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Making space and escape attempts: the housing practices in post-industrial cities

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

Social practices are open to a twin analytical understanding, according to the double meaning of social links to which they contribute: either they are an expression of the different forms of sociability, and thus they can be presented as the manifestation of cultural identities, sometimes then as the residual evidence of pre-modern world; or they are indicators of the integration, or at the opposite of the deterioration, of social links, therefore playing a far deeper structural role.

These are just analytical distinctions, since cultural identity is part of the process of social integration, while being both linked in a circular way. A systematic consideration of housing practices led to underline a few significant features, which will later bee commented on with reference to some examples:

  • housing practices can be interpreted only by referring to the extended image of the networks in which they are developed. Family and kinship networks are particularly important, and researchers have shown that this is equally true even in modern and advanced society; however, local or community linkages influence practices as well, where different networks of sociability (1) frequently overlap and mix up with market and professional relations. This image sheds a light on a highly complex web of inter-relationship which are particularly manifest and have been made apparent in informal processes and smaller communities; yet, it is not exclusively dependent on size and proximity, and can actually be traced down even in more complex living systems;

  • exchanges of resources and symbolic exchanges play at least an equally important role, especially in the informal processes intended to home-ownership, where kinship and solidarity are directly involved; however, what does this account really undermine, is the well established image of the household as a individualistic consumer, a “rational” subject of economic choices, integrating different resources in a optimised budget, and maximising individual benefits from a range of interchangeable alternatives.

  • housing practices, as part of a non-formal world of exchanges (as those what are usually intended to with reference to the reciprocity domain), have been maintained to be residual in the oversimplified view of the modernisation process; yet the transition to a post industrial society, enhance the possibility to take in account plural configurations of housing rationalities, some of them having been made clear by informal processes. However, at the stand is not only the willingness to recognise equal rights to social practices compared to formal and market processes. More ambitiously it has been stated that ”space practices plot against the determining conditions of social life” (de Certeau 1980), at the very moment that “urban rationality” fails to ensure the threefold promise to unify spare urban and social fabrics in a strategic, abstract and universal body. Thus, practices are not embedded in space, but create their own reference space.

In this paper I limit myself to suggest that late housing practices can be examined from two points of view, while presenting in the next paragraphs some empirical supports with reference to the last years. The first point of view highlights the steady increase of dwelling consumption; and stresses the tendency to “make space” at home for a larger set of relationship, many related with family networks. The second highlights the progressive overlapping of issues concerning the dwelling with issues concerning the surroundings and pinpoints –somehow contradictorily- the “escape attempts” from the same configuration towards an “outer” space, sometimes just a dreamed one, where a different balance is aimed between the dwelling of the family and the frame of social relations.

1. Tenures

Home-ownership rate is high since years (68% in 1997, about 13 million households) and, even quite different among different areas, for instance in cities and in North, tend to homogenise. Ownership is highly correlated with income, which are commonly studied by proxies such as jobs and education. No surprise that the better off tend to be owners at a rate higher than the average (in 1991 19.1% of the entrepreneurs and the professionals rented their homes; the same rate was 15% in 1996).

However, it is interesting to say that ownership rate does not ever show a clear-cut class difference. Even if blue-collar workers are twice as likely to be in the rented sector than entrepreneurs (30.7, almost the same than five years before: 1991, 32,1), they are quite well represented among the owners as well. In fact, owners among blue collars are now 69.3%, with a significant increase compared to the post war period. Still, in 1971 and 1978 industrial blue collar workers were likely to be owner at a rate respectively of 42 and 44%.

The rented stock was more than half of the total after World War II: since then it has been halved, and it is steadily decreasing now, even if at a lower pace. In fact, the rate of rented dwellings has sharply declined during the last quarter of this century and, in particular, during the Eighties. Its size is estimated approximately at 23% of the housing stock, i.e. more or less 4.8 million dwellings. Renting is higher in metropolitan areas (60% in metropolitan cores; 66.7% in metropolitan belts), especially in southern ones.

