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Family strategies and housing practices in Italy

International Housing Conference, Housing in Southern Europe, a separate path?, Madrid, 2-4 dec. 1998

Nobody seems to doubt that housing is a “mature” issue in Italy. Basic needs are satisfied, as in many other European Countries, a good level of housing provision has been attained, most common housing indicators are doing quite well. Actually, “a huge development of the housing stock (…has occurred…) in Italy since the end of the 2nd World War” (Padovani 1996), one that has obviously changed not only the object, but also the meaning itself of current housing policies.

In fact, many have stressed that massive construction, while resolving mere housing deficit, has created new issues, in particular issues related to the new poverty configuration in western countries, as we see later on, and issues related to the quality of the built environment.

Even from a quantitative point of view, however – traditional policies such as the massive construction experienced in most countries in some “age gold” decades – did not solve housing needs entirely. As far as mass housing is concerned, discussions about convergence matters seem rather useless. Mass housing policy is in fact the local branch of the universal modernisation endeavour, a convergence process in itself.

In order to compare housing policies, is usually taken for granted that the post-war era is the reference period. “Economic and social policies in much of Europe (…) have been formulated and applied within a more stable political environment than hitherto, and conditioned to a greater or lesser extent by the parameters of western liberal democracy” (Balchin 1996). As a consequence, nobody can be surprised if a mixed but assimilable frame sprung out of a few policy choices operated since the War, like housebuilding on a massive scale, a large social rented sector, and (at least partially) the subsidies to home-ownership. All these choices were in fact backed by a general political consensus, which both left and right wing parties basically expressed in favour of the centrality of housing policies.

Actually, during such decades much of Europe experienced as well similar trends in demography, equally rapid changes in geographical hierarchy, and a common tendency towards economic growth (a coincidence, by the way, that is unlikely to happen again in the future). In a word, the “golden” post-war Decades (sic) were reasonably the most radical experiment across the Europe of a “modernist” model resulting from a queer combination of Keynesian public policies and a “Fordist” large enterprise economy.

As is quite clear, the experiment is over, at least since the ‘70s and thanks to a new wave of liberalism, with its legacy of privatisation, deregulation and decentralisation, whose equivalent changes in respect of housing policies are the sales of the public-owned stock, the retrenchment of welfare benefits towards limited social groups, the redirection of subsidies (direct or indirect, such as tax relief) towards dwelling consumption instead of investments (Ghekière 1991; Cremaschi 1994c).

To put it in other way, the post-war era is a profitable field for comparative research for the same reasons that make it a period of convergence for much of Europe: shortly, “the main shifts in housing development in Europe since 1945 follow a clear pattern” (Power 1993). As for the housing policies, and in order to address the question of the convergence among different countries, it is worth tackling the whole issue in a broader perspective, where different models of state and market regulations can be observed.

This caution is particularly needed for countries like Italy, where the modernisation process presented specific characters, such as deep regional economic inequality, massive waves of overseas migration from the poorest Southern regions around the century and towards the North-western regions in post-war years, the importance of sub-cultural networks in differing social identity.

1. A longer view

Modern housing policies span well over a century. First proposal and experimentation date back to the Enlightenment and first Machine Age. However, it is a common habit, as for comparative purposes, to look more carefully to some forty years, approximately since World War II onwards.

This is a sensible choice, since what lies at the very core of any comparative research is the presumption that every different situation can be depicted by a stable and limited set of variables.

With regard to the past century, we can observe at least three main phases of growth (2), corresponding to different combinations of constraints and regulations and sometimes different regimes:

  • the early modernisation effort took place around the beginning of the century, coinciding with a liberal regime, and implied a considerable effort to overcome the structural and regulatory differences among former regional states unified in the new Italian state in 1861. Then, between 1881 and 1951, the population in Italy increased by 59% and households by 78%, however less than the increase occurred for available dwellings. Growth was a typical urban phenomenon, in the sense that occurred basically inside or around the XIX century boundaries of cities, rapidly saturating every plot of land available for residential use. Dwellings grew both because of the construction of new buildings and because of the reduction of the non-occupied sector; while the average size of the family was quite high, well above 4 components per households, and the share of single component families was very limited. It is worth stressing that even after the war, the share of the rented sector was quite high.

