Residents Helping Residents with Residence: the Rete Solidale per la Casa in Venice

A conversation with Susanna Polloni, co-founder of the RSC, about the group's unique work helping residents deal with the challenges of residence.
PAUL ROSENBERG
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On a pleasant spring evening in April I met up with a group of people in Campo Santa Margarita. Gathered in a circle of chairs just a few hundred meters from the bars and restaurants that were only just beginning to see the early evening customers, this group had not gathered for a spritz. But they were celebrating something, specifically the opening of a new location of the Rete Solidale per la Casa (RSC), an all-volunteer organization in Venice created by residents, for residents who need help with issues related to housing in Venice.

The name may be translated into English as the Housing Solidarity Network, but the concept of this group does not fit in very well with the American housing vocabulary and scenario. Here in the US, where housing is now considered “unaffordable” for over 50% of renters, the crisis of high rental costs and limited supplies of “affordable” housing has grown acute – millions of units in the $600/month range are gone, replaced by rents triple that or more. However, if I do a search for any groups set up to help the residents of a housing scenario that has dramatically turned against middle to low income earners (that is people who are working, sometimes multiple jobs), all I find is government websites and agencies providing rental assistance. Waiting lists and applications. But I found nothing set up to help the residents themselves with anything other than money.

However, as I learned from discussing the current housing situation in Venice with RSC founder Susanna Polloni, the everyday problems that people encounter regarding housing go well beyond paying the rent, as important (and difficult) as that is. Maintenance, rental contracts, evictions, managing disabilities, petitioning for public housing, homelessness and poverty are among the many challenges that residents face, mostly on their own (and in the US, evidently completely on their own) – but not in Venice, because in Venice, help with housing problems has a human face: residents listening to and helping residents, in the form of the Rete Solidale per la Casa.

In America there’s a phrase, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, and sitting among the people in Campo Santa Margarita that evening, the working people and residents of Venice taking their Tuesday evening to talk to each other, publicly, about their experiences with and ideas about housing in Venice, brought a different version of that phrase to mind:

When the going gets tough, Venetians get organized

To me this seemed like an extraordinary work of citizen organizing that I was witnessing, and to learn more I had the opportunity to speak with RSC founder Susanna Polloni, who was kind enough to share some of her time with us to answer some questions about RSC, what it does, how it works, and about housing policy in Venice. Our conversation follows:

Thank you, Susanna, for taking the time to talk with us. Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved with the RSC.

I am a mother of five children, and I do research dealing with medieval and modern manuscripts. I grew up in Venice and I love this city very much. My grandparents had a “historic” bookshop in the center. I am very distressed by the direction which this city is going in, because we are losing too many residents due to the completely misguided management which sees the city as an object to be used to make profit, enslaving it to mass tourism and taking everything away from the inhabitants. It is a city that is expelling its inhabitants. But one of the basic elements is to ensure that everyone, as in the past, has the right to housing. So, with a friend whose genuine ordeal to be assigned public housing I had witnessed, we decided to bring together a group of residents who help other residents understand what their rights are and how to assert them towards the authorities responsible for the management of public housing. And to accompany them on the journey.

The Rete Solidale per la Casa is now over a year old and has just added a third location in Campo Santa Margherita. How would you characterize the reception and public use of the RSC since it was formed?

The Rete is first and foremost a place for listening. In a world where the social network is increasingly disintegrating, this too is a very important thing. Then we try to find a solution together. This was immediately greatly appreciated by people. We are hosted by a cultural club in the Castello district, a center of voluntary associations in Santa Margherita and a grassroots trade union in Marghera. The word ‘Rete’ (Network) is intended to evoke sharing and support. We have many users every week and word of mouth has now spread throughout the Municipality.

How many people are active in the RSC, and how do you manage the ‘sportelli’ (public offices) in the different locations in terms of having staff present, opening hours, etc?

We have four volunteers for the offices, and we have a lawyer and an architect who collaborate with us, the latter for problems relating to maintenance. Then there are other residents who help us with the activities we organize, such as public meetings and leafleting. Each branch is open for four hours per month, but we can be reached by telephone all day, seven days a week. We also make appointments outside of hours if necessary, and we are always available for emergencies.

What types of needs regarding housing does RSC help people with? Can you give us an example or two of ‘typical’ cases you deal with?

We have homeless people, even some who are workers, because this city often does not provide continuous and protected work; there are people with disabilities who live in public houses on the third floor without a lift; cases of executive eviction that do not find an alternative solution; assigned public houses where the necessary maintenance is not carried out. In particular, I was struck by the case of a lady, penniless, living alone with a serious health problem and a small child, who has been living in an occupied, dilapidated house without running water for seven years. She went to social workers many times, but they did not assign her a public house.

Do you feel that RSC is providing services that should actually be provided by public institutions? Perhaps put differently, what is the gap that RSC is trying to fill in the area of housing, and who might normally cover that gap other than a volunteer citizens’ group?

Absolutely no. We absolutely do not intend to fill gaps left by the institutions. Indeed, the aim is to push the institutions to do their duty towards the protection of citizens and to make residents aware of their rights in order to assert them.

Does RSC engage in any policy advocacy or activism, or is it mainly focused on public service?

We want to be aware of what is good for the city and for the residents, and study, in a “political” sense, strategies for managing public housing and strategies that can help make the free market accessible for residents too.

One last question: in a place like Venice in particular, the issue of housing is mainly seen in the public eye and in press coverage through the lens of the marketplace and the effect of tourist rentals on real estate prices and development. Beyond regulating the tourist rental market, what in your opinion are the main things Venice needs as part of an effective housing policy that serves both current and potential residents better?

In reality, the effect of tourist rentals on prices also has a big impact on current residents, for whom it becomes impossible both to buy a house and to rent one, and who see their contracts not renewed because for the owner short-term rentals are enormously more advantageous. We have studied a “housing plan” to reverse the situation:

The percentage of ERP housing assigned must absolutely be increased, such as to cover at least the segment of the population below the poverty level.

Public funds should be used to renovate ERP housing (we missed the opportunity of the PNRR funds because of the unrealizable Bosco dello Sport project).

Houses built with public funds must largely remain ERP (NO to the excessive use of public/private partnerships for renovations).

Social Housing rents must be regulated compared to a free market that has not been distorted by tourist rentals in order to bring rental costs close to the national average. We must therefore work on the definition of a regulation for short-term rentals and encourage residential living in every way by creating fiscal deterrents for those who rent to tourists and measures to encourage those who rent for long periods to residents.

The ISEE segments for Public Residential Building and Social Housing must not overlap, creating confusion: it is necessary to raise the ISEE segment for participation in Social Housing tenders because this pushes housing policy towards strategies for a greater allocation of ERP housing and allows young people, who are forced to present the ISEE jointly with that of their parents, to become independent by obtaining public housing.

We believe that the current project of diminishing ERP assets through excessive recourse to the private sector for renovations, sales of properties and demolitions is absolutely not functional to the needs of the population. We aim for the conservation of public assets and a greater allocation of public housing with rent calculated based on income.

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Residents Helping Residents with Residence: the Rete Solidale per la Casa in Venice ultima modifica: 2024-06-16T13:23:22+02:00 da PAUL ROSENBERG
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