However, the decline of the rented sector has benefited not only ownership but even alternative forms of tenure, mainly not for profit ones, which now accounts for almost 10% (more than 2 millions households) of the total stock. Such tenure forms were considered residual, but they have recovered since the collapse of renting occurred (life-tenancy 2.2; rent-free 5.8; other 0.9). It is interesting to pinpoint that people in such forms of tenure are rather poor (72% is below the average income: Cnel 1996).

Tab. 1 Rented dwellings in metropolitan areas per macro-regions

Metropolitan areas Total

Core belts

North West 36.5 34.0 26.8

North East 37.9 13.5 19.4

Centre 35.3 15.1 23.7

South 46.7 30.1 22.7

Islands 44.0 21.3 21.9

(Istat 1996)

Tab. 2 Rented sector

Private Building Social

Rental Society rental

North 68.3 8.1 23.6

Centre 59.1 9.7 31.2

South 71.5 3.4 25.1

Cities with > 50.000 inhab. 60.2 8.6 31.2

Other municipalities 75.2 5.2 19.6

Total 67.6 6.9 25.5

Source: Istat, Household Consumption 1995

Tab. 3 Dwelling stock in the Milan area according to tenure

1981 1991

owner-occupied 44,3 62,3

subsidised dw. with right of redemption 2.4 –

private rental 30,3 17,6

building society rental 7,5 5,6

social rental 8,2 8,2

rent-free, life-tenancy, etc. – 2,5

other 7,1 3,8

Total 100,0 00,0

Source: Elaboration on Instat, Censimento 1991e 1981

Rent is negatively correlated with income: the rent paid by the three lower deciles on the income ladder is about 25-35% of the total earnings, against a 10-13% in the three upper deciles (Cnel 1997). Rent is even higher in big cities: in Milan, rent is close to one third of income for at least one out four of the households in the rented sector (Pim 1998).

General cost for a dwelling (average rent or mortgage plus heating) is over 31% of the monthly household budget (2), a rate that reaches its peak for the older single households (>65: 45.5%), that usually live in the inner cities. Dwelling cost is more affordable for the extended families (more than three children: 26.3%) living in the outskirts of metropolitan areas. Moreover, it has been shown that average income of tenant household has diminished from 83% to 79% compared to the owners’ income in the first half of the 90s (Cnel 1997).

And finally, social rented sector is traditionally limited in Italy, even compared to Italian standards. According an estimation based on the income threshold, about 2.7 million households were entitled to a social dwelling, while social rented stock amount to 1.1 million approximately (Aniacap 1993).

The crux in the change in tenure –increase of home-ownership, reduction in the private rental sector- is the tendency toward a rigid market structure, one that seemingly contrasts with the more flexible demand that has grown in the last years. Ownership used in fact to be a far more rigid status than renting, because of higher cost of transactions, taxes, etc. Forcing people to the purchase of a dwelling influences the localisation patterns as well, since it tends to lower the appeal of the urban condition.

2. Mobility

In the 2nd post war era residential mobility coincided for a long time with migratory movements. At the end of the 70s, however, a dramatic rise in market rent level accompanied by a shortage in most of the metropolitan areas exerted a strong pressure onto households to move. That period coincided in fact with a considerable effort paid mostly by blue- collar families in order to purchase a flat; and a systematic decline in the rented sector, in particular in the percentage of dwellings let by private owner. In fact, the overwhelming privately rented sector still accounts for two thirds of all the rental stock. However, it has been considerably reduced since the war, and mostly in big cities; for instance, in the Milan area it has diminished from 30% of the total dwelling stock to 18% between 1981 and 1991.

A part from this phenomena, residential mobility is usually meant as limited in Italy and however highly dependent from institutional and transactional constraints. Residential mobility in big cities has been estimated at the end of the 80s between 4,6% and 6,6% per year (Bellicini 1988). However, the number of purchase have increased since 1985 by about 20%, yet fluctuating around 500 thousands notwithstanding the strong increase in the households number and in the estimates of the “potential” demand (Censis 1997). The number of lease is instead on the increase (+57%), but it should be reminded the widespread habit of informal and often illegal forms of leasing in the rental sector (Cnel 1997). However, in the 90s the reduction of in costs both of dwellings and mortgages has likely stimulated an increase of mobility.

