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As Venice Housing Prices Rise, Squatters Fight To Stay In Italian Hometown

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While tourists head to the Italian city of Venice, some locals are leaving not because they dislike it there. Housing prices have driven many working-class Venetians out of town. Now an organized movement of illegal squatters is laying claim to abandoned, dilapidated housing. Christopher Livesay reports on how they're determined to stay.

(CROSSTALK)

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: It would seem there's no shortage of housing in Venice. I went to a real estate office to check out the postings in the window.

All right, there's dozens of houses for sale. Let's see. OK, for just - oh, for just over a million euros, I can have a terrace, stunning rooftop views.

But these are vacation homes, too expensive for your average local. As tourists scoop them up, Venetians in search of an affordable roof overhead are leaving the island - of course not all of them. Chiara Buratti pries open the shutters of a ground-floor apartment in the far-flung Casetta neighborhood. She says it's been abandoned for years.

CHIARA BURATTI: Here we have a flat with two rooms. One is a kitchen. One is a bedroom.

LIVESAY: Buratti is the spokesperson for ASC or ASC, a grassroots group of working-class squatters who say they're desperate for housing and are moving into places illegally.

BURATTI: There is big holes in the wall. There is no plaster, nothing.

LIVESAY: And these are the kinds of houses Buratti's group targets - public housing set aside for lower-income families but in need of extensive renovations to make them livable. The housing authority says 472 of them currently sit empty in Venice. Emanuela Lanzarin is the social services assessor for the region and understands what Buratti's group is trying to do.

EMANUELA LANZARIN: (Through interpreter) This organization tries to help people get a house. They see where these empty homes are. They fix them up, then occupy them. Of course for us, this is illegal because it's not authorized.

LIVESAY: But Lanzarin admits that the need for housing is legitimate.

LANZARIN: (Through interpreter) Certainly housing is a big problem. There are not enough public houses to meet demand.

LIVESAY: The housing authority confirms that the last time a Venetian was granted a public apartment was back in 2011, leaving behind disabled pensioners like Patrizia Zaniol, who resorted to squatting.

PATRIZIA ZANIOL: (Through interpreter) I made a request for housing ages ago. After a few years, my situation got worse.

LIVESAY: Meanwhile, her friends and family were leaving the city. But she couldn't bear to part with it.

ZANIOL: (Through interpreter) Where am I going to go? This is my city - period. So I looked around for the most abandoned area possible. I found an open door - this one - and I entered. We've revived this area. I like this fight.

LIVESAY: And a fight it is. The squatters count 70 families in their membership and just as many homes. They've even occupied the entrance of the regional government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: And they want a temporary agreement that they won't be evicted for now. Social services assessor Lanzarin explains the deal.

LANZARIN: (Through interpreter) They're asking for permission to fix up these houses and look after them and that we give them a guarantee that they can stay there permanently in the future. They proposed it, and we're considering it.

LIVESAY: Pasquale Ambrogio fixes up an abandoned public apartment in his squatted building. Despite the detente with authorities, he's not taking any chances with eviction.

PASQUALE AMBROGIO: (Through interpreter) I'll barricade myself inside. I already tested the locks, and they're perfect. They can't get in no matter how hard they try. It's not just a question of getting in my house. It's getting in the neighborhood. You've seen what it's like. It's a community.

LIVESAY: A community that refuses to abandon an iconic but expensive city while others are leaving. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Venice.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUNDISLAVA'S "THE DIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.