  • After the 2nd war (not to consider the Fascist regime for the sake of simplicity) the country entered an age of prosperity, known as the “economic boom”. Between 1951 and 1971 population increased again by nearby 11% while households by 35%. Almost the entire demographic growth of the country concentrated in a few major metropolitan areas, which were invested by huge waves of migration (Coppo e Cremaschi 1994). In the meantime non-urban areas reduced their share of the pie (-11%), generating by the way a relevant phenomenon of abandon of dwellings. A severe shortage was than experienced (partially because of war destruction) notwithstanding a massive effort in construction that allowed the number of dwellings to double (a process that took place until the end of the 70s). Despite the fact that the main metropolitan areas collected 46% of all new residential construction (Coppo and Cremaschi 1994), the gap between households and dwellings has been widening for all the period spanning through the three post-war censuses. During the same years, a relevant share of all completions was diverted to non-primary uses; i.e. the number of vacancies steady grew. This was the result of different processes: basically, several middle class households built or bought their own summer houses; many dwellings were kept vacant (or informally rented) to avoid rent control; some houses were (slowly) built in view of the age of retirement in the village or region where people came from. However, the non-occupied sector witnessed a dramatic increase as a consequence of the abandon of rural areas and of the malfunctioning of urban markets; the unoccupied sector grew up to five time its size. And finally, households size begun to diminish while family structure started to change timidly;

  • The beginning of the final and present step can be tracked down to the de-industrialisation crisis of the end of 70s, which considerably changed the regional pattern of development, and notably witnessed the rise of the SME model in the so called Third Italy. Since then (and so far), population is steady, having substantially reached its peak in the mid 80s (later small increases are basically due to foreign immigration), while households grew by 32%. Also the rate of increase in dwelling completions reached its peak during the Seventies, and has been slowing down afterwards, as well as the vacancy rate, yet exceedingly redundant according to all estimates. The most important change that took place in this period was the dispersal of growth, which no longer concentrated in major urban areas, but affected mainly cities in the Centre and North Eastern regions which had not been previously interested by economic development. The share of large households on total families was considerably reduced, while single households (most of them old retired people) attained and overcame the rate of 20%, especially in urban areas such as Milan (32%) or Rome (nearby 40% in the central districts).

Tab.1 Housing indicators in Italy

1881 1931 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 1997*

Population 29791 41043 47516 50471 52958 56557 56778 57563

Households 6620 9328 11814 13747 15981 18632 19909 21193

Dwellings 6873 9664 11411 14214 17434 21937 25028 26500

Occupied dw. 6136 9070 10756 13032 15302 17542 19736 21070

Non-occ. 737 594 655 1182 2132 4395 5291 5500

HH. Average size 4.5 4.4 4.0 3.7 3.4 3.0 2.8 2.7

% single 10.3 12.7 17.8 20.6 21.3

% hhs with >5 people 25,6 20.9 14.9 11.3 7.7

Source: on Istat, National Censuses

Note: The overall dwelling figures include second homes and vacant units.

* Estimates

2. Housing and models of modernity

According to these partitions, we can suggest some features of different models of housing policies. What is at the centre is the very nature of the issues addressed by policies implemented in the three stages we depicted: the long early modernisation years, the economic boom age, and the later age after the de-industrialisation years.

For the first 50 years, the housing system worked hard in order to provide new dwellings for a population, which was not only growing fast, but also substantially moving from the mountain hamlets to the coast towns, from towns to big cities and from South to North.

Basically, two features should be reminded of this period: the sharp polarisation between the industrial areas and the rest of Italy; and the role of municipalities and social reformers in inspiring local housing policies.

As for regional inequalities, quite surprising, the ratio between dwellings and population had been lower until World War II in the Centre-North regions, where the migrants in-flows were high; however, figures show that it has steadily improved since then. On the contrary, the availability of dwellings has been severely limited in the rural South for decades, which even a relative decrease shows for a long span, while joining the national trends in the last quarter of the century only. Actually, the age-long shortage has been recalled among the reasons that justify the sometimes exceeding provision of housing in the South, soon after as families’ income rose over the basic need level (Cremaschi 1994).

As for municipal involvement, a national scheme to support low-income housing provision –based on contributions established on wages and public bodies- was not established until the mid 30s, while not attaining its present form until the end of the Sixties.