The last Istat Survey (Istat 1998) estimated that about 900.000 householders in 1996 have moved (4.4%) with a slight increase compared to the previous years: since 1993, 3.9-4,0% of householders moved per year (i.e. 812.000 householders). However, the trend is steady on the increase: the same source estimated that approximately 3% of the overall householders changed homes per year between 1984-88 (Istat 1993). In 1996 householders in the Northern regions and the metropolitan belts were at the origin of a large share of residential movements. Householders in the core of metropolitan areas –which are older and among the better off- were instead less eager to move than the average, even if their mobility appears to be on the increase (1993: 2.7, 1996: 3.7).

Reasons to move are mainly two: de-cohabitation (roughly for one third: getting married or equivalent 27.2%; living alone 6.5%; living with other people 2.7%); and becoming a owner (14.5%), both however slightly declining. Other reasons are getting a larger dwelling (10.3%) (3) and a better accommodation or environment (9%).

The Survey also asked whether people have just considered the option to move in the previous 12 months: the share of a desired move was higher than the actual mobility, about 7.7%, but a decreasing one (it was 8.0% in 1993).

Intentions to move have different justifications than actual decisions: the answers were mainly the search for better living (25.4%) or a larger dwelling (23.7), while de-cohabitation was expected by a narrower group (roughly for one fourth: getting married or equivalent 11.2%; living alone 7.6%; living with other people 4.2%). Answers like getting closer to the job (8.3) or becoming a owner (9.0) have declining shares compared to 1993.

In the long term, intentions to move seem to have changed even more. Expectations to move in a two-year term were significantly high (20%) in 1978, when a severe shortage occurred in urban areas while prices went up causing the worst “housing crisis” since decades. Twenty years ago, however, weddings was the single most answered item (24%), followed by getting closer to jobs (19%), the purchase of a home (14%), and finally the search for a better accommodation (13%).

3. Satisfaction

The area of subjective dissatisfaction with dwelling has consistently reduced, as is possible to show comparing answers given to the Household Consumption survey in different years.

Besides, a national Censis Survey (a private research body) reported in 1997 that dissatisfaction was limited to the 10,8% of the total (while it accounted for a larger share in metropolitan areas: 12,7%). In 1993, the regional Social Survey in the Milan region of Lombardy showed that less than 6% of the answers were negative. The only issue that does not clearly improve is the affordability of rent. Notwithstanding a small variance, findings are quite clearly converging, at least with reference to judgements concerning the dwelling.

That is not the same with dissatisfaction with the surrounding urban environment (19%; 21,3% in big cities: Censis 1997). In fact, a term that frequently crops up in reference to the outskirts environment is “disagio urbano” or ”disagio diffuso” (a term which has not immediate equivalent in English, maybe “widespread housing stress” or “urban environment stress”), that can be equated with the entire area of poor quality housing.

Urban stress derives from different and somehow vague ingredients (Cremaschi 1994b). Traffic congestion is now perceived as a problem by 74% of urban dwellers, as well as poor public transportation (38% of workers spend more than hour in their daily journey to job), crime (63% of urban dwellers has the feeling of being at risk), poor social life, etc. However widespread, urban stress affects more peripheral areas and the urban poors, which are more likely to concentrate there.

However, it is worth stressing that dissatisfaction with dwelling is always less underlined that dissatisfaction with single items, such as heating or dimension which have been not adequate for a large share of the population until few years ago. One reason is possibly the historical housing need and the severe uncertainty about the future that sweeten the present condition.

tab. 4 Causes of Dissatisfaction with dwelling

1978* 1993 1996

Dimension 33 15 14

Inadequacies 25 8 6

Distance from relatives n.a. 19 17

Costs/affordability n.a. 53 54

% of rent higher than 20% of total earnings 27 – 39

* In 1978 questions were not strictly equivalent

Source: Consumption Survey

tab. 5 Causes of Dissatisfaction with neighbourhood

1978* 1993 1996

public transport 40 31 28

crimes 264 31 29

traffic 34 48 49

* In 1978 questions were not strictly equivalent

+ Estimation on Istat, Survey on Consumption;

tab. 6 Dissatisfaction: 1997, Censis Survey

Small medium large total

Centres cities cities

dwelling 7.7 9.1 12.7 10.8

surroundings 16.0 14.7 21.3 19.0

Tab. 7 Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction in 1977 National Survey

