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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Citizen Activists in Sicily and Climate Strikers Around the World

Catania     It was pouring down rain, as Laura Saija, professor of community planning at the University of Catania, and her colleagues met me to go to “The Organizer” showing for activists in Catania.  They had been drenched in a downpour with water up past their ankles.  A hair dryer was furiously applied to the problem for some and a quick change for others, and we were on our way.

The venue was breathtaking.  In some way this theater was part of the University of Catania’s other campus, but it engulfed what had once been the gigantic monastery of the Benedictine Order of priests, supposedly the second largest monastery in all of Europe.  It was certainly mammoth, and the theater auditorium matched it with multi-tiered sections and comfortable wooden swivel seats looking into a well offset by a row of speakers’ tables.  I’m not sure “The Organizer” was ever shown on a bigger screen.  It felt like we were somehow seated in an outdoor drive-in that was inside.  I felt out of place, but nothing deterred the more than sixty who poured in out of the rain to watch the film with great interest and anticipation.

It seemed appropriate for activists here to gather in the rain on the day called for a youth Climate Strike around the world.  Only months ago, Sicily had its first hurricane, a category 2 storm, unknown before.  In this island community, like everywhere, climate change is an ever present concern.  I had read a paper earlier by Laura and one of her colleagues about the Simeto River Valley work and that theme was repeated constantly as they sought to reshape the narrative and make their work into a tool of resistance.

Reports on the climate strike indicated there were certainly millions participating in more than 150 countries in one way or another, seeking to send a message to the UN Climate Change conference occurring only days away in New York City.  No one could tell if this mass outpouring of the young and others, including ACORN offices in places like England that joined the strike in solidarity, would have impact there.

A similar concern weighed heavily on the activists in Catania and Paterno.  They had mobilized at times when it mattered.  They had won significant victories on a wide range of issues.  At the same time there was something missing, and it seemed to be the everyday, fighting force that a mass-based permanent organizational formation can bring to the fight.  Repeatedly in small settings and grand halls, these were the urgent questions addressed to me that the example of ACORN inspired.

How could the same lightning be captured in their bottle?  How could they duplicate and scale the work here, not starting from scratch obviously, given the rich history of organizing and struggle, but still, like the climate change warriors and others, with so many of the odds stacked against them?

All good questions in any setting, so whether we strike or just strive, we’ll struggle to find the right answers that work here and elsewhere again today.

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