It should be reminded, however, that the very idea of an ideal dwelling fitting to the poor –the so-called “casa popolare”- was developed at this time. Such elaboration can be hardly reduced to the practice of a minimum housing units for each household (McGuire 1981). In fact, the housing reform movement was not intended only to shelter people, but precisely to let them take abode in a physical place as well as in a social organisation.

Of course, “normalising” assumptions have largely determined the modern housing model, with its functional distinctions within the dwelling and between work-place and living-place; however “the diffusion over time of these models have been slow, and fraught with obstacle. The variance reminds us that modern models have never achieved a complete success” (Tosi 1995).

Albeit a patronising and somehow “disciplinary” ideal was implied, yet housing was intended as an initial step in a broader process, one which would finally end in a full citizenship. Dwelling, living and belonging (to a place, or a community) was firmly maintained as intertwined dimensions of the provision of housing. For instance, eminent urbanists of this period were extremely cautious about the economic rationality of modernist high-rise developments, and the social cost implied by the management of large and complex building. However, functional criticisms mixed confusedly with social prescriptions. Reasons like the following were reminded: a) the need for a high “urban background” of the dwellers of a building requiring technological devices for the circulation of people, the distribution of things, the disposal of waste etc.; b) the inadequacy from the point view of the visual control of children in outdoor space; c) the overall cost of the construction; d) a lower “social hygiene”, supposedly meaning the risk of social mix for moral habits; e) the complexity of the financial scheme involved in the financing of high-rise buildings (3).

tab.2 Households and dwellings per censuses

Index (1881=100)

1881 1931 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 1997*

Population 100 138 159 169 178 190 191 193

Households 100 141 178 208 241 281 301 320

Dwellings 100 141 166 207 254 319 364 387

Occupied dw. 100 148 175 212 249 286 322 343

Non-occ. Dw. 100 81 89 160 289 596 718 746

dw./hh.s 100 104 97 103 109 118 126 125

Source: Istat Censuses and Consumption Survey

+ Estimated

tab. 3 Rate of increase per year

% increase 1951/1881 1981/1951 1997/1981

Population 59 19 2

Households 78 58 14

Dwellings 66 92 21

Occupied dw. 75 63 20

Non-occ. Dw. -11 571 25

% House-sharing 2,8 5,9 0,6

average % increase per year

Population 0,8 0,6 0,1

Households 1,1 1,9 0,9

Dwellings 0,9 3,1 1,3

Occupied dw. 1,1 2,1 1,3

Non-occ. -0,2 19,0 1,6

Source: Instate Censuses and Estimates on the Consumption Survey

tab.3 Dwellings per thousands inhabitants

1881 1931 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991

Centro-North 199 229 243 297 348 401 449

South 285 248 235 256 295 364 427

Italy 231 235 240 282 329 388 441

tab.4 Non-occupied dwellings, % on total

1881 1931 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991

Centro-Nord 6,4 6,1 5,4 8,3 11,8 18,2 18,4

Meridione 16,0 6,2 6,4 8,4 13,1 23,7 26,1

Italy 10,7 6,1 5,7 8,3 12,2 20,0 21,1

tab.5 Housing indicators per macro- regions

Centre-North 1881 1931 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991

Population 18881 26525 30136 31750 34084 36504 36241

Households 3765 6063 7330 9425 11865 14639 16255

Occupied dw. 3524 5691 6935 8644 10460 11971 13256

Non-occ. 241 372 395 781 1405 2668 2999


Population 10910 14518 17380 18721 18874 20053 20537

Households 3108 3601 4081 4789 5569 7298 8772

Occupied dw. 2612 3379 3821 4388 4842 5571 6480

Non-occ. 496 222 260 401 727 1727 2292

The early modernisation built environment was not only the result of a national policy effort. Private developers and building companies on the one hand, and the public agencies on the other, were concerned with the provision of low-cost dwellings, almost entirely built in the new industrial cities. Although the common strategy was the production of high-density estates in comparatively cheaper peripheral lands, public and private developers operated according to different ratios, these latter being far eager in applying a normalising view on dwellings and urban developments, a view which would be a prime in the second post war era. In this second phase of the economic boom, mass-housing was at the core of some national programmes, which eventually came together in the Housing Act of 1968. For instance, the “housing for the working class” national post-war policy resulted in a massive construction of multi-dwelling social housing estates in outer and isolated locations. Private developments followed filling the gap, speculating than on lands provided with basic infrastructure and inclosed between the centre and the peripheral ring. During the crucial period of growth (since 1951 to 1964) the number of dwelling completions has been fast growing (Padovani, 1986). Public investment rate was very high in this first period, for Italian standards, although it diminished from 25% in 1951 to 6% in 1961 1965.

