tenants’ Union of Sicily, Guisey Milaazzo, and one of the founding organizers of a community and tenant organization in the mammoth Librino housing project on the edge of the city.  The tenants’ union has been around for a while and still claims almost 8000 members paying thirty euros per year with almost 3000 of them in both Catania and Palermo.  Of the 300,000 or so population in the city of Catania about 100,000 are tenants with 9000 of that number in public housing and the rest in private.  Membership has been difficult in the public housing sector for the tenants’ union as the units have aged, and the public authorities have either disinvested in public housing or engaged in schemes that shunt off the responsibility for maintenance and upkeep.  A public-private split has exacerbated the issues with many high-rises mixed between public units and formerly public units that were allowed to be purchased by the tenants.  Unfortunately, in such a mixed development the responsibilities for paying for modernization of the units has devolved into a bad stalemate with public bankruptcies and the inability of lower income tenants to shoulder the debt necessary for unit rebabs.  As we know globally, that pretty much means a ticking timebomb until the public complexes are virtually uninhabitable.

Port of Catania

Whether in Librino or the union’s regular meeting with the regional administrator who has taken over public housing in Sicily for the last dozen years because of the financial catastrophe, our friends described frustration as demands and hopes had collapsed in Librino or only yielded “5% success” in the union’s case.  All of which mean an increasing crisis and less capacity to meet it effectively as the organizing programs were thwarted.

We talked about inclusionary zoning and the creation of other schemes for affordable housing, but the story was not much better.  Italy offers various incentives, but nothing is mandatory.  Inclusionary zoning is also soft.

Regardless, it was clear there might be many common causes and grounds for collaboration around work in Sicily, and the Tenants’ Union was welcoming.  They have a long history and carry the scars of many battles, so they will be a good guide for future work.

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Getting Down to Nuts and Bolts in Catania

Catania       We had been through a series of meetings in Paterno and Catania.  There were two full showings of “The Organizer” documentary in each city, plus the long Katrina clip at the University for students and professors there. Organizers of the events, led by Laura Saija, had recruited representatives of organizations, activists, students, and others to make sure this was not popcorn and theater but an opportunity for people to understand community organizing, ACORN, and what we might be able to do together to build a mass organization in Sicily.  At the end of this waterfall of activity we were hoping to pool twenty or so of the people most likely to want to move forward at a lunch and workshop at Trama di Quartiere San Berillo.

As people gathered, I got a better handle on the neighborhood.  The Trama was part community center, café, exhibit area, library, and meeting space on the first floor, and two-story squat and rehab project on the top two floors.  The San Berillo Quartiere or neighborhood was only a few blocks from the Opera House and some of the primary tourists’ centers, but was a derelict area of boarded up houses, Sengalese and other immigrant residents, prostitutes, hustlers, and others with the Trama right smack in the middle of it all.  This was more a political project than an organizing project, since the area was so depopulated.  Hustlers came in for an espresso and a trip to the bano.  Amnesty International had a display of photographs and narratives around their migrant project in the display area.

After dishes of hot, spicy Sengalese stew, we got down to it.  I had a bit of time to try to quickly outline the elements of the ACORN organizing model and some of the principles behind it.  Then there were questions, a lot of them ranging from relationships with political parties to technical details on how to construct the organizing committee, and my best attempts at providing some answers.  This was followed by a moderated presentation of some half-dozen students on a project involving a community garden they had done in a public housing area in Catania.

Honestly, it was exciting!  Some people were clearly getting the organizing “bug.” While some queued up with questions others tried to jump the line to ask what might be next steps to actually bring ACORN into Sicily.  Those questions interested me the most.  People had their own reasons.  Some had worked in the vineyards a long time, and were intrigued about the prospects of really building a mass-based organization that took action.  Others were frustrated by the political stagnation of the city, which they often pointed out was now bankrupt, and intrigued by the fact that ACORN was a nonpartisan organization, but clearly a political organization.

We met with small groups after the meeting who wanted more details on the options I had laid out for ACORN’s next steps:  working in coalition, training and support as affiliates, or direct organizing with ACORN Sicily.  I had called these options Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, and some wanted to get a better understanding so they could make the right choice.

The books are in the library.  The documentary is scheduled several more times.  Mark my words, we’re going to see something happen in Sicily.  As one person kept saying, “the time is now!”

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