Flickr/Moyan Brenn

An official investigation is asking why so many tenants are paying super low rents, but it seems like dysfunction and corruption on a grand scale.

Fancy living in a 1,160-square-foot apartment just around the corner from Rome’s Colosseum? It will only set you back $106 a month—if you’ve got the right connections, that is.

This is just one of the jaw-droppingly low rents on publicly owned apartments uncovered during an investigation in Rome this month, sending a ripple of outrage across a city already used to scandal. Investigating inefficiency and sleaze around the city’s housing offices, Rome’s Prefect Francesco Paolo Tronca has so far uncovered a list of 574 apartments being let out at prices similar to those for a decent dinner.

In one building overlooking the Trevi Fountain, an apartment was being rented out for €500 ($548). Two sisters inhabiting an ancient street near the Tiber were paying just €67 ($74) monthly. In one incredible case, the rent on a suburban apartment was so purely symbolic—€0.60 ($0.65) a year—that the tenant quite understandably didn’t bother to pay it. The amount of lost revenue to the city runs into many millions.

So how did these apartments stay so cheap? The investigation of the scandal—dubbed Affittopoli or “Rentopolis”—is ongoing, but it seems the apartments may have been used as under-the-table rewards for having government connections—their rents’ stagnation aided by municipal inefficiency. Many tenants had connections to the state, were unofficially given their tenancies in lieu of other benefits, or simply moved into their apartments many decades ago and haven’t seen a rent rise since.

Not a bad view for $548 a month. (Flickr/Andy Hay)

That around 600 of these homes have slipped under the radar is irksome but not in itself liable to bankrupt the city. The problem is that the list contains only the worst examples of city-owned property being let far too cheap. According to writer Sergio Rizzi, the city rented out 42,053 properties across Rome in 2013 for a total revenue of €27.1 million. Not a bad haul, until you realize that the cost of managing these properties, in terms of letters fees, renovation, and administration, was €138.9 million. That’s a loss to the city of €111.8 million in just one year.

It’s difficult to see this situation as anything but dysfunction and corruption on a grand scale. Looking more closely at the people living in these incredibly cheap flats doesn’t change that impression, but it does shade it with more complexity. Rather than seeing themselves as light-fingered pilferers of state resources, these often low-income tenants are products of the system that created them. It’s a system where bargains have always been made informally, where most deals have taken place backstage, and where connections have long been the default backup for the failures of official channels.

As this comment piece suggests, it’s a set of assumptions that may be dying out:

This is a story of “how we were and how we are now.” We are used to having to build spurious political relations in the absence of a serious housing policy.

Take the two sisters mentioned above as an example. They first entered their building as squatters in 1982, tacitly condoned by the city because they replaced more-antisocial squatters and paid a peppercorn rent. They have since repaired, rewired, and generally patched their home up with their own funds. They have also often asked to be given a regular tenancy, they claim, but have been denied this because the city has registered them as squatters—even though it sends them a rent demand punctually every month.

Elsewhere, the tenant of that generous home by the Colosseum is clearly a relic of another time. An 80-year-old called Benito Scarpetti, shown in this video interview with Corriere della Sera, he is the son of an anti-fascist frequently jailed in the 1930s. Scarpetti has said his mother was granted the apartment by Mussolini himself on condition that she named her male children Benito. Fantasy? Possibly. A fair justification for his token rent? Certainly not. But neither is Scarpetti necessarily a corrupt major-league kingpin sucking away at the city’s vitals.

The problem is that it’s ordinary Romans without official connections who pay for these abuses. Renting a one-bedroom apartment in central Rome normally costs, on average, €1,040 ($1,140) a month, falling to €677 ($742) in the suburbs. But these citizens are also paying taxes to keep others’ housing costs down. There are many valid arguments for subsidizing low-income housing, but doing so as a haphazard patronage system isn’t one of them.

It’s a very encouraging sign that all this abuse has come as the result of an official investigation, suggesting a determination to clean out Rome’s apparently Augean stables. Hopefully, the inquiry will impel a city-wide overhaul. But as Rome rattles along on its warped, dirty rails, some Romans must be wondering if they shouldn’t just make peace with all their city’s mess and use connections to get some kind of sweet deal for themselves.

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