People satisfied: dissatisfied:

highly enough rather very

dwelling 16 59 19 6

heating 17 42 27 14

large fair small very small

dimension 7 60 19 14

People satisfied: dissatisfied:

highly enough rather very

neighbourhood 18 62 16 4

building quality 28 39 25 8

streets and pavements 26 43 21 10

public transport 15 45 23 17

tab. 8 Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction: 1993, Milan, Irer Survey

highly enough rather very

satisfied satisfied dissatisfied dissatisfied

Dwelling 47,4 47,1 4,8 0,7

I feel well It happened I will leave

Surroundings (“dwelling environment) 63,3 30,8 5,9

Tab. 9 Dissatisfaction with dwelling and neighbourhood per type of family in the Milan area

Dwelling Surroundings

Occupied Single 2,4 16,2

Workers with partner unemployed 10,0 15,0

One parent Household 7.7 12,5

Double income with children 8.3 8,8

Retired old single 12.5 –

Double income 6.5 6,3

Retired with children – 5,6

Other 4.4 3,2

Total 5.5 5,9

Fonte: Regione Lombardia, Irer: Social Survey 1993

4. Making space: living around a dwelling

The “state of the art” living in Italy tends to be in a flat in a multi-dwelling building (54%). However, single-family house (30%) and two-family house (13.7%) account for a large share of total dwellings. Apparently, the overwhelming preference has been expressed for medium size, multi-dwelling buildings, that are in fact the most widespread urban dwelling typology. In fact, as far as the economic trends promoted urban growth, the desire for a single house was a sort of “wishful thinking”.

Eventual preference for one model or another are highly structured both by structural conditions and economic preference. We should quote at least that historically urban elite have led the country; that most of small urban cities are quite liveable and vibrant; and that building promoters have been ever-practising the art of multi-storey building, with a seemingly rigid brick and stone technology which actually allowed a great flexibility and adaptability. For instance, in Lombardy (the region around Milan characterised by a highly industrialised and a highly urbanised environment) more than 76% of the dwelling stock (Irer 1996) is in multi-dwelling buildings, 40% of them in the top tallest class, while single family or semi-detached houses are rather infrequent (24%). Of course multi-dwelling buildings are mostly in the metropolitan area (more than 90%), whereas single family or semi detached houses are more frequent respectively in small villages or in the metropolitan suburbs (5).

However, a growing dissatisfaction with high-rise accommodations is commonly detected. Even the scant housing research devoted to this subject has easily highlighted the fact that the majority of those interviewed preferred anything but high-rise, for reasons like: inadequacy of space, lacking amenities, social isolation, etc. (Censis 1983). The problem of satisfaction or of dissatisfaction seems to be linked to the maintenance of buildings and to technological and social problems rather than to the high rise itself. In particular, high rise estates as part of metropolitan peripheral belts are deeply concerned in the process of downgrading of the environmental quality: nuisance, pollution, traffic congestion, etc. A polarisation process is then taking place, differentiating a few number of “problem areas” from the less dramatic but nevertheless unsatisfactory condition of peripheral estates.

Where strong informal production took place (see the survey for the municipality of Rome: Censis 1989), the preference for the “case di borgata” (i. e. the informal neighbourhood dwelling unit, not necessarily a single family detached house) was clearly declared by 57% of the respondents, the preference being required and expressed, in this case, towards a specific urban environment rather to a dwelling typology.

A survey has tried to compare present and desired dwelling conditions, showing that satisfaction with high-rise was relatively low, and the most desired accommodation was in a small building with 4 or less flats (Censis 1983). Also surveys on the image of the “dream house” reported that some youngsters’ desire was a house with a garden but (… ) located in the middle of the town”. The more realistic ambition of most of the interviewed was a flat “…with a view” (that could be easily imagined either on a beautiful landscape or on the roofs of the historical central district) in a multi-dwelling building in the same neighbourhood where they were used to living (Gazzola, 1990).

