With Sinistra Universitaria and Cambiare Rotta
Conducted and edited by Paola Valerio
Rome, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Glasgow, London, Berlin. The list goes on. Students struggle with finding affordable and decent accommodation, often being forced to extremely long commutes. International students often face even more precarious conditions, despite bringing so much to the local intellectual and economic life. In May 2023, vexed by the impossibility to find an affordable accommodation within feasible reach from the campus, students at Sapienza University of Rome staged a protest calling for intervention by the university administration and the local authorities. In September 2023 nothing seems to have changed, and the demonstrations have started again. Recent data show, indeed, that the Region faces a major public student housing shortage: for the a.y. 2023/2024 there are only 2800 available places in public student residences for economically disadvantaged students, leaving more than 10.000 still eligible students in search for appropriate housing. In the private market, moreover, the number of available accommodations is extremely low and the costs of rents have skyrocketed. The following interview outlines the declarations of the two student associations mainly involved in the protests: Sinistra Universitaria, whose activists have been sleeping in tents on campus for several days, and Cambiare Rotta, whose protests included broad demonstrations under the offices of the regional authorities. The two groups provide their own, separate views on the issues at stake.
What are the main issues and problems that you and your colleagues are facing due to the student housing crisis?
Cambiare Rotta: In our view, the housing crisis is rooted in the capitalist mode of production, which affects workers and the poor class in general. The rising rent costs and the lack of affordable accommodations hit lower-class students in particular, depriving them of their learning opportunities. Following the corporatization of the university system – which created disparities not only between North and South, but also between “top-ranked or metropolitan” and “lower-level or peripheral” institutions – in our Country at least 700.00 students per year have to flee their towns to obtain an effective education. The lack of rent regulation for student housing in high-density cities results therefore to a clear denial of the right to education, since it compels economically disadvantaged students to drop out of their studies.
Sinistra Universitaria: The student housing crisis tackles our right to study as well as our mental and physical health. On the first side, the constitutional principle of equality should grant any keen person the pursuit of a higher education, even if they lack economic means. Instead, students in low-income families do not receive sufficient economic support and are forced to give up on moving from their cities, or even worse, on their university careers overall. Some students also decide to find a job to pay for the high costs of living, books, taxes etc. They have to deal with higher physical efforts and lower time to study. In addition, salaries are never sufficient, so they would need support from their families in any case. Merit evaluation does not consider these inequalities, and therefore favors the wealthy from the very beginning. On the health side, we notice that affordable student accommodations are often small, deteriorated and in degraded areas, hard to reach from the campus. Moreover, we need to consider how many recent events are putting young people under unprecedented stress and struggle, increasing the number of mental diseases and making suicide the second cause of death among teenagers in Italy and Europe (see the Unicef report “On my mind”, 2021). Our generation is not even sure of having a future to believe in, and the lack of guarantees on housing and education just fosters the fear.
Do you think this is a national or a transnational/European issue?
Sinistra Universitaria: Evidence and experience from our companions prove that the housing problem goes beyond our country and affects other – already expensive – cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels, or Copenhagen. In this perspective, also the Erasmus+ programme becomes a privilege: the total financial support does not exceed 600 euros, a sum clearly insufficient to live in most European cities. Students with low economic resources always end up choosing minor destinations, otherwise they just give up on the opportunity of the exchange. Is “freedom of movement” real, in such a scenario? Are we concretely free to work and study in any EU member State, when we lack sufficient financial means? The result is indeed a widespread limitation of our right to study.
Cambiare Rotta: The problem is a systemic and historical one. The same issues and paradoxes are well reported by Engels in his 1872 article “The Housing Question”: a class of property owners can benefit from their sole rent without creating any value. Nowadays, deregulation, speculation, and the embrace of the liberalist approach in Europe pauperized public resources and their social function, to the advantaged of small private groups. And while some countries still preserve a valuable welfare system (in Sweden, for example, students do not pay for university studies and they have access to affordable public residences), many other countries are just paralyzed by debt and austerity policies.
What legal solutions do you envision for the student housing crisis?
Cambiare Rotta: We would first recommend a concrete recovery of welfare initiatives. The number of public student residences needs to be increased and, where they already exist, they need maintenance to comply with safety standards (the whole public residential construction needs this after all). Expenditures should not be extemporary but structural over time and, most importantly, residences should belong to public institutions to ensure lower costs and avoid mere profit-seeking. On this side, the promises from our government appear to be insufficient and hollow phrases. On the market regulation side, we would recommend the abolition of the Law 431/1998, which cancelled rent control and paved the way to the unrepresentative approach of the so-called “agreed fees”.