As for the last period, public policies re-organisation affected housing sector as well. Since the age of “mass-housing”, social housing continuously declined. In particular, the already limited share of 8% per year in at the beginning of the 80s felt to a scant 2% at the beginning of the 91s not to rise anymore. Public finance support diminished, while local authorities became more and more involved with the new configuration of housing needs and poverty issues. However, public supported housing construction did not completely disappear. While the number of social rented dwelling continues to diminish, a state supported housing programme concentrated on major urban areas, trying to contrast urban decline subsidising the provision of rented dwelling in urban areas. New estates were built not only for low-income people, but also for people unable to find an affordable rented flat or even a rented flat itself. Even then, however, a national policy aimed at supporting the private rented sector in metropolitan areas, leading to the construction of large residential enclaves in the outskirts of major cities. Although a great political tension about the scope and role of public intervention, the conclusion that government commitment to housing “showed little sign of decreasing” (Power 1993) seems tenable at least for the 80s.

A problem arises then about the real function of government intervention, whether “it is directed to sustain social housing (that seems more and more unlikely) or to sustain the market” (Seassaro 1994). The withdrawal from social housing has been at least compensated by the subsidising of private rented, middle class housing. And finally, construction in the 90s is becoming a more and more scattered activity: almost 70% of dwellings are built outside urban areas by now (Cresme 1993).

Besides, we can state that the dwelling model incorporated in mass-housing failed to solve the relationship between individuals and collectivity, amplifying the loss of a common “public space” (Cremaschi 1994a). The problem is the relationship between the spatial organisation of a dwelling system and its social content, that is often incorrectly attributed to the building form (see for instance Coleman 1985) while it heavily affects the organisation of social relations in space and time and even the economy of cities.

tab. 6 Dwellings per age of construction

total stock %

before 1919 4,745,270 19.0

1919-1945 2,633,517 10.5

1946-1960 4,095,790 16.4

1961-1971 6,090,200 24.3

1972-1981 4,940,627 19.7

1982-1991 2,523,118 10.1

Total 25,028,522 100.0

92-97* 1.470.000 5.9

*Estimation on data provided by Istat, Ministero dei Lavori Pubblici, and Cresme

source: calculation on Istat, 1991

3. Family networks, informal provision, and sociality

Family promotion is quite common in Italy: that is easily acknowledged with reference to rural areas and, basically, to the remnants of the pre-industrial era. However, the role of the family in industrialised countries tends to be undervalued (Padovani 1988) whereas it represents, in Italy as well as in many western countries, an important agency in the housing market (Padovani 1991).

In several southern European home-ownership constitutes the main way of accommodation for the widest range of income groups, and it is associated with the role of families. Actually, the rate of home-ownership has been higher in Southern Europe among the low income, even before public support.

This can be explained with the role of extended families, which mobilises all available assets to provide members in crucial need with resources intended to provide access to ownership, or even with a ready-made dwelling. The example highlights two important features of family involvement: the inter-generational pact, that transfers resources, good, services and even more (for instance, housing models and localisation choice); and the relations between state and family, one of contrasting as well as making up for welfare inequalities, an issue that will be dealt with in the next paragraph.

As for the transfer of goods and services, usually references are paid to the construction of a single family house in rural areas, where it has been an affordable task for a long time even for a low-income family (provided at least the ownership of a building lot).

Actually, the importance of family networks is underestimated, since it affects not only the informal providing but also accession to ownership in general. Families help accession to ownership either financing the purchase on the market (which account roughly for half the total), or providing a dwelling through inheritance or self-provision (including self-construction).