Another example can be the double belonging to different world, an experience allowed by second houses. Italy’s 5.2 millions of non-occupied dwellings (6) (as much as 5 times the amount registered in 1961) testify that a huge effort has been spent by household in order to duplicate their own model of living. Actually, almost half of the unoccupied stock is utilised as holiday houses or for tourism and summer rent; a further 20% is actually occupied, even if in a non permanent way, by people studying or working in other cities than their usual abode.

That is to invalidate the usual explanation that socio-cultural traditions explain the difference in the dwelling habits, uses and modes of consumption among countries. It has been stated that “the preference for one’s own house can be seen as expressing a more individualistic lifestyle… leading people to separate themselves from their kin as well as from their neighbourhood” (Höllinger and Haller, 1990). However, the same argument could be sustained for high-rise buildings and metropolitan living, depending in part from groups life-styles and in part from the balance between distance, transportation and communication technologies. And in fact, different ways of living seem rather to mix up in distinct urban and non-urban frames. For instance, findings show that actually daily contacts with relatives are easier for single house dwellers (32%) than for the inhabitants of high rise housing (13%). However, dwellers in high rise accommodation live closer to friends (30%) than single-house dwellers (21%), showing (at least) a different distance factor in the two situations (Cremaschi 1997).

tab. 10 Dwellings per type of building

building type N. of buildings N. of dwellings % of dwellings

Total Houses 9.768,730 11,501,384 45.9

Single-family house 7,578,575 7,578,575 30.3

two-family house 1,732,655 3,465,309 13.7

Rural houses 457,500 457,500 1.8

Total Multi-dwelling 1,830,000 13,527,138 54.1

Total 11,598,730 25,028,522 100.0

source: estimation on Istat, 1991

5. Escape attempts: living elsewhere and changing home

As we have said, the point is that dissatisfaction with a dwelling typology is expressed as dissatisfaction with the urban condition. The preference, if any, for a single family house is than actually mixed up with a later negative evaluation of some features of the urban living, basically depending on environmental issues such as traffic or pollution. The choice of a dwelling model tends to enlarge towards the expression of a preference for an entire built environment, or even the refusal of cities tout-court: somehow, is a choice expressed by “foot”, moving outside the metropolitan areas.

This process tends to drain away the more affluent population from towns, often middle aged people. As a consequence, multi-storey buildings largely dominate the townscape; while countryside is often scattered with long arrays of houses.

The recent shift in urban trends, and the metropolitan decline of the ‘80s, has contributed to the sharp change in the forms of housing provision. Thus, a growing number of families have moved outside the metropolitan areas in search of better housing conditions, often promoting and financing their own houses directly; non-urban settlements accounted for 50% of overall housing completions during the 80s, against a rate of 20% in metropolitan areas. Images such as the “widespread city” and the “urbanised countryside” have in fact been introduced in order to describe new social links and a new configuration pattern in some highly industrialised and highly urbanised regions (for instance, in the central and north-eastern regions).

Such images try to conceptualise the difference between the new scattered landscape in the north-eastern regions; the old urban industrial landscape of north-western regions; and the rural and tourist Southern regions. Regional differences are in fact very sharp in Italy: for instance, the rate of single family houses is 30% and the rate of urbanisation is close to 34% in the North-East; is 17% the former and 46% the latter in North West; while single houses accounts up to 40% in the basically rural South. The rate of single double family houses varies as well from 7,7% in cities to 40% in non urban municipalities. High rise distribution highlights an even more polarised view: five main cities (Rome, Milan, Turin, Naples and Palermo) show a rate of high-rise buildings over 30%, mostly in Rome and Milan (where is worth to note that high rise housing built before World War II is respectively 19% and 23%).