Sinistra Universitaria: The crisis is complex, and it calls for a discussion on our whole system. We are unable to find proper student accommodations because our parents live on low salaries and precarious jobs, while the State does not control real estate speculation. Moreover, we are discriminated by landlords on the basis of our gender and gender identity, our sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality and religion, without any sanction in light of the preferred principle of freedom of contract. During the tent demonstration, a Muslim student told us that her landlady was concerned about renting the apartment to her because she feared she was renting to a terrorist. Our society needs to be revised in many ways. On the legal side minimum wage, full occupation, and antidiscrimination are to be enforced; but we need intervention on the cultural side too.
Possible solutions for student housing in particular could be the reduction of taxes on properties for low-income and non-speculative owners, the establishment of rent caps – again with due attention to low-income landlords – and also the increase of affordable or gratuitous student residences, possibly redeveloping existent public building and therefore avoiding further ecocide construction. Scholarships and grants should also be increased in amount and number, with more accessible requirements and lower restrictions for students who are not able to complete the exams within the set time period.
Which are the initiatives that you have taken so far?
Sinistra Universitaria: Following the example of Ilaria Lamera in Milan, in May 2023 we planted tents on campus at Sapienza for five days. We slept there in the cold, humidity, and discomfort, aiming at raising awareness on the very neglected student housing crisis and receiving both criticism and solidarity – journalists brought us breakfast, while Don Mattia Ferrari and Suor Adriana from Spin Time Labs cooked hot meals for us every day and supported our cause. We asked for a dialogue with the Rectress, the local and regional authorities, and the other student associations involved: after having listened to us on two occasions, the Rectress announced a meeting on the third day of the protest. Before the meeting we held a public assembly with more than 200 students to collect proposals. During the demonstration we also met politicians – such as Elly Schlein, the current leader of the main opposition party in Italy – who discussed with us and developed initiatives in Parliament (motions, inspections, studies etc.). The expected meeting was disappointing: it lasted only 50 minutes and the council member in charge for the university affairs was connected from his car. Nonetheless, we have been granted a periodical confrontation. The response is not even remotely sufficient, but we understand the issue is complex and we appreciate the small steps anyway. We keep the attention high on the housing crisis after that, and we are planning further initiatives in the new academic year.
Cambiare Rotta: Our organization immediately joined the tent protest in public universities in Rome and other Italian cities, calling for concrete change instead of contingent solutions. We obtained a meeting at the Ministry of University and Research to present our analysis and our proposals. Moreover, we organized a national demonstration on May 16 under the offices of several regional authorities and obtained further meetings. The results were expectedly unsatisfactory: they only proved the voluntary inactivity of the institutions before their responsibility to tackle private profits and to sustain the community. We know very well that only mass mobilization drives social change in favor of the lower classes, therefore we did not trust promises from politicians and contested feigned support especially from center-leftist parties, which have indeed contributed to this miserable situation. We also know that mobilizations and campaigns have to be permanent, so we created students lists to detect and engage students experiencing precariousness, competitiveness and exclusion in their course of study.
How do you value social mobilization and how do you think it can be fuelled further?
Cambiare Rotta: Since the housing crisis structurally affects millions of working-class and low-income families, we immediately planned and acted beyond the sole student condition, strengthening our relations, and launching initiatives with Movimento per il Diritto all’Abitare and Unione Sindacale di Base in Rome. The worsening of living conditions overall generates a war between the upper classes and the lower ones, since the former are led to find their way out the crisis to the detriment of the latter. Alliances are crucial to reverse the current depoliticization and fragmentation: we have always been committed to building an alliance between students and workers, which fosters reciprocal recognition and support in the same fights. As we always say, inspired by a song from Banda Bassotti, we are children of the same rage!
Sinistra Universitaria: In our experience, at least in Italy, demonstrations and are not the main way for the fight of student movements, as they were in the 20th century. They might inflame debate on a local scale for a short time, usually provoking malaise, frustration, and dissent when the underlying causes are not acknowledged. We noticed that few students decide to join the demonstrations: in the apex of our protest there were only 30 students joining, over the 130.000 enrolled in our university. New tools and spaces are needed, new ways to reach out to a broader public and raise awareness, obtaining trust and support. Participation, be it in the streets, or on social networks, with words or physical presence, is crucial. Even if our purposes as activists are grounded and strong, we admit we can overcome difficulties only with unity and reciprocity. Mobilization of a wider public is indeed hard, but essential: discussing new themes, staying among the people, advancing creative practices (like a protest camping), may be helpful to overcome this challenge.