Friday, May 25, 2007

Residents of Rome Protest As Holy See Evicts Tenants

For centuries, the Vatican has bestowed a special kind of charity on the residents of Rome, providing low-rent accommodation in the vast number of properties it owns in the heart of the Italian capital.

But recently the Holy See has turned on many of its tenants, demanding higher rents or threatening to throw them out.

An association of residents said the Vatican wanted to convert their apartments into hotels or commercial premises.

A 65-year-old tour guide, Franco Lattughi, said his rent had been raised $960 a month to $2,800.

"When I was given the apartment, it had been donated to the church and was in a very poor state. I spent all my savings, 200 million lire [$140,000], to decorate the place, on the understanding that I would be able to live here for the rest of my life with a fixed rent. That is what the church told me," he said.

Many of the residents who are being forced out said they had nowhere else to go. Zita Di Lucantonio, 50, has lived in an apartment on the Piazza Farnese for her entire life.

The building is managed by the Fraternal Order of Santa Maria della Quercia dei Macellai, which is trying to evict her and her family.

"We are the last people who live in the building. The others have caved in to the pressure, but I have a daughter and an old disabled mother," she said. "We are not rich, we live on my mother's pension, but we have always paid the rent."

Eviction notices have also been served on five other major apartment blocks in central Rome.

The elderly residents of a palazzo in Via Giulia, all over 70, were turned out when the building was made into a five-star hotel, the St. George, where rooms now cost $537 a night. Many of the residents had lived in the building since World War II.

The Vatican owns a quarter of the buildings in central Rome and last year, another 8,000 properties were gifted to the Catholic Church in wills.

The Vatican's total assets are estimated at around $8 billion, but its Rome properties are officially only worth a few million dollars.

While property prices in central Rome have doubled in the past five years, the Vatican's properties have not been revalued since 1929. St Peter's basilica is valued at only $1.30 in the official Vatican accounts, since it could never be sold.

The appeal of converting some of the church-owned properties into hotels is clear.

Vatican buildings are not subject to any council tax, even if they lie outside the Holy See.

In addition, businesses run by religious enterprises get a 50% discount on corporation tax.

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