Padovani reported for the Milan metropolitan area “a situation of high housing mobility within the metropolitan area” (Padovani 1995), whilst mobility had a dominant regional pattern in the previous decades. This pattern already existed in the 1970s, and was confirmed during the 1980s. It is then possible to state that: “the metropolitan area is attracting population from the more remote regions of the South of Italy and from abroad, and is exporting population to areas close by, especially towards the communes within adjacent provinces” (ibidem). More precisely, the migrants who had moved to Milan after World War II were nearing the retirement age around the 80s; a considerable percentage went back “to the areas they had left some thirty years earlier”. Later, such outflows rapidly came to an end, while intra-metropolitan area movements started to increase. The growth characterised movements either from or towards the core, and even movements within the belt. These latter are considered to be interesting developments within the process of extension of Milan metropolitan area; however, similar trends are recognisable in the Roman areas as well (Cremaschi 1990).

In conclusion, tackling housing practices in perspective, a clear-cut distinction should be made between early and mature modernisation (when industry and city grew-up together and new communities were created in the surroundings of major cities), and post-industrial cities. Contemporary housing renews the variety of “dwelling rationalities” against and over the simplified opposition between individualism and collectivism embodied by the “modernist” architecture (stigmatised as narrower and more single minded than the “modern project” of housing: Tosi 1994a and 1995).

Post-industrial societies bring industry and towns to separate, while concerns with the working and the living become more and more independent. As a consequence, wide ranges of settlements, neither urban nor rural, are introduced. City and neighbourhood -as the spatial equivalent of society and community- tend to be useless concepts, as the standard model for urban and housing policies has changed. They have been substituted by a wider concern with the framing of large “scattered semi urban environment” (Coppo and Cremaschi 1994).

The structural change in metropolitan development trends led to a major shift in housing policy guidelines: the effacement of the neighbourhood concern that was the dominating problem during the fifties and sixties. Neighbourhood and community policies have long since been neglected, but originally they were intended as a programme to promote urban solidarity. A concern with the “locale” dimension in cities had not re-appeared until very recently. And issues related to community problems have begun to be perceived as a consequence of the fall in urban quality, and of the financial crisis of public housing.

A concern with local issues is growing in Italy too. For many years Italian housing policies were characterised by a marked degree of ambiguousness: the major example is the misleading overlap between support for the building industry and social solidarity, which has brought about an incongruent and haphazard social distribution of the benefits and disadvantages, together with many oversights at macro-economic level with regard to redistribution.

Furthermore, the redefinition of the relationship between inner city and suburbs seems give rise to a new element in the discussion: decentralisation entails considering public intervention in a more advanced configuration than in the one represented by the state model. It is reasonable to think that a change is required in the forms of intervention and in the technical tools themselves: one crucial issue is the establishment of new rules of coexistence and convenience for both public and private operators; another point of equal vital importance is the construction of new local agencies able to respond to different reasoning processes.

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1 In the North-Eastern regions, one of the fast-growing area in Europe, relatives, co-workers, friends, and neighbours variously contributed to the family effort (Tosi 1995).

2 According to the annual Household Consumption National Survey (Istat has made available data for the 1996 issue in 1998).

3 The wedding rate has severely declined since the Seventies when it was 7.5‰ (404.464) to 5.3‰ in 1993, and to 4.7‰ in 1997 (272.049).

4 In 1978 different questions were addressed for items related to crime, but no possible average could make sense. Answer for burglary, the higher among the three, has been taken in the text; dissatisfaction for vandalism (16%) and personal safety (13%) were considerably lower.

5 More than 36% of flats is less than 75 sq.m., and 37% is over the average size (compared to 74% in detached or semi detached houses). Almost all multi-dwelling accommodation are fully equipped, nearly 90% has a balcony and a liveable kitchen, 31% has a double living room. Heating is needed for a 10%; bathroom is inadequate for 4%; telephone lacks in 1,5%. However, the same figures are higher in the average (Irer 1996).

6 Presumably, a large number of dwellings was early abandoned in the South of Italy due to the strong migration stream towards the industrial North. However, censuses classified as non-occupied a bulk of different situations. Besides, foreigners living in Italy are not reported by the censuses. For instance, in the metropolitan areas of Milan, unoccupied dwellings are nearly 120 thousands (8%), four as much the number registered in 1961. Actually, one third is utilised even if on a temporary basis, another third is waiting to be sold or rented, one third is vacant.

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