Cohousing Tempts Italians During Real Estate Crisis

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With the Italian real estate market in free fall, increasing numbers of people are tumbling through the gaps. Too rich to claim social housing and too poor to afford a traditional house, some are turning to a new approach—cohousing.

“The concept of cohousing originated in northern Europe in the ’60s,” says Nadia Simionato, spokeswoman for the Italian network Cohousing.it “Then it spread to other countries and reached Italy in 2006.”

The basic idea is to combine in a condominium the autonomy of a private house with the benefits that come from sharing space and resources such as a garden, gymnasium, laundry, gardens, and children’s day care. The whole project is collectively designed and chosen by those who will live in those spaces.

“There’s a ‘gray zone’ of the Italian population who cannot afford a traditional house but that is too rich to access the rankings for the social housing,” says Simionato. “Through the cohousing we think we can solve this critical point.”

But Simionato complains the state is behind the times. “Public administration seems to struggle to understand that cohousing is a successful model. Worldwide there are over a thousand examples of cohousing, from a few family members to dozens. In Italy we have developed three projects, already in place, and we are working with two others, connecting prospective buyers and designers.”

“It does not make sense for me to live in a huge apartment when I can live in company in a smaller house, which means less cost and less cleaning work,” says Brown, a resident of Number Zero, on the profile of their website.

The Italian real estate market is floundering. In 2012 sales fell by 25.8 percent over the previous year, which corresponds to a loss of over $US33.22 billion (26 billion euros). Financial institutions have provided around 19.6 billion euros in housing loans, 42.8 percent lower than in 2011.

“The fact is that the market is at a standstill,” says Corrado Sforza Fogliani, president of Confedilizia (Italian Confederation of Construction Properties). “It is even difficult to determine the value of the property because there are no sales. Our main proposal to the new government is to act on taxation in the real estate field, which is too high and leads to not create profitability, especially for location deals.”

But the nature of the crisis is complex, with the number of vacant properties rising, together with an almost paradoxical increase in demand for housing. The National Association of Construction Contractors brought forward the construction of over 300,000 buildings last year although the number of vacant properties rose by 700,000.

The Italian Ministry of Interior revealed that in 2011 (latest data available) 56,000 people were evicted for nonpayment of rent.

The first example in Italy of a spontaneous cohousing group was the Coabitare ecologic (Ecological Cohabit). A few weeks ago they inaugurated the building Number Zero in the historical center of Turin, after working on it for more than five years.

“It’s still too early to make an assessment,” says Paolo Sanna, a member of Number Zero. “What is certain is that we’re now an extended family. There are ups and downs as in all families, but we can’t ignore each other.”

There are now seven units with shared spaces such as a yard, a cellar, two common rooms with the idea of nurturing social relationships, sharing time and expertise, with everyone committed to sharing.

“All the decisions we made were carried out by the method of consent,” said Sanna. “This means that it takes patience and a willingness to talk things through, especially with the designers. Usually the designers don’t know the buyers, but here there is a group of people who have specific ideas, despite having to undergo structural and legal constraints.”


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