It order to state that “inter-generational transfers pave the way generously to home ownership” (Tosi 1995) several examples have been advanced: Tosi reported findings by Cuturello and Gotman, who have stated that 28% of the owners have had family backing in their purchase, and that 13% of the semi- and unskilled working class achieved home ownership either through inheritance or donation.

In Italy in 1978 it was estimated that 30% of owner families had received their home through inheritance, an habit not limited to rural areas, being the same percentage 15% in big cities (Istat 1978); a few years later, when a huge pressure was exerted towards an extension of the ownership area, sometimes subsidising the purchase of a newly-built flat, the same index was still at 23% (Istat 1985). However, ownership due to the financial help generated in families is commonly accounted for a substantial percentage of the total: in an area of settled and widespread urbanisation like Lombardy, “21% of owner-families gained their home through inheritance or gift, and 27% received financial assistance from their parents for the purchase or construction of a home (Tosi 1987), trends confirmed some years later (Cremaschi 1997).

However, family promotion is responsible for an important and growing share of total building completions: according to some estimates, this figure has changed from 40% of new dwelling construction in the first half of 80s (Cresme 1993) to 30% in 90s. In the same period, industrial providers, such as building companies and construction firms, hold an approximately stable share of 30%.

Some ethnographic records report in detail the articulated family strategy over time, however this effort does not refer to extended family only. In fact, it has been identified in areas where the modernisation process brought extended families (Pitkin 1985) which were not among the original features of local societies.

In this case, construction was directly promoted by the householder: somehow, he acted as his own “general contractor”, searching for loans, looking for building materials, co-ordinating workers, asking sometimes for planning permits (sometimes ignoring them deliberately, as in the widespread case of illegal construction: Cremaschi 1990), etc. Often he took on part of the job, possibly with friends and relatives; and often built not only his own home, but also a house for every child. In order to accomplishsuch a task, every financial and human resource of the components of the family are involved.

However, it has been stressed that “this recourse to the family network cannot be read simply as a strategy for increasing resources on an economic-rational basis… relationships count as least as much as the nature and level of the resources exchanged” (Tosi 1995). Findings by field researches have suggested that these exchanges are not only generating a real economy, but they develop primary socialities and identity processes.

4. The Italian Social Welfare system

As for the relation with state welfare, the scarce protection should be remembered provided for several social groups. The Italian welfare system is in fact centred on the existence of broad insurance schemes grounded on an employment basis. Workers are in fact fully protected by a scheme covering against the risks of being unable to work due to unemployment, loss of job, sickness, inability, retirement age, etc. (Tosi, Kazepov, Ranci 1998).

As a consequence, if exception is made for the health service, no system of social welfare protection has developed in Italy that is capable of providing cover to all citizens for risks connected with insecure or “irregular” work (Negri and Saraceno 1996).

This state protection model has a clear residual character, as opposed to universal systems of social protection: but such a “conservative” welfare system, considered to be a topical feature of Italy, could be not inadequate in a period of occupational growth, when the non-protected are a small group somehow connected to the ones who benefit from the protection schemes.

For instance, welfare benefits have been often directed towards the aged (protected by inability or retirement schemes), which possibly have already attained their own private homes; surprising as it can be, the “consequences of this biased welfare distribution might not be as severe as it could be expected” (Sapounakis 1997), and can be explained with reference to the role of the family.

Family solidarity has so far compensated for the otherwise unequal welfare distribution; the uneven combination of strong family and social networks, on the one side, and a weak state on the other, has partially absorbed the shock produced by economic change and social transformation.

However, many scholars have expressed concern towards the capability of familial and reciprocal institutions to prevent the effects of social deterioration brought about by the “post-fordist transformation”. Long-term unemployment, protracted dependence of children in terms of income, combined with the effects of demographic change and economic restructuring induce a growth of the risk of poverty non only in Southern cities, but in Northern ones as well (Mingione and Morlicchio 1993).

As a consequence of economic restructuring “the familial and kinship system is overloaded with responsibilities and the risk of individuals being dragged down into poverty depends on its capacity of supporting their conditions of need” (Kazepov 1994); and the risk appears impending as far as cuts in the national social budget are going to add to the “traditional shortcomings of the social policies system” (Tosi 1994b).

5. Policies for the 90s

Typical housing policies have been the construction of new dwelling and the subsidising of ownership for a long time. In the past twenty years housing policies have been changing. In most European countries changes have been fairly similar notwithstanding differences in previous and present political orientations.

There was a general decline in public investment; a shift away from government regulation towards market mechanism, in particular in the control of the rented sector and sometimes (but not always) in the subsidising of housing consumption; often a decentralisation of government control, with direct involvement of (and partially a devolution to) local authorities; and “the (declining) financial support shifted from generic to specific subsidies, targeted to the groups with the weakest socio-economic position” (Boelhouwer and van der Heijden 1994).

However, in Europe and in other western countries housing policies are now facing mostly problems of poverty and exclusion, a widespread problem of affordability, and sometimes a new “shortage” especially for the urban poor. Nowadays, people with housing needs do not form a distinctive social group, one that could be described as large, coherent and widespread, as it was possible with blue-collar households for a long time. Such people belong today to heterogeneous niches, and are characterised by many social and economic disadvantages, and often are gathered in certain urban neighbourhoods. For these people, social problems of exclusion (for instance, because they are immigrants or foreigners) and economic problems (because unemployment, etc.) are mutually reinforcing.

Later estimation of housing needs suggested then different approaches (Irs 1994), stressing that poverty, on the one hand, and housing stress, on the other, are not coincident factors, but combine in producing demand. Besides, housing stress is articulated according to different geo-economic areas, being particularly extended in southern big cities. And finally, process of exclusion from housing interferes with the former more traditional factors, creating a reduced core of people in “extreme need”. A minimum estimated of 900 thousands families (5% of the total), which can be extended to a twice as maximum, were expected in this situation five years ago. Moreover, housing problems and deprivation areas concentrate in major urban areas, especially in a few high-rise estates.

In such a climate, it is quite unlikely that families keep supporting positive efforts to face the poverty risk. A re-establishment of housing policies is then required, as some programmes implemented in Europe have tried to do, drawing on two separate issues: the multiple combinations of poverty and housing processes, on the side of social actions; and the renovation of the built environment, on the other.

Some key-words of such experiences (for instance, a multidimensional concern with the poverty issue, partnerships, participation and empowerment, local community involvement, a close evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention…) suggest that the logic and structure of public policies has changed over the past twenty years. The objective of an integrated approach is to get actors who, until now, have ignored each other, to work together, to modify their ways of thinking and acting and indeed to promote a change in administrative systems in order to make them better fitted to the complexity of the problems faced. Often partnerships are built up with the local residents. Development, change and service delivery in an area are most likely to succeed when those most affected by policies and programmes are effectively involved in the process and share a sense of benefit from its results.

However, as a methodological point, “local” characteristics of the intervention should be stressed in order to achieve greater “multiplier” effect. As has been stated, “neighbourhood is the appropriate place to carry out a dynamic and relevant analysis of the difficulties faced by its inhabitants, and within which all the family, community and institutional networks (…) can be mobilised” (Commission 1993a).

This does not mean of course that all the solution can be found within a territorial framework, but that working within a defined locality fosters partnership and synergy. It is quite commonly recognised that policies can not but fail when addressing only one feature of a global problem or, whilst addressing several issues, failing to control the overlap of contradictory outcomes. “Improvements to the built environment are not only a matter of technique and finance: they require a clear analysis of residents’ expectations and must aim at changing the neighbourhoods’ image in the city. Furthermore, integrating actions in this way enhances synergy and stimulates more impact than when they are implemented piece-meal” (Commission 1993).

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1 Dipsa, Third University of Rome, via Madonna dei Monti 40, 00184 Roma; tel ++39 064825159, fax 064818625, Email: m.cremaschi@uniroma3.it

2 Actually, the fascist regime (which has been left out for the sake of simplicity) would have been a significant step in the modernisation of Italy, especially with regards to housing and urbanisation.

3 Although detached houses appeared the natural choice for high-earning families, high transportation costs and lacking public facilities in the suburbs seemed good enough reasons for the search of a central location in higher density districts. And high-rise buildings seemed to pay a narrow and decreasing competitive advantage compared to medium-rise buildings, if measured in the terms of the density of dwellers per hectare. Moreover, high-rise housing (and the alleged subsequent social mixity) was supposed to jeopardise the “morals” of the new “urbanites”, i.e. the number of farmer families moving to towns after the II World War.

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